In the mix: Olga Taylor appeared in a TK Maxx campaign alongside young men and women

There is a conundrum for advertising and marketing agencies. How can the young understand an older demographic?

Advertisers often fail when it comes to ageing consumers, and the seed of the failure lies in the advertisement agency culture, says Mark Borkowski, a public relations expert. “Bearded Shoreditch creatives blow a fuse when asked to address this sector.”

Critics such as Mr Borkowski say ad­vertising and marketing agencies have become obsessed with youth. And those that have taken on the challenge of addressing older consumers have failed to understand the complexities of the demographic.

Dick Stroud, the founder of 20plus30, a consultancy specialising in marketing to older consumers, says the advertising sector has become increasingly ageist. According to a report by the UK’s Institute of Practitioners in Advertising in 2013, the average age of an employee in the industry was just under 34. Mr Stroud points out: “David Ogilvy was 39 when he wrote his first ad and spent the next 25 years actively involved in creating advertising.” Now, however, as the general population has become older, the age of the people pitching products to them has declined.

Good creatives should be able to put themselves into the mindset of anyone. No one assumes, for example, that eight-year-old girls are devising campaigns for Lego Friends. However, Mr Stroud believes that the difference between creating ads for young people and older consumers is “projectable experience”. He notes that while we have all been teenagers, it is hard to imagine what it is like to be older. “At least an older person will know that their experience of youth is dated and will take advice to achieve a current view,” he says. The default option for most young marketers, he adds, is to extrapolate from their parents’ or grandparents’ behaviour.

A number of niche agencies have sprung up to cater to the older demographic over the past decade. To compete with them, suggests Marie Stafford, planning foresight director at advertising agency JWT, the larger agencies should retain older employees or keep them on as consultants.

However, she believes some of the fault lies with clients that assume older people are set in their ways. They are “willingly kissing goodbye to 30 years of custom based on the notion that mature consumers won’t switch brands”, she says. There is much at stake: the global spending power of the baby boomer generation is expected to reach $15tn by 2020, according to Euromonitor.

Janet Kiddle, founder of Steel Magnolia, a strategic market research consultancy specialising in the over-50s market, believes advertisers and marketers are “scared about being old”. Familiar with the tribes of youth, advertisers too often fail to distinguish between different groups of older consumers: “The over-55s is a hugely complicated category.” She points out that they are not necessarily empty-nesters. They could be divorced, have young children and be expecting to work for decades to come, instead of spending their retirement on cruises and golf courses.

Jez Groom, group chief strategy officer at Ogilvy & Mather Group UK, agrees. “People aren’t retiring in the way they used to.” The financial crunch, which hit pensions, woke advertisers to the new working lives and lifestyles of the mature market, he says. But there is still a tendency to oversimplify and generalise. “You need to look at attitudes rather than merely the age,” he advises. Also, when it comes to global products and services, western baby boomers will have different cultural references from their Chinese peers.

Patronised and pigeonholed: that is how many over-55-year-olds think advertising treats them, says Gillian Waddell, managing director of Fuel, a public relations firm. It is a complex demographic, she says. “There are many ages between 55 and 100.” More­over, people are healthier longer. “Biking is the new golf,” as she puts it.

Mr Stroud says the problem goes further. “I don’t think [advertisers] get it wrong, although they do, but that they don’t bother to consider the older group in their creative or media plans.”

It is important to distinguish the age-specificadvertising around products such as stairlifts, retirement planning or denture creams from products that are purchased by all age groups, such as computers, fridges and cars. “These are age-neutral products,” explains Mr Stroud. “Even though the primary customers might well be 50-plus, the essence of the creative is focused on the younger person. So the biggest problem is neglect.”

Nor need advertising campaigns be conducted only in print. Older people are increasingly important digital consumers.

Earlier this year, Bob Shennan, director of music at the BBC, the broadcaster, shared market research on Radio 2. The radio station identified a “young older” generation that are more adventurous than their predecessors, enjoying the idea of travel and foreign food. This cohort perceive themselves to be younger than their age. There was a blurring of musical boundaries, with tastes becoming more fluid across the generations, so many artists such as Adele, Amy Winehouse and Elbow had appeal across the generations. Mr Shennan brought in presenters such as Chris Evans – only 48 himself – that made listeners feel young.

This resonates with advertisers. Dick Lumsden, managing director of Owl Marketing Solutions, says people like to think of themselves as 10 years younger. If you are marketing to a 60 year old, use a 50-year-old model. Or do not put one in at all. “Older consumers have seen lots of advertising . . . They are savvy. They want information about the product. They don’t want to be patronised or shown abstract images.” However, he adds the print size must not be too small.

Inclusivity is important, says Rita Clifton, a branding expert. She points to the print and online advertisements for clothing retailer Jaeger’s autumn/winter collection, which featured three British models and their mothers. “People don’t want neon signs saying this is for older people. They want it to be inclusive.”

There are some pitfalls to avoid. Melanie Haslam, founder of Wise Branding, a consultancy, believes nothing annoys single older women – and there are a lot of them – more than using pictures of happy older couples. The silver-haired couple walking down the beach holding hands is a cliché to be avoided – although far worse, says Ms Kiddle, is putting a single woman on her own. “She just looks lonely.”

Put her in a group, she advises. “All advertising is aspirational, after all.”

Further reading: Same old story? Talking to an older audience

Research the market Janet Kiddle says younger advertising and marketing executives should spend time with older consumers. “They need to get out from behind the computer and meet people.”

Intergenerational campaigns can work Brands can be targeted at both young and old consumers. Marie Stafford identifies this year’s campaign, “Me by me”, by clothing retailer TK Maxx, which features 62-year-old Olga Taylor, pictured above, alongside young men and women, as an example of a successful age mix. “People like it to be inclusive. Not old people but a range of ages. She is treated like everyone else. It’s important not to make older people feel excluded.” But not all brands can be all things to everyone. Ms Kiddle points out that you have to make a decision about who the product is aimed at.

Do not patronise Humour about age or ageing is fine, but use it advisedly.

Nostalgia Conjuring up fond memories of younger years can be an effective way to create a bond with older consumers, says Dick Stroud. But itmust be “immediately recognisable and relevant”.

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