Why the ‘navel-gazing’ marketing industry has fallen for the trap of targeting 29-year-olds—and older ‘perennials’ are the key to booming sales

Why the ‘navel-gazing’ marketing industry has fallen for the trap of targeting 29-year-olds—and older ‘perennials’ are the key to booming sales

Consumer markets are changing, and this time it’s not necessarily because a new generation of young people is coming of age. After all, talk of generations has always been mired by stereotypes, prejudice, and biases. Extensive research shows that boundaries between generations are fuzzy and arbitrary, and it’s always been hard to ignore the bewildering degree of variability across individuals within the same generation. After all, what does a high school dropout from Des Moines, Iowa, have to do with a college grad from Boston, even if they were born on the same day? Besides, the revolution in real-time data from smartphones and digital platforms offers more accurate ways of predicting individual consumer behavior. Blanket generational characterizations have long lost their appeal when it comes to marketing.

Categorizing people into generations has been a convenient way to think about the complexities of consumers’ choices. Generation-talk became a peculiarly American habit after World War II, with the contrast between the Greatest Generation and the baby boomers. But inter-generational comparisons quickly became repetitive and plain silly. For example, a 1968 Life cover lambasted baby boomers for their living in affluence. Eight years later, New York Magazine published a blistering piece by no less than Tom Wolfe about the new era: “We are now—in the Me Decade—seeing the upward roll (and not yet the crest, by any means) of the third great religious wave in American history, one that historians will very likely term the Third Great Awakening,” he wrote. For Wolfe, it all goes to hell with “‘Let’s talk about Me’… with the most delicious look inward; with considerable narcissism, in short.” Wolfe famously ended the essay with “the beat that goes… Me… Me… Me… Me…”

Similarly, a 1985 Newsweek cover story referred to Generation X as “entitled,” not willing “to work for a living,” and “laid back, late blooming or just lost?” And in 2013, Time infamously argued that “in the U.S., millennials are the children of baby boomers, who are also known as the Me Generation, who then produced the Me Me Me Generation,” purely a group of lazy, entitled, materialistic narcissists who still live with their parents, prefer to take selfies, have thousands of followers but only a few friends—and love avocado on toast. It’s the exact same accusation of selfishness and entitlement over and over again, levied against each and every post World War II generation!

The key point to grasp is that people in general and consumers in particular are increasingly defying generational labels as well as preordained gender and age clichés. Research shows that monoparental and multigenerational households are becoming more frequent and the nuclear family is no longer the norm. Fathers are taking parental leave. Year after year, more people are going back into learning mode to update and refresh skills or to switch careers. Retirees are returning to work… Generations are learning, working, living, and shopping together.

But there’s another side to the controversy that is becoming even more relevant in the wake of the emergence of the multigenerational marketplace. For the past few decades, marketers have tended to assume that their attention should be placed on “young” consumers in their 20s and 30s, given that it was the largest segment of the market from a purely numerical point of view, also with higher fertility and lower average life expectancy than nowadays. Also, in a context of rising educational levels, expansion of the middle class, and rising incomes, younger consumers as a group also had high, if not the highest, total purchasing power. Finally, young people tended to be the most sophisticated, discerning, and demanding consumers, always chasing the latest fad and the most exhilarating experience. Marketers nearly unanimously bought into the idea that it was essential for brands to capture the imagination of the young, since they were not just the trailblazers but also the consumers with the highest “lifetime value,” with decades of spending ahead.

Few brands have yet realized that the category of “ageless consumers”—defined as perennials who no longer think or act their age in the sense that they no longer conform to the stereotypes of “old” and “young”—is growing by leaps and bounds.

Unlike during the post World War II period, the action in consumer markets is now in the upper age groups. Life expectancy is on the increase, and so is the healthspan—the number of years we can expect to be physically and mentally fit, according to the World Health Organization. Not only will most of consumer spending growth come from the population above age 60, but the very concept of who is “old” and who is “young” is also shifting. In this coming postgenerational consumer market, age is no longer the defining factor.

Marketers treat older consumers as ‘basically dead’

“I walked into the Everlane concept store in preparation for an upcoming meeting at their corporate office,” remembers Tamar Miller, the founder and CEO of Bells & Becks, a women’s luxury footwear brand. “As I looked around trying to find an outfit, a feeling of alienation came over me. From the perky 20-something sales associate that looked at me askance when I walked in, to the array of androgynous, box-looking, nondescript apparel, it was clear that I didn’t belong.” Everlane was founded in 2010 in San Francisco as a primarily online clothing retailer, and thus is an industry disruptor. Consumer brands—whether established or new—seem to be allergic to age. “Unless brands are specifically made for the older age group,” argues Carolyn Odgers, business director at Carat Ireland, a media and marketing agency, “they don’t want to be associated with older people, because it might mean that younger people—who have a perceived longer lifetime value, but are not nearly as brand loyal—are put off by the product because someone with grey hair buys it.”

Ageism is a rampant problem in marketing and advertising. Stereotyping and outright discrimination based on age isn’t an innocent byproduct but a core element of segmentation. “Ageism in the world of PR, advertising and marketing not only produces slanted messaging, but it’s also bad for business,” says Patti Temple Rocks, formerly of ICF Next, a marketing agency in Fairfax, Virginia. “We’re fixated with youth in business. We often conflate ‘young’ with higher levels of creativity and technological aptitude, while ‘older’ equals technologically inept, out of touch and, as many ads imply, ‘basically dead’.” 

The diagnosis is widely shared among industry experts. “What we have traditionally done is attach fresh, vibrant, new and change with youth,” says Vicki McGuire, chief creative officer at Havas, the French advertising and public relations firm. “Quite frankly, that’s bollocks, but we are a very short-sighted and navel-gazing industry, and that is to our detriment,” an assessment that’s only a mild exaggeration.

Part of the problem lies in that in the U.S. more than half of those employed in advertising, public relations, and marketing are under 40 years of age, and 80% are younger than 55. The rush by agencies and companies to hire young talent versed in digital social media has only made matters worse. 

Rocks recalls a client meeting to plan the launch of a menopausal drug. “I looked around and thought, ‘unless everyone is having deep conversations with their mom, no one here has a clue what this is like’.” People above the age of 55 reportedly account for more than half of new car sales. “Close your eyes and picture the last car commercial you saw,” she says. “Was the customer 55 or older?”

Few brands have yet realized that the category of “ageless consumers”—defined as perennials who no longer think or act their age in the sense that they no longer conform to the stereotypes of “old” and “young”—is growing by leaps and bounds. Companies peddling personal care and prestige beauty products have been among the first to realize its potential. L’Oréal, the French beauty group, “wants to show the world that age is not an issue and women are beautiful at every stage of their lives,” writes Georganna Simpson in Campaign, an advertising magazine. “It wants to challenge stereotypes and positively shape our perception of age, fostering a community where everyone embraces growing older.” In 2019, they partnered with the British edition of Vogue to launch their “Non-Issue” campaign, featuring Jane Fonda, Helen Mirren, Isabelle Adjani, and Val Garland, among other ageless celebrities. Women “feel left behind by the beauty and fashion industries because of their age,” Edward Enninful, editor of British Vogue, observed. “Now is our moment to challenge the industry, together.” The campaign spread like wildfire throughout social media. “It was a privilege to work with [these] iconic brands,” says Ginevra Capece Galeota, global accounts executive at Facebook. “We were able to fuse traditional media with our innovative technology to show through quality content that age is a non-issue.” As it should be.

But companies in industries other than prestige beauty are lagging seriously behind. For decades, most of the fashion industry has deliberately ignored women beyond their thirties. “The majority of women over 40 that we heard from don’t feel included or represented by the fashion marketing they see on social media,” argues Tamar Miller. According to marketing research, fashion brands have traditionally considered that having “old” people wandering inside their stores would tarnish their brand image among “young” consumers. It’s just such an awful thought.

Modern product design and marketing emerged at a time when each successive generation of people was larger than the preceding one. The baby boom of the 1950s transformed American society and American business. The middle class became the backbone of the economy. Everything seemed to revolve around “young” and “middle-aged” consumers from the baby-boom generation, simply because they constituted the largest segment of the market in terms of spending power. According to the Boston Consulting Group, by 2030 about 40% of total consumer spending growth will be by people above the age of 60. The proportion is even higher in Japan (60%) and Germany (70%) due to their more skewed age distributions. Given that people above that age remain in good physical and mental share longer, the perennial consumer is just one of many transformations in the world of marketing and brands.

The concentration of wealth at the top of the age distribution will make perennials the most attractive segment of the market moving forward. Thus, Everlane and other clothing retailers will not only have to welcome and attract customers across generations, but recognize that they need older people to buy their products and services. The demographic trend couldn’t be clearer: beginning with Japan and China, and with Europe and the United States following shortly in their wake, the largest segment of the consumer market by 2030 will be people in their sixth decade and older. By 2030, the United Nations Population Division reckons that China will have 105 million more people above 60 than in 2022 for a total of 370 million, India 45 million, and the United States 13 million. Even poor countries like Bangladesh and Indonesia will see increases of 50% or more of people in that demographic. The challenge for companies and brands will be to cater to the needs and preferences of not just two or three but seven or eight different generations. Still, many marketers have a distorted picture of spending by age group. Jeff Weiss, founder of Age of Majority, did a survey of marketing consultants. “We found that marketers, on average, thought that millennials comprise 39% of all consumer spending, when it’s actually only 18%.” The misconceptions and plain mistakes are so pervasive that it seems as if most marketers have lost their footing by squelching in the mud of stereotyping and bias.

“Life stage and age have been decoupling over the past generation, with milestones like education, marriage, kids, career, and retirement becoming unmoored from traditional age constraints,” writes Jeff Beer in Fast Company. Still, marketing consultants and account managers are told by their bosses to acquire new customers, and those tend to be young in age irrespective of their life situation. According to Dipanjan Chatterjee, a Forrester analyst, there’s a “mindset among many brands where marketers are rewarded for acquisition after which the customer gets passed on to some other part of the organization.” Thus, incentives within companies need to be aligned with the idea of the perennial consumer. According to research by the AARP, many advertising agencies have no experience whatsoever with older consumers.

The generational worldview is coming crashing down due to demographic and technological change. The center of gravity of consumption is steadily shifting towards the group of people above the age of 60 due to their larger numbers, savings, and purchasing power compared to other generations. In addition, their lifestyle is no longer that of an “old” person because they can enjoy being in good physical and mental shape for a longer period of time. In the past, marketers used to obsess about each new generation of consumers for about a decade or so—and then shift their attention to the next generation. “For many years, knowing how to market to Millennials was the hot ticket for most marketers,” writes Sonya Matejko. “Today, advertisers are wrapping their heads around how to reach their younger counterparts, Gen Z.” The assumption has been that today’s teenagers are tomorrow’s trendsetters. But now that’s changing as the perennial mindset becomes more common.

In this post-generational world, brands cannot simply assume that tastes and preferences for products and services vary according to age or generation. Social media influencing is also cutting across generational boundaries. Tik Tok encourages interactions between grandparents and grandchildren. Brands are experimenting with a variety of approaches, from presenting themselves as age agnostic or age neutral to developing more sophisticated strategies of agelessness and multigenerational marketing, which consists of finding the threads that tie generations together.

Marketers have a long way to go before they fully embrace a perennial approach to their trade. It’s just one more example of the extent to which our mindset needs to change in response to such epochal transformations as the increase in both the lifespan and the healthspan, the return to work of many retirees, the rise of alternative family arrangements, the new roles and realities of women in society, and the availability of novel tools for digital marketing. We are no longer in a compartmentalized world in which people of a certain age live, study, work, play, and shop only with people of the same age and do so following age-specific patterns of influence and behavior.

From THE PERENNIALS: The Megatrends Creating a Postgenerational Society by Mauro F. Guillén. Copyright © 2023 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.

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