Before the pandemic, Mary Lou Hoffar was a loyal buyer of Puffs tissues. The 77-year-old retired teacher would also eat out often, enjoying upward of a dozen meals a week at restaurants. And she rarely read the labels of the food items in her pantry. Now, amid the COVID-19-era, all of those habits have changed.
“I found that I don’t need my Puffs anymore—the store brand is just fine,” says Hoffar, a Cincinnati resident, who switched tissue brands after Puffs were repeatedly out of stock. Previously, her allegiance to certain labels had lasted decades.
“When you have been a mother—the head of the household for 50 years—you have a lot of brand loyalty going on,” Hoffar says. “But with the time that we’re in of COVID, there’s no reason to not explore things. We’re forced to try them. As a result, that exposure has changed some of my buying.”
Marketers, meet your new opportunity—and your new risk. Older consumers age 55 and up, previously known for being intensely brand loyal, are now in play. And they offer new revenue opportunities for marketers who can win them over while forcing incumbent brands to do more to hold onto what they have.
Coronavirus forced many shoppers to shift buying habits, moving from in-person grocery shopping to online ordering, and they are trying new products as more of their favorite goods are out of stock. This is particularly true of seniors, a demographic that marketers have tended to target less, believing they were intensely brand loyal and unwilling to consider new options.
But attitudes and behavior are shifting. From July 20 to Aug. 30, online sales to boomers and senior-aged shoppers rose 48% each week compared with the year-earlier period, according to data from consumer research firm Numerator, which found that in-person sales at big-box stores declined each week during the period for the same segment. As they move online, these older buyers are exposed to more choices and information, prompting them to try new things, experts say.
They are becoming “more fluent with technology,” says Tom Han, head of integrated planning at BBDO NY, which recently won creative duties for AARP. “People who are slightly older had been slower,” he adds, but now they are catching up.
COVID is a new ‘life event’
The potential of attracting a new customer is usually built around life events, like having a baby, buying a house or getting married, experts say, and marketers plan accordingly. However, changes in consumer behavior as a result of COVID-19 essentially represents such an event and, if brands act correctly, they can gain market share, says Keith Anderson, senior VP of strategy at e-commerce analytics platform Profitero.
“I don’t know that anybody predicted the timing of what we’re going through, but it certainly creates opportunities,” he says, especially “for that segment of the population that maybe historically has been unwilling or uninterested in trying e-commerce.”
However, the 50-plus segment of shoppers hasn’t typically been a sought-after customer for marketers, despite the group’s ownership of 71% of the nation’s wealth, according to AARP—which estimates that only 10% of marketing dollars target this segment. The reasons for the disconnect are various. In the past, brands were afraid that if they included older customers in their marketing imagery and messaging, they would risk alienating younger customers who might perceive their products to be uncool and for their grandmother, for example. A 2019 AARP report found that only 15% of media images portray adults 50-plus.
“We call it FOMO—for us, it’s ‘fear of marketing older,’’ says Jeff Weiss, CEO of Age of Majority, a 3-year-old consultancy that helps brands target seniors. “People are more afraid of getting old than they are of dying, and a lot of [brands] don’t want to market to older people because it makes them think about getting older.”
Yet now, marketers are more savvy with the tools that allow them to target by demographic.
“Brands can be more sophisticated with marketing these days,” says Mike Duda, managing partner at Bullish, which has worked with retailers including GNC on attracting different ages of consumers. “We’re going to see more stuff aimed at how you’re defining an older consumer because you can slice and dice this stuff.”
Of course, this means brands that had formerly depended on seniors might be at risk of losing such loyalists, and should reconsider their marketing strategies to keep such customers. Today’s empowered customers have lots of options, according to Han.
“No brand should take their customers, young or old, for granted, or mistake apathy for loyalty,” he says, noting that successful brands will provide services and experiences of value.