The Psychology Of Marketing To Grandparents

Let’s face it. Psychologist Abraham Maslow never wanted to be a marketer. In his work, Toward a Psychology of Being, he describes the 13 personality attributes of the self-actualizing person. Often depicted as the top of the pyramid on the Hierarchy of Needs, “Self-actualization” is the realization of one’s full potential, with a focus outside of self. 

Maslow could not have known the power of his work in shaping our approach to understanding and communicating with older adults. In our research with grandparents, the birth of the first grandchild signals the shift toward “actualization.” They describe it as a time when the future seems sharper. They feel their own mortality and grapple with the idea of the family continuing when they are gone. Relationships take on more meaning, as the sense of selflessness takes over. 

These attributes are so important to creating strategies that engage consumers that we are going to discuss them all – a few at a time – and specifically as they relate to the life stage of grandparenting.  Along with caregiving and empty-nesting, grandparenting represents a Boomer life stage with the most “consumer moments” and an openness to trying new products and services that they may have not considered in the past. 

Here are the first four of Maslow’s attributes and how they relate to grandparents: 

1. Superior perception of reality. Mature adults see things that younger consumers cannot see. Advertising claims are viewed with a much more discerning eye, and a lifetime of consumer experiences. Grandparents, in particular, are perceptive and sensitive about communications that ring false. In our research this was translated to seeing images of “real families” in terms of household makeup, ethnicity, and lifestyles. They have seen the world change during their lifetime. 

2. Increased acceptance of self, others and nature. Older adults are more mellow, contrary to the stereotype of the hyper-focused Boomer. They appreciate the subtle humor and ironies of daily life.

For grandparents, this is reflected in a sense of greater enjoyment of their grandchildren versus their own children. They are more relaxed and present than they were as parents. Grandfathers, in particular, observe this, saying they were busy working when their children were small, so they have a “do-over” with their grandchildren.

3. Increased spontaneity. There is a sense of the importance of each day, and being present. While as young parents they were more focused on schedules and planning, as grandparents they can be more spontaneous with their grandchildren and have a “seize the moment” approach. This can be disconcerting to their adult children whose memories may center on workaholic parents who lived by their Filofax (a pre-BlackBerry device, now known as a smartphone). 

4. Increase in problem-centering. There is a focus on problems beyond themselves; they engage in authentic problems. Grandparents report that they have an increased desire to leave the world a better place for this generation of grandchildren. They volunteer, give to charitable causes and support organizations and principles with this mission. They may extend this focus to healing the family and putting old issues in the past for future generations. 

To effectively market product and services to older adults, it is critical to understand the psychology of older adults and to know why the things we observe in research are so. We will visit more of Maslow’s points over time. This understanding can mean the difference between talking at older adults and engaging with them in a conversation. 

Bill Bernbach, who is not quoted much anymore, once said, “Human nature hasn’t changed for a billion years. It won’t even change in the next billion years. Only the superficial things have changed. It is fashionable to talk about the changing man. A communicator must be concerned with the unchanging man – what compulsions drive him, what instincts dominate his every action, even though his language too often camouflages what really motivates him.” 

David Wolfe, in Ageless Marketing, challenged us as marketers focused on older adults, to “tap the soul of the unchanging man.” To do that requires an understanding of archetypes, root motivations, and the powerful emotions that consumers may not even realize are lurking beneath the surface.

7 comments about "The Psychology Of Marketing To Grandparents".
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  1. Jim Gilmartin from Coming of Age, December 21, 2015 at 11:47 a.m.

    Lori is right on the mark. Maslow’s said that a person must experience “substantial gratification” at one level before advancing to a higher level. For example the newborn infant’s basic needs are first and foremost “basic psychological needs." As the infant grows and develops needs of a higher order begin to emerge.

    In July 2008 David Armano wrote in Advertising Age, “The problem with marketing is that it often doesn't allow marketers to go deep, to gain an intimate understanding of human behavior. We're strapped for time, spread thin and torn between making our clients or bosses happy while trying to do what we think is right. We may have access to the latest trend reports, market segments, personas and metrics. We may be surrounded by smart, capable people who know what they are doing. But there's a question we need to ask ourselves. Are we making the time to walk in the shoes of the people we market to? Are we willing to swim in the deep end?”

    If your target is baby boomers, and you're spending most of your switching from iPhone to text to chat, you'll need to understand first hand that not everyone lives like this, even though you might be. It stands beyond any need to defend the proposition that marketing success rises or falls according to the marketer’s understanding of the customer’s worldview, values and aspirations. However, this basic need of marketing cannot be satisfied by asking customers about such issues. Few people know themselves well enough to give a marketer the answer he or she wants. You likely need to step outside of your own behavioral patterns.


  2. James Smith from J. R. Smith Group, December 21, 2015 at 12:08 p.m.

    Lori & Jim:  Ditto on the 'Maslovian' utility and the wisdom of some of the pioneers. As a preliminary sidebar, if we all revisited some of the basic cognitive consistency and dissonance research of years back, we wouldn't have to reinvent the nominclature wheel as often.

    Just a note from our vantage about boomer market segmentation.  We've found a few variables seem to stand the test of time:  conservative--liberal (both financial and attitudinal);  physical activity dimensions of lifestlyes; general measures of brand loyalty; tech adoption location on a typical diffusion of innovations scale; geographic location, urbran-suburban-rural; family size; and so on.  Yep, sounds like old fashion stuff...but it works in forming a base when crossed with media/tech habits.    Jim

  3. Arthur Koff from, December 21, 2015 at 12:17 p.m.

    ...and grandparents contribute much more to the education, health care and well being of their grandchildren than ever before.

    Many grandparents are living more frugally in order to provide for, in some way, their grandchildren.

  4. Doug Garnett from Protonik, LLC, December 21, 2015 at 5:51 p.m.

    I love this first point: Superior Perception of Reality.

    There's been a vast sum of Millenial hype built around the idea that Millenials are skeptical and won't buy until they are thoroughly convinced. Except life teaches us it's the other way around.

    Younger people haven't been burned enough to learn a full set of consumer caution. It's silly to suspect otherwise. And all we need do is sit back to look at the silliness of advertising for, say, Axe to see how succeptible many Millenials are.

  5. Barry Robertson from Boomer-Plus Consulting Group, December 21, 2015 at 5:57 p.m.

    Most grandparents are Boomers and older Gen X, so Lori gives a timely reminder to mainstream marketers that age fifty isn't the end of adaptability -- the ususal rationale for underserving the post 18-49 demo.

    The point that grandparenting triggers "openness to trying new products" is key, and a great illustration of the lifelong process of Boomer adaptability outside the usual pills, potions and pension funds categories. 

  6. Doug Garnett from Protonik, LLC, December 22, 2015 at 1:01 p.m.

    I worked with a very young high tech team about 15 years ago with a product where a significant part of the market were "grandparents"... I kept saying "remember, these people grew up with the Beatles"... Because all the young agency folks followed an archaic vision of the white haired, Ensure guzzling geriatrics who struggled to use an ATM...

    What was amazing was how hard it was to get these young agency folks to be able to think outside themselves... And I think that's a big part of why we have so much advertising that focuses far too young.

  7. Lori Bitter from The Business of Aging replied, December 22, 2015 at 9:22 p.m.

    Thank you all for your comments. I invite you to my Facebook page to continue the conversation: 

    You have all made excellent points that build on this post. We do underestimate the power - emotionally and economically of older people; my research for The Grandparent Economy illustrates this. This allows younger people to maintain their stereotypes and to simply not care about older consumers. This is particularly dangerous in the agency environment. Thank you!

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