Fountain of Youth

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AARP woos reluctant Boomers with a high-priced makeover.

When Kentucky Fried Chicken changed its name to KFC in 1991, the move didn't actually reduce the number of calories from fat in a bucket of the Colonel's drumsticks and thighs, but consumers were no longer confronted with the "F-word" on the chain's storefronts and napkins. Taking a page from the same playbook, when the American Association of Retired Persons began to revamp its image in 1998, it decided to officially rename itself AARP, getting rid of that "R-word," which research showed was increasingly irrelevant to its current and potential membership.

The name change was just the beginning of a major shift at the powerful 42-year-old organization. This month, AARP will begin a five-year re-branding program, involving its first ever, large-scale advertising campaign, a retooling of its direct mail appeals, a makeover of Modern Maturity (the free magazine sent to all members), and the launch of a new publication in early 2001. The ambitious makeover is part of a larger effort to attract its next generation of members: The 78 million Baby Boomers who will decide whether or not AARP remains the pre-eminent voice of older Americans.

Supporting this crucial undertaking is an intense research and data mining effort, which AARP began in 1997. Since then, the organization has spent in excess of $500,000 on proprietary research (including 33 focus groups, six electronic dial testing sessions, two nationwide surveys, a minority-group survey, and an internal survey of AARP employees and volunteers) seeking ways to make itself more valuable to a new generation. "Boomers right now think of AARP as more for their parents, but we think we can change this," says Bill Novelli, the organization's associate executive director for public affairs.

Change comes at a steep price. AARP plans to spend $100 million over the next five years on advertising alone. The campaign - created by ad agency Greer, Margolis, Mitchell, Burns & Associates - will be rolled out in phases. Beginning in September, image-oriented ads are scheduled to target opinion leaders through media outlets such as Time, BusinessWeek, The Washington Post, National Public Radio, AOL, and In addition, minority prospects will be targeted via publications such as Ebony and Hispanic. The creative in the ads will disproportionately portray younger subjects, within, or close to, the Boomer age group, in order to explode stereotypes of the AARP member, according to David Mitchell, a partner at Greer, Margolis. Eventually, as the campaign progresses towards 2005, ads will morph into harder recruitment pitches with greater emphasis on the specific products and services that AARP offers.

The amount of time and money spent on research for this re-branding campaign reflects the critical juncture at which AARP now finds itself. The first wave of Boomers turned 50 and became eligible for AARP membership in 1996. Now, more than 10,000 Boomers hit the big five-o every day - each receiving the association's "dear friend" mailing to varying degrees of horror or delight. About 32 percent of eligible Boomers have accepted this invitation, compared with 42 percent of the 55 to 59 age group, and 46 percent of all persons over 50. While people have always joined at higher rates as they get older, AARP needs to make a special effort to reach this generation of Boomers, who coined the phrase "don't trust anyone over 30," and who have traditionally resisted the effects and trappings of aging every step of the way.

The association began its concerted effort to capture Boomers with a research project in 1998. The goal of the study: To find out whether AARP could actually incorporate the Boomer segment into the organization with any success, or whether an entirely new organization, separate from AARP, was necessary to lure this cohort into a seniors group. "We started very general exploratory research in 1997 to find out what Boomers' life aspirations were, what challenges they expected to face as they aged, and what they knew of AARP," says Linda Fisher, associate research director of the organization. "Then we moved onto the defining study of the campaign in `98, which really set the course of our overall strategy."

In order to find out what Boomers thought of AARP, and whether there was a way to persuade them the group was relevant to their lives, Fisher and her colleagues held electronic dial testing sessions in Atlanta, Chicago, and Portland, Oregon. Each session consisted of 100 participants, half aged 45 to 59, half aged 60 and over. Respondents were presented with various visual depictions of actual and possible AARP activities, products, and services, and registered their positive or negative responses with an electronic dial. Following these sessions, focus groups were assembled to glean further insight from the dial session data. Finally, a 1,400-person national survey was completed by Wirthlin Worldwide to inject the larger picture into this detailed data.

What was AARP able to conclude from this laborious process? That Boomers had a positive reaction to many AARP products, services, and activities, and could be wooed into the AARP fold if marketed to more effectively. "We found that we would not have to create an entirely separate organization or division to win Boomers over," says Fisher. "We just need to work harder to speak to them in their language, and work harder to provide things of value to them."

One of AARP's new weapons in the war to win Boomers will be the new, as yet untitled, magazine exclusively for this younger cohort of seniors, which is set to launch in early 2001. The new publication will reach 2.6 million Boomers, making it the largest magazine launch in history. The magazine will be presented in a format that "Boomers are used to" says Novelli, meaning glossy, with information in quick cuts, and focusing on the unique issues relevant to this segment.

AARP also plans another facelift for its venerable Modern Maturity. It's the magazine's second makeover in four years; it was previously split into two distinct editions - for those members who work and those who do not. This means by 2001, AARP will have three separate magazines for three distinct member categories: Boomers, employed seniors, and non-working retirees. Even the association's traditional blue and red logo recently underwent some changes. At a biannual meeting in Orlando last May, AARP unveiled the new logo - complete with a new font and colors - which focus groups had deemed more contemporary and attractive.

What's more, earlier this year, AARP introduced an Internet initiative geared towards Boomers, called LifeAnswers. This online service provides research and consulting services - for a fee - to people who want assistance with issues such as finding the best nursing care for elderly parents. For time-pressed Boomers facing new aging-related challenges, this could become an invaluable service. Says Novelli: "This is a total makeover of how we present ourselves to the public."

But some question whether this radical surgery will be enough to persuade Boomers. Eric Kingson, a professor of social work and public administration at Syracuse University points out that there is a physiological difference between older people today and previous generations. "I don't think 50 is a natural age for people to join an old-age group now," he says, considering that average life expectancy has risen from 69.7 years in 1960 to 76.5 years in 1997.

Then there's the question of whether AARP can actually accommodate the Boomer psyche. "I think AARP misses with Boomers in philosophy, structure, and attitude," says Dr. Ken Dychtwald, a prominent critic of the organization and author of the recently published Age Power: How the 21st Century Will be Ruled by the New Old.

According to Dychtwald, AARP's philosophy of entitlement is completely at odds with the Boomer philosophy of empowerment and contribution to society. "Entitlement may have made sense 40 years ago, when the elderly were the poorest and most disenfranchised, but this is a total turnoff now to Boomers."

The challenge presented by Boomers to AARP is one shared by many marketers, such as Cadillac, Buick, and Sanka instant coffee. These are brands that appealed to the World War II generation, but have limited appeal to their kids. Much of this can be attributed to the "unique neurosis towards aging suffered by Americans," as Dychtwald puts it.

The very fact that AARP has so successfully captured the hearts and minds of senior Americans in the past, may put them at a disadvantage with Boomers now, in the same way that Boomers have been disinclined to drive their father's Oldsmobile.

Another obstacle AARP must face is the generational attitude towards joining civic and social organizations exhibited by Boomers throughout their lives. In his widely discussed book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Harvard professor Robert Putnam details the disinclination of the Boomer generation to join organizations ranging from the PTA, to the Rotary Club, to bowling leagues. Putnam believes that this trend could very well affect AARP membership, saying "it will be difficult for them to reverse this trend, as Boomers have shown throughout their lives they are not as interested as their parents in joining organizations like this."

Despite these challenges, AARP is confident its research has shown this campaign will increase Boomer enrollment, and has set ambitious goals. By the end of 2005, there will be 85.3 million Americans over 50 and AARP hopes to claim 50 percent of them, increasing its total membership from 34 million to 42.65 million. To accomplish this, a dramatic increase in Boomer membership will be required.

The stakes are high for AARP, as each year about 2 million members either choose not to renew or pass on to the permanent retirement community in the sky.

Without Boomers, "we'll have fewer members coming in the top of the bucket and more leaving the bottom," says Novelli. The re-branding that begins this month, and the research which supported it, will largely determine whether the bucket remains filled or gradually empties out.

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