As Single Becomes New Norm, How to Market Without Stigma

When Selling to This Growing, Aging Group, Don't Assume That They're All Focused on Getting Married -- or Must Be Singled Out

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CHICAGO ( -- They are a growing -- and graying -- force.

Never-married single people ages 25 to 34 now outnumber the married crowd by 46% to 45%, a stark reversal from just a decade ago, when couples held a 20-point edge in the age group, according to an analysis of new Census data by the Population Reference Bureau. In essence, selling to singles no longer means just targeting teens and those in their early 20s.

Credit: Source: Population Reference Bureau

Some marketers are taking notice: More ads are featuring singles and some companies are reaching out to them, such as Coldwell Banker and Norwegian Cruise Lines. But for the most part marketers are only slowly adjusting to the new normal. And in some instances it doesn't make sense to exclusively target singles, according to interviews with multiple ad agency executives.

"We see many examples of brands -- from soft drinks to cellphones -- who talk to the traditional 18-to-24 year-old single. But the new single, the single parent or the more affluent, later life-stage single is a segment that's still emerging and expanding," Adam Bowen, VP-strategic planning director at DraftFCB Chicago, said in an email interview. "We'll need to spend more time with this group, gaining a better understanding of their unmet needs."

It's a coveted group, for sure. Freed from the restraints of family life, singles have a reputation for splurging.

"They have more money to spend on themselves and they're more willing to indulge on things that might seem frivolous or [a] non-necessity," said Ann Mack, director of trend spotting at JWT.

In 2009, singles of all ages spent a higher share of income on alcoholic beverages, clothing, shoes and tobacco products compared with other households, but less on housekeeping supplies and insurance, according to new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Still, several ad agencies contacted by Ad Age said they do not have a dedicated unit studying the single market. One reason is that some goods are marketed the same no matter the consumer's living situation.

Beauty products, for example, are "purposely nebulous about marital status," said Denise Fedewa, an exec VP-strategy director at Leo Burnett. That's because married or not, when a woman is dressing up to go out, "I think she always goes back to that vision of herself as that 25-year-old single woman," she said.

But some companies are aggressively targeting singles. Coldwell Banker Real Estate, for instance, touts its YouTube real-estate channel as a way to reach singles ages 25 to 34. And video will be prominently featured in an iPad application the company is planning.

"Video is a stronger, better way to communicate with this age group," Coldwell Banker Chief Marketing Officer Michael Fischer said in an interview. "You can't ignore the single buyer because they make up such a big portion of our target market."

Single women accounted for 21% of all homebuyers in 2009, and single men made up an additional 10%, according to the National Association of Realtors.

In the travel industry, Norwegian Cruise Line is reaching out to solo travelers by offering single-occupancy rooms on its new Epic ship. "In the past, single cruisers have had to pay a double occupancy for traveling alone, but these new accommodations ensure affordable and an alternative way of traveling for singles," spokeswoman Kristine McGlinchey said in an email.

In the restaurant industry, communal tables are hot -- making it easier for singles to mingle -- and more eateries are offering breakfast and staying open all afternoon as a way to cater to singles on the go, said Clark Wolf, a New York-based restaurant and hospitality consultant. Also, singles are behind the surge in trendy food-trucks that "allow for a lot of standing around in line, which is where people like to meet and talk," he said.

Dating sites such as that have long targeted singles are seeing an uptick in business. Match reported an 8% bump in subscribers for the second quarter, excluding irregular transactions, according to parent company IAC. And slowly but surely, more ads are featuring singles to keep up with the trend, said Adrian Fogel, VP-planning director at Leo Burnett. "We always put families on because families made you feel better. But the reality is more people are living alone for whatever reason," she said.

Ms. Fogel pointed to McDonald's ads, which she said had reliably featured families enjoying a Happy Meal or sharing fries but now include more singles, such as recent spots featuring solo diners enjoying Quarter Pounders with cheese. McDonald's "is about family, but they've found the balance of understanding that there's a single population within their adults that they are targeting," Ms. Fogel said.

Ms. Fogel said ads that work for singles are "not about making them being single a negative. I think it's about trying to connect them with what they do or love." She cited a recent Bud Light ad that features a group of men and women browsing a garage sale.

One caution: Singles expert Bella DePaulo said too many marketers engage in "matrimania," assuming that all that singles want to do is find a mate.

Conventional wisdom is "all singles want more than anything is to be coupled, so that's what we should sell them is a ticket to coupling," said the psychology professor at University of California Santa Barbara and author of "Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized and Ignored and Still Live Happily Ever After." But the reality is singles are "leading full, meaningful, happy lives, and they don't need to be patronized or stigmatized."

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