Direct Hit

Lowering The Boomer

Yet, while the markets continue to divide like some out-of-control amoeba, the business world has been slow to grasp the new reality of marketing. Part of the problem is this: Instead of rushing to pick up on the transition in marketing, businesses have been lulled into a mindless game of "follow the boomer."

"The baby boomers have driven everything in marketing since the end of World War II, and every company that has gotten a little out front in terms of anticipating what the boomers are going to buy has prospered enormously," says Geoffrey Meredith, founder and president of Lifestage Matrix Marketing, a strategic planning, consulting and marketing communications company in Lafayette, California.

"The baby boom fooled many people into believing that young adults were a force in the marketplace," says Russell. "And for most people in business today, that's all they've known. They don't understand things have changed. They keep chasing after the younger market, hoping to replay the past, waiting for the new group of young people to change everything the way the boomers did. [But] it's only when the boomers started to move beyond the young adult age that the whole idea of generational marketing emerged."

Generational marketing, which defines consumers not just by age but by social, economic, demographic and psychological factors, can be traced back to about 1980. And though it has yet to be fully tapped, it's already becoming dated as we move on to the next twist: cohort marketing (see "A Closer Look"), which Meredith defines as the study of "people who underwent [the same] experiences during their formative years, forming a bond that leads them to behave differently from others, even when [those] others are closer in age."

The cohort construct, developed in the political science arena in the 1940s to determine people's voting patterns and popularized in sociology during the late 1950s, has until now "been almost entirely ignored as a marketing tool," Meredith says. Unlike generations, which are formed according to birth dates and usually span about 20 or 25 years, cohorts vary in length depending on the historic events that define them. Preferences in music, food and apparel, as well as attitudes toward money and sexuality, are often dictated by what was popular during the cohort's coming-of-age period.

To tread an even narrower path, Meredith considers not only cohorts but also other factors such as life stages, or what people are doing at a particular time in their life (getting married, buying a home, retiring); and physiographics, or physical conditions related to age (menopause, nearsightedness or farsightedness, arthritis). By targeting according to these cohorts, "and talking to markets through subliminal cues that are cohort-related, you can achieve extraordinary responses," Meredith says.

Subtlety is the key, now that most of these cohorts have been hammered with marketing manipulation for years. Meredith points to an effort by Johnson & Johnson to market Affinity shampoo for "over-40 hair," as well as the campaign promoting Campbell's Senior Singles as the "soup for one." Both of these efforts "failed miserably," Meredith says.

On the other hand, Meredith notes the success of a Nabisco Oreo commercial that, to appeal to older adults, chose respected actors from that age group who danced to a tune that was popular in the 1940s. "That way, you target 65-year-olds without explicitly saying, `Hey, 65-year-olds, buy this!' " Meredith says. "If you play big band or swing music, they'll respond."

You can't realistically address marketing without taking into account the boomer market, and you have to also consider that 4 million of them are going to be 50 this year. But whatever you do, don't mention the term "senior market" to them.

"There are very few businesses that are attuned to the generational opportunities because they're assuming the boomers are going to be like their parents were," says Russell. "And that's a big mistake because boomer lifestyles and attitudes are very different. They created the youth market 30 years ago, and they're still the youth market now that they're in their 40s and 50s. They're just as hedonistic, impulsive and self-centered as they've always been."

"Boomers like rock 'n' roll," Meredith says. "They liked it when they were 18, they like it now that they're 50, and they will like the Rolling Stones when they're 75."

Actually, boomers are "dead set against being anything like their parents," says Phil Goodman, founder of the Boomer Marketing & Research Center in San Diego and author of The Boomer Marketing Revolution (Boomer Marketing & Research Center). "They've taken that theme with them throughout all their life cycles, and they're not going to change when they're 50. If you're dealing with a 50-year-old boomer, you're dealing with a person who doesn't see himself as 50 years old."

So, in response to the hoopla over the boomers turning 50, Goodman spouts, "Who cares? People are waiting for boomers to change. They can wait until hell freezes over--boomers are never going to change. Fifty-year-olds today don't resemble 50-year-olds from 10 to 15 years ago. And if they don't resemble them, if they don't act like them, why would you market to them that way?"

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This article was originally published in the October 1996 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Direct Hit.

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