Generational shift challenge familiar views of the mature consumer and brand loyalty.
In the series-ending episode of Murder, She Wrote, star Angela Lansbury and the writers of the show played out their swan song with a hint of bitter irony in an episode titled "Death by Demographics." The plot, which revolved around a murder at a radio station seeking to draw a younger audience, was a thinly veiled dig at CBS's cancellation of the popular Sunday evening show. Despite having finished in the top 10 for nine seasons in a row, the show was top-heavy with older viewers and weak among the 18- to 34-year-olds coveted by advertisers. The axe fell on the show in 1996.
Such is the fate of many television programs which fail to draw in young viewers. Advertisers - and the networks that depend on them - have long sought out the 18 to 34 group as the El Dorado of marketing demographics. This is in large part due to the view that younger consumers are more flexible in their brand preferences, and can be more easily persuaded to try a new brand or product. Older consumers are considered more calcified in their brand loyalty, and more difficult to reach. Additionally, in courting twentysomethings, a marketer is envisioning an extended, lifelong relationship, whereas older consumers have shorter shelf-lives.
But as 78 million Boomers head toward the 50-plus group, astute marketers are realizing that the relationship between brand loyalty and age is rapidly changing, and older consumers will no longer be as reliably brand-loyal as they have been. "Boomers are going to rewrite our theories on brand loyalty and older consumers," says Nat Puccio, executive vice president and director of strategic planning at McCann-Erickson New York. "Advertisers are going to have to stop viewing the mature market as a monolithic, stodgy group who are not interested in new brands or products, and expand from our youth-obsessed focus."
It's important to recognize that marketers have not been trying to build brand loyalty in young consumers without doing their research; many studies have shown that younger people are more likely to experiment with brands, while older consumers are more likely to stick with a favorite. Seniors tend to be more brand loyal because it "simplifies the purchasing process," according to George Moschis, director of the Center for Mature Consumer Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta. A 1997 Roper Starch survey found that 42 percent of those over 50 "usually did not experiment with brands" once they found one they liked, compared with 30 percent of those under 50.
Not only have older consumers tended to switch brands less frequently, they have also long been more loyal to name-brands than younger consumers. According to the annual DDB Life Style Study, in 1975, 93 percent of Americans in their 70s, and 86 percent in their 60s, said they "tried to stick to well-known brand names." In comparison, 66 percent of those in their 20s stuck to well-known brands.
But these same studies have found that brand loyalty is on the decline among all age groups, and the steepest drops are in the mature segments. A 2000 Roper survey found that since 1997, the number of people who did not experiment with brands once they discovered one they liked, has dropped 7 percentage points to 35 percent among those 50 or older, and 4 percentage points to 26 percent for those under 50. And according to the 2000 DDB Life Style study, the number of consumers who try to stick with well-known brands has fallen by 20 percentage points with seventysomethings, 21 percentage points with sixtysomethings, and 7 percentage points with twentysomethings.
Two of the most important factors in this across-the-board waning of loyalty were the introduction of generic products in the late 70s, and the growth of private-label store brands in the 80s, says Jim Crimmins, worldwide brand planning director at DDB. Ideas and innovations are easily copied in today's marketplace and many brands have lost that observable difference that set them apart in the minds of many consumers. In addition, companies have been moving an increasing portion of their marketing budgets into promotion, and away from brand-building advertising, suggesting to consumers that price is the most significant issue when strolling supermarket aisles.
There are also important factors unique to generational cohorts which point toward further erosion of brand loyalty in the mature market, as Boomers enter that age group. Ann Clurman and J. Walker Smith point out in their book Rocking the Ages: The Yankelovich Report on Generational Marketing, that the World War II generation displays higher levels of brand loyalty due to their early relationship with brands. "Matures were content to let brands control," they write, adding that, "the good life of the American Dream was tied to big brand names." That generation's respect for authority and conformity meant that brand loyalty was a virtue. The same cannot be said of Boomers, who thrive on independence and challenging convention. These people "were rule-breakers from the get-go, and that applied to brands too," proclaim Clurman and Smith.
Moreover, older consumers grew up with far fewer brands to choose from, and therefore, are less inclined to constantly switch brands. What was important for consumers in the early days of American consumer culture, was being able to buy any car or television, not so much whether it was a Chevy or a Ford, GE, or RCA. As these types of products gained quality parity, and became affordable to the masses, brand differentiation grew more important. Accompanied by the growth of the advertising industry, Boomers were the first brand-focused generation in history, says McCann's Puccio. "They are the first to have been bombarded with thousands of television advertisements during their formative years," he says. "And they have learned to navigate and negotiate, rather than drown in this world of brands, making them more demanding of brands, and less loyal."
The affluence of Boomers and the decade-long strength in the economy has made this group more willing than ever to try new brands and products, as there is less financial risk involved. A Roper Starch study found that the number of people 50 and over who say that "the important thing about a brand is that it gives good value for the money" has decreased by 9 percentage points over the past three years. "This age group is usually highly concerned with value, but their financial strength is making them less so," says Carrie Chehayl, vice president at Roper. Because many Boomers intend to keep working well into their retirement years, their economic situations will be very different from their parents' and will increase their willingness to experiment with brands.
All these factors make the entry of Boomers into the mature market an important element in the drop in brand loyalty seen in this age group. "This is a cohort effect, as Boomers drag down the loyalty rates of older consumers," says DDB's Crimmins. He adds that, unlike the generation before them, "we should not assume that the desire of today's Boomers and younger Americans to stick to well-known brand names will necessarily increase with age."
This trend presents a major challenge to marketers, as brand loyalty is an invaluable asset. It can be five times as expensive to attract a new customer than it is to retain repeat business, according to Georgia State's Moschis. But this challenge also presents an opportunity for marketers who can recognize the need to adapt to the changing landscape of brand loyalty.
A key change will be the need for advertisers to modify their intense focus on the youth market, in order to become more relevant to the rapidly growing mature market. It no longer makes sense to continue to neglect the 50-plus consumer, whose brand loyalty could be up for grabs. And with the average 50-year-old heading toward 29 more years of life, concerns about building long-term brand relationships are becoming increasingly dated; the mature years are the longest life stage a marketer will have with a consumer.
One component that may affect the youth-focus of the advertising industry is the age of the people who work in it. An American Demographics study in 1995 found that the average age of account representatives was 31 from the advertisers side, and 28 on the agency side. Not only are young people attracted to the advertising industry, but aging can become an employment issue at times. Twenty percent of age-discrimination lawsuits filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission originate in the ad industry, even though fewer than one-fifth of 1 percent of the U.S. workforce is employed in that industry.
To help younger employees better understand mature consumers, one Minneapolis agency that specializes in the mature market, the Sandcastle Group, runs workshops for new hires, to teach them how to think "older." Trainees participate in focus groups with a special panel of mature consumers, who critique their work. "Because advertising is a youthful industry, we work hard to get our people to understand the consumer we are targeting," says Kathy Curry, a mature market strategist at the agency. Curry believes that as Boomers swell the mature marketplace, more specialized agencies, or divisions within larger agencies, will spring up, in much the same way that there are an increasing number of agencies catering to the black, Hispanic, and gay and lesbian markets.
Marketers should also note that it is during changes in life stages, such as moving, getting married or divorced, or having kids, that consumers are most receptive to trying a new brand. For example, 40 percent of people who move, also change their brands of toothpaste, according to a study by Moschis. As Boomers have kids, go back to school, and start new careers at ages their parents never did, their receptiveness to new brand experiences is greater than the previous generations.
Customization is another key to winning loyalty, according to Roper's Chehayl, since Boomers want to be viewed as individuals, not as a group. Thus, Levi's offers Boomers, who want to hold onto their youthful love of jeans, the chance to tuck their expanding waistlines into a custom-made pair.
It's important to remember that despite the fact that Boomers are fickle and demanding consumers, they are a highly brand-conscious and brand-aware cohort. "And when a marketer can make an emotional brand connection with them, it's amazing," says Puccio. He points to the Volkswagen Beetle as an example of the long-term affinity for certain brands that can be successfully instilled in Boomers, who devoured the new model "despite being a little long in the tooth to be cramming themselves into such a car."