After all, the average baby boomer seems more likely to have a hearing aid tucked in his or her ear than an iPod earbud. The median age of baby boomers -- born between 1946 and 1964 -- is now roughly 52, well past marketing's conventional threshold of demographic relevance. The oldest of the cohort are four years from traditional retirement age.
"When we first started launching this project internally, we received e-mails from some of our younger colleagues asking, 'Who cares about these people?'" said Mike Twitty, senior group research manager-shopper insights for Unilever. "[They talked] as if boomers were already over the hill and not very important. Their contention was that they don't buy a lot of our products. It was just that knee-jerk reaction that does not reflect the data."
Unilever, like most major marketers, has focused its media buys somewhere within the 18-49 demographic, and for many of its marketers, the average boomer was already zipped up in those body bags the AARP puts in its ads.
Indeed, one of the reasons Unilever researchers launched the boomer project was to show its own marketing executives that "you've got to continue to think about this target," said Eileen Kozin, director-consumer futures. "It's a huge target, and they're not going away. They're still going to be influential as they get older, and they've got the money to spend."
In fact, Unilever's researchers discovered even though only 45% of households today are boomers, because of their higher spending power they account for 60% of spending on package-goods. And statistically speaking, they will continue to buy most the company's products for the next decade -- well beyond the relevance horizon of the average brand manager.
Not only that, but boomers are likely to retire later, work more after formal retirement and have far more disposable income than any prior generation of retirees. The estimated 78 million boomers in the U.S. spend $46 billion annually on package-goods products, according to Information Resources Inc. Various published estimates have put their total spending power at $2 trillion annually.
Unilever conducted its study as part of its research into trends affecting retailers who sell package goods, which it first launched in 2005. The program is part of a Unilever effort to develop marketing and retail-merchandising programs for key shopper segments and included a report last year on Hispanic shoppers that preceded the launch last week of ViveMejor, a multibrand in-store, digital, print and branded-TV marketing platform for Hispanics.
Among concepts that may appeal to aging boomers, Ms. Kozin believes, are stores that incorporate aspects of community centers, perhaps even by scheduling events for older adults.
Even the most practical segment of boomers -- the "Plain and Practicals," as Unilever dubbed them, who are concentrated disproportionately in the Southeast and are heavily conditioned by Wal-Mart Stores to seek everyday low prices -- will gravitate more toward recreational shopping and be attracted to what Ms. Kozin calls the "Fun and Fair" retail concept.
Stereotypes aside, many boomers are actually early adopters of new technology and switchers to new brands, Ms. Kozin said. "Younger people may be more excited and write about it," she said. "But boomers have the money to spend on it."
And they'll do so, she said, particularly when the communications are geared to them.
Dove hits the mark
Unilever's Dove Pro-Age campaign has been pitch perfect at that, said Patty Bloomfield, VP-account director of Boombiz, a unit of Cincinnati ad agency Northlich, which launched the boomer-marketing unit last year.
"For so long, the idea has been that people who are aging want to be young again," she said. "Boomers are saying 'I'm aging, but I'm going to do it in a way that's graceful and still about who I am.'"
She's quick to note that Procter & Gamble Co.'s Olay and Estee Lauder's Aveda also hold strong appeal for boomer women by using more aspirational and anti-aging appeals.
Among retailers, she gives such chains as Chico's and Coldwater Creek high marks for "getting it" in appealing to boomers -- both in merchandising and in staffing. "Boomer women don't want these 20-somethings waiting on them," Ms. Bloomfield said. The emergence of 50-something spokesmodels for cosmetics brands, such as Diane Keaton for L'Oreal and Christie Brinkley for Cover Girl and Olay, is addressing the same issue, she said.
Contrary to the image of men emerging from midlife crises with convertibles and trophy wives, she notes that two-thirds of divorces among boomer couples now are being initiated by women. "More [boomer] women are saying they feel attractive now, and the men aren't saying it as much," Ms. Bloomfield said. "There's a newfound confidence among the women."
She believes that should shift communications in the business more toward Dove's approach. "It's the internal beauty," she said, "not the external."