Isn't It Grand?

What a long, strange trip it is for the baby boomers who are becoming grandparents--and the marketers who are along for the ride.
Magazine Contributor
11 min read

This story appears in the May 1999 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Scene 1: As John leaves for work, his wife waves goodbye from the doorway. She goes inside to wait for their son to drop off their two granddaughters, whom she baby-sits when she's not working part time.

Scene 2: Jane calls her husband from the office to remind him to pick up some essentials for the weekend. Since their daughter and grandson moved in with them, the refrigerator is always empty.

Scene 3: One Sunday each month, the whole tribe gathers: Mike's kids from his first and their children (his grandchildren); his wife Mary's children, teenagers who still live with them; and their twins, turning 4 next month.

What do these three scenarios have in common? Not much, except each of these couples could easily be 50-year-old-plus baby boomers. In 1996, the first of the 77 million members of the baby boom generation turned 50. This half-century landmark reminded us that millions of boomers would soon add the role of grandparent to their already-full plate, if they hadn't yet.

" have transformed every life stage they've touched," says Michael Rybarski, at Age Wave IMPACT, an Emeryville, , marketing firm that targets maturing boomers and older adults. "It's their demographic weight. Wherever the baby boom goes, it becomes the center of marketing opportunity in this country." Now that the boomers have reached grandparenthood, it's time to look at how they'll affect the sales of everything from toys to grandparent-grandchild travel tours.

This new generation of grandparents is vastly different from those of the past. Boomers are healthier and more active, their values differ greatly, and they steadfastly refuse to be like their parents.

Their unique position and large numbers are leading boomers to redefine the traditional role of grandparents. "Boomers were raised by their parents to be seen and not heard," says Phil Goodman, founder of the Boomer Marketing & Research Center in San Diego, California. "Boomers raised their kids to be seen and heard, but they're going to be helping their grandchildren to be seen, heard and featured." This--combined with the rise of multigenerational households and families with kids from first, second and third marriages--means grandkids are going to be a major part of boomers' lives, and we can only guess at how influential boomers will be in purchases for their grandkids. But the numbers provide us with a really good hint: Packaged Facts, the publishing division of research and consulting company FIND/SVP Inc., estimates the disposable income of boomers over 50 is $930 billion, and it projects that figure will swell to $1 trillion by 2003. With this kind of money, it's prime time for you to start marketing to boomer grandparents before you miss out on the vast opportunity created by this new market.

Attitude Adjustment

Boomers pride themselves on doing things differently--taking chances their predecessors didn't and finding new ways to approach things. Unlike their parents, most won't accept the moniker "senior." "The first thing I'm struck by when we look at boomers is how incongruous the notion of being a grandparent is with the idea of being a baby boomer," says J. Walker Smith, a managing partner at market research firm Yankelovich Partners and co-author of Rocking the Ages (HarperBusiness). "This generation doesn't think of itself as having attained the kind of maturity that constitutes the traditional image of a grandparent."

So how can you deal with this attitude when marketing to boomer grandparents? Although you must be careful not to lump all boomers into one market, certain themes resonate with the group as a whole. "Generational appeal is especially relevant when you're talking about because this generation has been told for 30 years that it's a cohort," says Smith. We know boomers are fond of their pop heritage, they're highly educated, constantly busy, and they grew up surrounded by marketing ploys. Here are ways those central ideas can translate into a marketing strategy for attracting boomer grandparents:

  • Remember when . . . : A boomer turning 50 this year grew up in the idyllic 1950s and came of age in the tumultuous late 1960s. Combine this recipe for nostalgia with their fascination with all things retro and remind boomers they're part of a "special" generation, and you just might stumble onto a marketing goldmine. "[Buying a nostalgic product] says something about boomers when they give it to their grandchildren," says Smith. "The retro appeal has resonance with the way they fondly remember their youth."

Burger King, for example, uses pop hits from past decades as background music for its advertisements. Earlier this year, The William Carter Company purchased the rights to use drawings by John Lennon for a line of children's clothing. These companies are using nostalgia in the present tense, mating the 1960s and 1970s with today's culture--and grabbing the attention of baby boomers and their grandkids alike.

"The reason adults give these gifts to their grandchildren is that they evoke memories," says Kellie Krug of Restoration Hardware, a Corte Madera, -based home furnishings retailer that targets the baby boom market. As customers wander through one of Restoration Hardware's 65 stores, they may discover Sock Monkey, a stuffed-sock puppet, perched on an antique chest, or a vase full of kazoos that serves as a dining room table centerpiece. "They say `I had one of these when I was a kid, so I want my child or grandchild to have one as well,' " says Krug.

  • Acting up:The moment a boomer admits to being old, they feel they're admitting to turning into their parents. "You want to show vigorous, energetic people [in your marketing]," explains Smith. "When you talk about baby boomers and youth, it's not so much about their waistline or gray hair. It's being active, and all the corollary notions of that: trying new things, being willing to experiment, not being afraid of change, always reinventing things as you go along."

Baby boomer grandparents want to purchase toys they can get involved with, whether it be a game they can play with their grandchild or a craft set to assemble together. Boomers want more experiential products. They don't want to merely present their grandchildren with an object, they want to participate in the impact of the gift as well, says Rybarski.

  • Using your head:You can count on boomers to be very involved in their grandchildren's education. They want to help their grandchildren do well in school, giving them even better educational opportunities than they had while growing up. "It's not just about how can make your grandchildren more effective in what they're trying to do," says Smith. "[It's] about how you can help your grandchildren be better people."

When marketing to boomers regarding their grandchildren's education, appeal to their brainpower. "Boomers were better educated than their parents--not by just a little, but by a lot," Smith says. "So appeal to that boomer sense of smarts: This is the new way, the smarter way, the safer way, the more innovative way to be a grandparent."

  • Time's up: Since many boomers are becoming grandparents at a young age, and won't be retiring any time soon, quality time spent with their grandkids is very important to them. "For baby boomer grandparents who are still working, a huge problem is, `How can I [fit] my grandchildren into a very full, stressful life?' " says Rybarski.

The goal here is speed and ease. For starters, get right to the point in your marketing materials, and make your product or service as convenient as possible to purchase. "Focus purely on the benefit, and create a call-to-action for more information," advises Jesse R. Slome, author of Publicist's Guide to Senior Media (Promoworks). "Your ads and direct mail should be short--just establish a benefit and need, and then start a dialogue." The subject of that dialogue can be a Web site, catalog or toll-free number that allows customers to obtain more information and order products for their grandchildren any time, day or night.

Hanna Andersson Corp. uses the Web in addition to its catalog to attract new customers. "Customers are really busy today, and they want to have an experience that's fast, pleasant and efficient," says Gun Denhart, 53, who founded her Portland, Oregon, mail order company in 1984 to sell Swedish-made clothes for kids. "The Web is fast. If you know what you want, you can go in and find a gift in five minutes."

  • Keep it real:Boomers know how to spot a sales pitch. "The 45-plus age group is the most marketing-savvy group in our history because they've had 45 years or more to be exposed to marketing," says Rybarski. "The one thing we've found is they're very marketing-resistant. They don't like the concept of being sold."

The remedy for such a problem, Rybarski says, is to market solutions, not products, and present them with authenticity. To offer a soft touch rather than a hard sell, the Hanna Andersson catalog includes photos of Denhart and her son's . Denhart's pictured playing with her grandson in a nearly identical blue sweatshirt and shorts. On the page after the family photos, there's a testimonial letter from a happy customer.

Stephen Gordon, the founder and CEO of Restoration Hardware, writes all the company's product signage and catalog descriptions himself, often using brief stories of how an employee found a particular item and why it moved him or her to ask Gordon to carry it in the store. "The product signage helps the unexpected items like the kazoo make sense in our store or in our catalog," says Krug. "That personal story is really the connection that draws in the customer."

Here, There and Everywhere

With such large numbers, the easy part of reaching boomers is they're literally everywhere. But when creating your marketing plan, be aware of your biggest constraint: finding your target market. If you're selling vacation trips, you'll want to find more affluent boomer grandparents with time on their hands. If you're marketing computer classes for kids, you'll probably do well with both college grads and those who never attended college--but you should be sure to word your pitches differently.

"What you have to do for any customer is understand the whole range of things that orient them toward the marketplace," advises Smith. "That includes income, ethnicity, gender, geography and age. And age is a funny variable because it's not only a question of the changing needs and responsibilities people deal with as they go through different life stages--each generation has its own values, skills and expectations to deal with."

So in marketing to boomer grandparents, always keep your eyes on the big picture--and the small picture. You can target boomers as a group because being a part of their generation has affected them as much as the entire generation has affected American and business. But don't neglect the basics of finding out exactly who wants your product and what will influence them to buy it for their grandchild. And as any kid knows, grandparents will buy.

Secrets of Net Success

If you want to see how companies are netting baby boomer grandparents on the Web, check out these sites for ideas:

  • Grandparents "R" Us, a joint effort by Toys "R" Us and Third Age, an online community for older adults, gives grandparents hints on buying toys using nostalgia, activities and trendsetting themes.
  • Read how Sock Monkey stole the heart of a Restoration Hardware employee or why the Atomic Robot Man reflects the boomers' childhood and arrives boxed with "ever-so-cool vintage graphics."

Next Step

  • Rocking The Ages: The Yankelovich Report on Generational Marketing (HarperBusiness) by J. Walker Smith and Ann Clurman
  • Boomer expert Phil Goodman offers a course in marketing to baby boomers at his Boomer Marketing & Research Center. Call (619) 223-3682 for further details.
  • InfoUSA sells mailing lists of grandparents. Call their Consumer Lists Sales department at (201) 476-2000.
  • Focus USA also sells a mailing list called "Grandma's & Grandpa's," which can be segmented by different demographics. Call (201) 489-2525 for more information.

Contact Sources

Age Wave IMPACT, (510) 601-7500,

Hanna Andersson Corp., (503) 242-0920, http://www.hannaandersson.comInfoUSA, fax: (402) 596-0475,

Promoworks, (805) 379-3910,

Restoration Hardware, (415) 924-1005,

Yankelovich Partners, (203)846-0100,


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