In the realm of marketing to adults older than 50, vigorous debates arise about how best to construct advertising messages and frame offers in memorable and compelling ways. Pundit opinions fall into three overlapping theoretical camps.
Some are proponents of “Ageless Marketing” as conceived and articulated by my late colleague David Wolfe. Ageless Marketing is “marketing based not on age but on values and universal desires that appeal to people across generational divides. Age-based marketing reduces the reach of brands because of its exclusionary nature. In contrast ageless marketing extends the reach of brands because of its inclusionary focus.”
Some are impassioned about “Life-Stage Marketing,” which understands the consumer from the life-stage they’re experiencing in the present. So, for example, adults between 50 and 60 today have a lot in common such as children in high school or college, the beginning of caregiving for aging parents, accumulation of significant consumer debt, and so forth. Further, stage of life implies psychological priorities. Thus, some argue that middle-age or the “Fall Stage” includes a reduction of material pursuits in favor of accumulating experiences.
And some are committed to “Generational Marketing,” an approach for which I’m a proponent. As I write in my book, Generation Reinvention:
“… a generation implies membership in a unique group, bound by common history, which eventually develops similar values, a sense of shared history, and collective ways of interpreting experiences as the group progresses through the life course.
“One way to describe this phenomenon of generational identification is the concept of cohort effect, which sociologist Karl Mannheim wrote about as ‘the taste, outlook, and spirit characteristic of a period or generation.’ He also referred to the notion of zeitgeist, the idea that a generation has a collectively shared sense of its formative historical period.
“Marketers tap into the cohort effect when they remind consumers of cherished events and experiences from the past and connect these acquired memories with brand identity.”
Some critics deride Generational Marketing as superficial: feckless attempts to connect nostalgic memories with products. Boomers aren’t invested in their formative years, critics argue, they’re looking ahead. Formative experiences are of little contemporary consequence. What’s done is done.
Aside from my assertion that humans always recall nostalgic moments with enduring and emotionally powerful reflections—and therefore these memories can become potent motivational triggers in contemporary marketing communications—sophisticated new consumer research substantiates the affirming power of nostalgia.
Authors of a multi-continent research study, published by the Association for Psychological Science, determined that feelings of loneliness—emotions such as unhappiness, pessimism, self-blame and depression—reduce perceptions of social support. Loneliness can be alleviated by seeking support from social networks. And here’s the surprising psychological insight: nostalgia, a sentimental longing for the past, increases perceptions of social support. A sense of social connectedness nourishes the soul. Nostalgia functions similar to optimism in maintaining health. Nostalgia, appropriately harnessed, inspires positive feelings, including positive brand associations and affinity. (APS, Vol. 19, #10)
This does not mean that creating an advertising strategy around shared generational experiences is always on target or well-executed. Creative problems begin when brand associations are hackneyed or arbitrary.
Misjudgments sometimes occur when those outside a generational cohort superficially interpret generational experiences. We’ve seen recent ads targeting Boomers that connect brands with peace symbols, classic rock music, and the rebellious spirit of Boomer youth. Once potentially powerful as a creative approach, connecting brands to the spirit of the sixties has been done.
Other marketers create messages where psychic connection between nostalgic memories and a brand have little in common; that is, brand utilities have nothing to do with the creative message.
St. Joseph Aspirin launched a TV ad featuring Ken Osmond, the actor who played Eddie Haskell, cheeky friend of Beaver Cleaver in the hit 1950s sitcom, Leave It to Beaver. Significantly, this is the first situation comedy ever written from a child’s viewpoint, thus elevating potential for nostalgic resonance with the children of that time: Leading-Edge Boomers.
Although this ad deserves acknowledgement for resurrecting an actor who is part of Boomer nostalgia in a fairly big way, we are left wondering what Eddie Haskell has to do with headache pain relief. (Maybe the product is a palliative for the headaches Eddie often caused Beaver’s parents, June and Ward.) But brand connections between Eddie and an OTC analgesic are vague. Even minor copy changes could have strengthened ties between Eddie, the obnoxious neighborhood headache, and a popular aspirin brand of the same time. To the credit of this advertisement’s creators, contemporary Eddie helps re-position the brand for what Boomers need today: cardiovascular health. (A note of caution: Ad critiques rarely consider sales or measured changes in brand awareness/preference generated by a campaign, and these performance measures are, indeed, the bottom line in judging marketing effectiveness.)
A more recent television advertisement aptly demonstrates nuances that successfully connect a car brand with Boomer nostalgia.
I appreciate this ad because it has several multi-generational, cohort-sensitive qualities, including clever use of nostalgia. This Boomer grandmother teaches her Generation Z grandchild about zip-lining naked in Belize, albeit to the consternation of the child’s Generation X parents, especially her perturbed daughter-in-law. Yet, one instance at a farmer’s market—an insightful moment of awareness by the daughter-in-law as the grandmother acknowledges her ability to talk with cats—conveys the value of generativity: critical teaching and mentoring moments between old and young. After several ironic twists in the ad, careful observers learn that the family had been visiting the area where the 1969 Woodstock Festival took place.
Which generation is this Subaru ad targeting? I suggest two. Boomers have had a longstanding and positive relationship with Subaru, an import that became popular during the oil shortage crises of the 1970s and continues in popularity today as a safe and durable SUV brand. The ad reinforces this relationship by evoking collective nostalgia for magical moments from the Woodstock era, such as meeting a future spouse under a stately tree near the rock music festival. Further, the ad also suggests Subaru’s contemporary relevance and value to members of Generation X as portrayed by the son and daughter-in-law. Themes of vehicle safety and off-road capacity also have been cleverly woven into the ad’s story-line.
Successful Generational Marketing requires mastery of nuance and meaning. Linkages between a brand and nostalgic meaning must make sense. Further, all formative life experiences of a generation, from early childhood through young adulthood, have potential for development. Boomers possess a rich repertoire of shared experiences beyond those that occurred between 1967 and 1973. Potential nostalgic motivational triggers go way beyond Woodstock.
Based on thirty years of experience marketing to Boomers, I can affirm with my career and portfolio that Generational Marketing succeeds when executed properly. I have created numerous ad campaigns and promotions, dating back to 1981, that performed by generating sales, memberships, donations, inquiries, and leads.
Some argue that Generational Marketing is exclusionary: marketing messages that appeal to a specific generation exclude members of other generations who might not identify with the message or conclude that the product is not for them.
I say, “Welcome to market segmentation.” Target marketing forces choices about who is most likely to buy a product, their common characteristics, and the most potent ways to evoke an emotional connection, to inspire a brand-consumer relationship. These choices force exclusion. As one of my mentors once instructed, “Brent, always make your easiest sales first.” Some of my successes in advertising and marketing correlate with the degree to which my team was effectively exclusionary.
Further, big brand marketers create and target messages to multiple segments for the same brand. When I handled advertising and sales promotions for McDonald’s in Colorado, we executed campaigns targeting young parents, children, Latinos, African Americans, and older customers. Each of these segmented campaigns involved sophisticated messaging that considered cultural and social nuances of the segment. McDonald’s meant slightly different things to different segments.
As I have written and instructed in my speeches, Boomers, particularly Leading-Edge Boomers (born between 1946 and 1955) have a sturdy sense of generational identification. This is due to two factors.
First, the Leading-Edge grew up during significant cultural and social upheaval. Karl Mannheim and several social science researchers have confirmed that turmoil in youth strengthens generational identification and durability of formative experiences.
Second, Boomers comprise the only generation to have grown up with just three monolithic television networks. No generation older or younger experienced this convergence of technology with youth. Boomers growing up in Alaska and Florida shared many of the same televised moments and thus learned the same cultural and social messages. We watched Eddie Haskell weekly in dominant generational percentages. We either liked or disliked Eddie, but we all recall his shifty character. This isn’t about the past or future; it’s about who we are: the sum-total of our life experiences.
Research conducted by Pew Research Center last year underscores how pervasively Boomers identify with their generational cohort, which also means this generation continues to connect with nostalgic images and metaphors from a tumultuous and transformative youth.
Almost 80 percent of Boomers identify with their generational label (and the experiences and values associated with the label), compared with just 18 percent of the Silent Generation and 40 percent of Millennials. As I've insisted for more than a decade of writing and speaking, Boomers are uniquely bound by their formative years and social history and in greater proportions than any other living generation.
Nevertheless, as a marketer, I’ve always maintained a full toolbox. The three Boomer marketing approaches discussed here can succeed when well executed. All three approaches can fail when creators have inadequate understanding of the market, message, methodology or meaning conveyed through their ads.
Ageless Marketing can inspire advertising messages that appeal across generational divides because of commonly shared values, such as the nearly universal desire for a cleaner environment. Boomers and their Millennial children share passion almost equally for greener living and sustainability.
Life-stage Marketing can offer another path to success for those who connect a product or service with a stage need. Many Boomers today need help in understanding their caregiving challenges and responsibilities. This hallmark of their current life-stage predisposes them to offers of caregiving support and education.
And Generational Marketing can create powerful associations between a brand and a segment’s formative experiences. These nostalgic associations can become instant shorthand for positioning a contemporary brand constrained by cluttered media and product/service parity. Nostalgia is rich with opportunities for deeply personal brand interactions.
Those who insist that Generational Marketing is the least effective way to create advertising targeting Boomers may simply not understand this approach at a level of expertise necessary to be successful.