Senior shoppers are the new brand battlefields as loyalties fray during COVID
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.
Seniors get trendy, crave authenticity
Older consumers are also beginning to tap into trends that marketers had formerly associated with younger generations, including millennials. AnneMarie Evans, president and founder of Global Mosaic, which works with brands on generational issues, says that seniors are still driven by loyalty, but that loyalty is changing as they pay more attention to issues including environmentalism and conservation, particularly during this crisis-fraught year. Previously, seniors paid more attention to price and familiarity, but now they are looking into “conscious capitalism.”
“COVID is making boomers much more conscious of the impact of their purchases,” says Evans. “They’re now picking something from the shelf and looking at it with new eyes—how does it affect my health, how does it affect the wellness of employees, of the planet?”
Hoffar in Cincinnati says she is now trying to support her local businesses more, while she may have previously shopped at larger chains and big-box retailers. She’s now a regular at her local farmers market, for example.
“I’ve become much more aware of small acts. Choosing the small deli or local coffee shop over the national chain is a way of supporting my community,” she says.
Experts advise that brands address these changes with messaging that is more authentic—and less ridiculous. A worst-case example: The old Cialis ad that shows two seniors in side-by-side bathtubs, enjoying a sunset outside.
“Communication for this category is very idyllic and honorific,” says Han. “The opportunity for brands is to be a bit more real.”
Locking in repeat purchases
With more seniors shopping online, experts say brands can improve their digital experiences and make sure they are ready to seize on signs of demand from potential new customers. With groceries, many consumers, including seniors, are more inclined to order a second time if their previous order is already ready and waiting—marketers just need to make sure they attract customers for that first order and then they can easily lock in repeat purchases. The same is true for prescription medications, says Profitero’s Anderson.
“You might start to see more and more of this evolving the experience to make it easier and better, much more intuitive for this population,” he says.
To attract interest and purchases online, brands should be watching the stock rates of their competitors closely and have ads and personalized messages ready, he advises. Should a rival product be out of stock, for example, a razor brand could introduce messaging to a consumer to try its product instead.
“A lot of brands that may not have been investing in trying to conquest the loyalists of their competitors may not have been trying to target seniors,” says Anderson. “You may have had seniors that don’t buy the category and haven’t been buying the category, but you may be able to detect signals of demand now in this very different, very weird context.”
Some brands have already recognized the opportunities. Several vitamin makers have boosted their marketing and are using messaging and offers that tap into some of the current concerns of senior citizens, for example. Probiotics brand Culturelle recently released an immunity-focused campaign. Delivery service Pillpack caters directly to seniors with easy delivery.
AARP reports that its advertisers are seeing “record-high engagement.” Mark Bradbury, senior director of insights and marketing at AARP Media Solutions says AARP.org ad engagement is up 144% for finance ads, 102% for retail ads and 76% for travel ads.
“During COVID-19 and even relative to the past five or 10 years, we’ve observed steady, increasing interest in marketing to the 50+ demographic,” says Bradbury.
Facebook courts boomers
Digital platforms are also homing in on older customers. In its holiday marketing pitch deck to advertisers, Facebook recently included multiple slides on seniors. One slide shows two seniors enjoying an Oculus VR headset under text that reads, “The desire to stay connected is changing behavior rapidly.” Another slide reads “Gen X and Boomers dominate mobile and ecommerce growth,” and includes strategies for brands to reach such “new-to-digital explorers.”
One of them is Ann Duffy, a 65-year-old former advertising executive currently living in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Like Hoffar, Duffy has changed many of her habits during the pandemic when items were out of stock.
“That’s been one mini positive for some of us, it’s forced us out of those cages. We have to be open to new things,” she says, noting that she has become much more flexible when it comes to using digital tools. Duffy points out that social media has a chance of influencing her if brands use it the right way. “For my age bracket, if you can break through on social media … that that’s an opportunity for my generation.”
Many startups are beginning to cater to seniors as well. This includes companies primarily focused on health and wellness, including menopause. Newly launched brands are also trying to disrupt the long-stable funeral business, including Ever Loved, a company started by a former Google employee which offers a direct-to-consumer model for burial merchandise; and Solace, a cremation services product founded by two former Nike staffers.
Wearable wellness devices
In July, CB Insights published a report tracking the growing focus on how wearable devices can improve senior care and wellness. “COVID-19 has brought even more attention to how technology can aid seniors aging in place, as people around the world comply with stay-at-home orders and practice social distancing,” the report read. It cited new features geared to seniors for devices including the Apple Watch and Fitbit as well as new startups including Japanese-based Triple W, which helps consumers track bladder fullness.
“New companies are targeting this group, and you can’t deny the spending power of it,” says Duda, adding that adult children are now living with their parents and also playing a role in influencing purchasing decisions for seniors.
Experts expect to see more startups that focus on smart homes and home security as older consumers begin to shy away from nursing homes. Such assisted living facilities became hot spots for coronavirus outbreaks, and experts expect that consumers may shy away from such centers in the future. To that end, more seniors will live on their own and need more assistive technology or move in with younger children to create multigenerational households.
“We’re starting to see demand for things to improve the home life or experience for seniors,” says Anderson. “Maybe that’s because they’re already in a multigenerational household or because the expectation is there’s going to be a big uptick in multigenerational households inclusive of seniors over the next few quarters as more people try to get loved ones out of assisted living.”
Age of Majority’s Weiss agrees that smart tech for seniors is a growing area of focus for brands, noting safety as a big concern and growth opportunity. However, he says that categories like footwear and electronics represent other areas of potential for senior dollars.
Some seniors say they are ready to spend and embrace the attention that marketers could be giving them.
“Some of us are in the more-free consumer era of our lives, so speak to us,” says Hoffar. “Educate me, influence me."