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Oldies but goodies

Forget minivans. German automaker Audi wants to put baby boomers--now that the kids are grown and out of the house--behind the wheel of the sleek A6 sedan or muscular all-road Quattro. It aimed to capture the boomer zeitgeist in a recent TV commercial that blended David Bowie's classic "Rebel Rebel" with his newer hit, "Never Get Old." As the voiceover intoned, "Where would we be if we always did things the way they were done before?" a progression of old (record player) v. new (iPod) images appears on the screen, and Bowie's "I'm never, ever gonna get old," hangs in the air as the carmaker's logo emerges.

Audi wants to connect with the generation that came of age questioning authority in the 1960s and 1970s and now expects to enjoy a vigorous, age-defying lifestyle in retirement. And it's emblematic of a marketing trend that's been surprisingly slow to gather steam.

The nation's 75 million baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, ought to be the most sought-after demographic cohort for American marketers. As a group, they are the most affluent Americans, with three quarters of the nation's financial assets and an estimated $1 trillion in disposable income annually. Yet while boomers are hurtling toward their retirement years--the oldest boomers will begin turning 60 next year--Madison Avenue continues to prize youth. Only about 10 percent of advertising is directed specifically at the 50-plus market. "The demographic sweet spot has always been 18 to 49," says Brent Green, author of Marketing to Leading-Edge Baby Boomers . "Once you turn 50, you fall off the planet."

But a small vanguard of marketers is abandoning that old thinking and is now beginning to design products and target advertising to maturing consumers. Anheuser-Busch, for example, is advertising its low-cal, low-carb Michelob Ultra in the pages of AARP The Magazine with ads that show fit, active 50-somethings swimming, kayaking, and biking. (AARP has in fact run ads in trade publications like Advertising Age touting 50-plus consumers as a lucrative market.) The Gap, a favorite of boomers in their younger years, will seek to keep women in the fold as they outgrow ultra-low-rise jeans and midriff-baring T-shirts. This fall it will begin testing new stores for women over age 35, with clothes by former Oscar de la Renta designer Austyn Zung. And Cadillac's TV commercials pay homage to the 1970s-era rock band Led Zeppelin, playing the group's 1971 hit "Rock and Roll."

One reason most advertisers fixate on youth is that a majority of the people creating and buying advertising in the United States are under age 30. The other is the marketing dogma that consumers tend to cling to the brands they like as young adults. "There's a long-held belief that you have to get someone to commit to your brand early in life, and once they commit they will be loyal to your brand forever," says Matt Thornhill, president of the Boomer Project, a market-research firm in Richmond, Va. But a study conducted in 2002 by AARP showed that consumers age 45 and older switch brands just as readily as younger generations.

What's hip

The boomer generation has transformed every age and stage it has passed through. As children, boomers ushered in disposable diapers and strained spinach in jars. As teens and young adults, they introduced long hair, tie-dye clothes, and rock-and-roll music to popular culture. When they became parents, carmakers rolled out minivans and SUV s. Today, market researchers are at work studying the likes and dislikes of a generation in midlife with the notion that they'll also transform what it means to be retired. "Marketers are just beginning to grasp the nature of a society where 1 in 3 adults will be 50 or older by 2010," says Green. "We have to completely reinvent ourselves in understanding the middle-aged and older markets because they're critical to business success in the future."

For starters, boomers expect their 60s and 70s to be a time of rediscovery and reinvention, a period when they can pursue hobbies and try new things. "Half of all boomers live in households where the kids are gone," says Steve Audette, a marketing executive in the meals division of General Mills Inc. "They're rediscovering what it is to be single or a couple again." That's why the food company's Progresso soup commercials feature older adults learning Japanese or taking a pottery class. General Mills also targets empty-nest boomers with Pillsbury dinner rolls and Green Giant vegetables that are packaged in resealable freezer bags to allow for several small portions.

A fun job

During their retirement years, most boomers also say they expect to work--but on their own terms. "When I retire, I hope to expand the volunteer work I currently do, take a part-time job at Barnes & Noble or Borders--more to stay active than for the money--and spend more time traveling and going to museums," says Mary Medland, a 52-year-old freelance writer in Baltimore. Medland's intentions are echoed in a recently released Merrill Lynch study that found that 76 percent of boomers said they will probably hold down a job in retirement, and a majority of that group said they expect to cycle back and forth between leisure and work. "Retirement for this generation will be redefined as a turning point," says Ken Dychtwald, president of the San Francisco consulting firm Age Wave. "Somewhere near 62 or 64, they'll leave their primary career and maybe even enjoy the luxury of a year off. Then they'll launch into a new chapter in their lives," says Dychtwald, who helped Merrill Lynch--which recently unveiled a marketing campaign aligned with those expectations--conduct the study. That new chapter might be a volunteer stint or low-stress part-time work or the "fun" careers they've always wanted to pursue.

Research also shows that boomers don't necessarily want to high-tail it to warmer climes like Florida and Phoenix upon retirement. Instead they want to stay put in their hometowns and close to children and grandchildren. Retirement community developer Del Webb has noticed. Owned by Pulte Homes, it has begun building communities for 55-and-older adults near cities like Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit, with biking and jogging trails, craft studios, bird and wildlife preserves, and in one South Carolina village that will open in 2006, a canoe and kayak station on the Catawba River. "You can commune with nature in retirement without necessarily having a 9-iron in your hand," says Pulte spokesman Mark Marymee.

Boomers have always tend-ed to crave unique experiences, and the ones who can afford to will spend lavishly on luxury travel. Tour companies that focus on high-end adventures and study will be the ones to capture boomers' attention. National Geographic Expeditions, for instance, caters to globetrotting boomers with trips that feature hiking in the Himalayas, photography workshops in Spain and Tuscany, African safaris, and a cruise to Antarctica. Small, ultrachic cruise lines like SeaDream Yacht Club and the Yachts of Seabourn, which sail to ports from the Mediterranean to New Zealand, are also positioning themselves well to serve this niche with marble baths and plasma TV s in the staterooms, spa and fitness facilities on board, and gourmet food and sommeliers in the dining room. In addition, boomers are doting grandparents, and they'll no doubt be treating their grandkids to vacations. Disney targeted this trend with its recent "magical gatherings" TV commercials that showed multiple generations enjoying theme-park attractions. They've also reached out to boomers with an ad that evoked the Mickey Mouse Club of their youth.

The one marketing segment that hasn't overlooked the boomer population is the antiaging market. From pharmaceuticals and nutraceuticals to cosmetic peels and plastic surgery, the race is on to tap the wallets of a generation that wants to be forever young. Viagra and Botox are only the beginning. The pharmaceutical industry has hundreds of antiaging drugs in its research pipeline. And every cosmetic company from Avon to Chanel has rolled out wrinkle creams and age-defying serums to restore youth to sagging skin. There's even a catalog called "As We Change" that proffers solutions for thinning hair, wrinkles, spider veins, under-eye circles, hot flashes, and waning libido. It arrives quarterly in the mailboxes of 1 million women over 40 and sells $8 million to $15 million in products a year.

Massages and messages

The desire to reach boomers with the means to pamper themselves is also behind the surge in day spas. Some--like Washington, D.C.'s Grooming Station and New York City's Nickel Spa--cater exclusively to men. Nickel even offers a $95 love-handle wrap that promises to "reduce the appearance of love handles around the midsection."

But fountain-of-youth marketers must be careful with their messages. One Viagra commercial shows middle-aged men leaping and dancing in the streets to Queen's "We Are the Champions." That ridicules the target audience, making them look "fatuous and silly," says Green. But Pfizer spokesman Daniel Watts says the ad was very popular. "We were very pleased with it," he says. Ads for Levitra hit a better note, Green says, focusing on higher-end reasons to use the drug, like intimacy and quality of relationships.

When it comes to boomers, "anything marketing to silver hair is bad marketing," says Te Revesz, an associate director of research firm Find/SVP. The secret to success, she says: "Don't talk to their chronological age; talk to their self-image." In other words, anything that makes a 50-ish boomer feel 30 again is a good bet.


Kristin Davis, USNews.com. March 14, 2005

Copyright © 2005 U.S.News & World Report, L.P.. All rights reserved.