Mid-Century Modern – Millennials mesmerized / Boomers bifurcated
Everywhere you look, mid-century style is on trend – high end collectibles to modernist inspired designs to mass affordability from popular furniture and decor chain West Elm to Target, Kohl’s and Best Buy.
It’s not just home furnishings and decor; take vinyl records …
At 13.1 million units, they were up 10% from the previous year (11.9 million); CDs and digital downloads declined by 17% and 20% respectively (Statista / Nielsen).
Annual vinyl LP sales lingered around a million units until Millennial progressives took a new look at retro tech and retro style, discovering a cool parallel universe of Boomer/Gen X audiophiles and mid-century aficionados that never totally went away.
Vinyl records require turntables, and, as with original design themes in the ’50s/60s, mass marketers were quick to seize opportunities.
For $100 Kohl’s offers a ’50s-style portable record player; for $300 BestBuy will move you out of Beach Blanket Bingo territory and into grown-up world.
And at a grand-plus, well-heeled buyers get real wood and metal, a preamp and the authentic mid-century analog setup task of running cables.
With modernist design booming, it’s understandable that over-enthusiastic taste makers claim it unites Millennials (b. 1982-2000) and Boomers (b. 1946-1964) under its hip mid-century umbrella.
Well, yes and no.
By the time most Boomers had settled into adult lives, mid-century style had gone corporate – bank lobbies and slick offices – but said yesterday at home. Mom’s tired ’50s/60s furniture looked anything but modern.
And music tastes had moved on.
The Beatles, acid rock and Motown had aged into the Golden Oldie zone along with the bubble gum music so beloved by younger Boomers.
So long, Archies … bye, bye Sugar, Sugar.
1980s modern was the high-tech music CD, and 70s cassettes rapidly disappeared into attics and garages, to join the vinyl and turntables of yesteryear.
Boomers and advertising: mid-century mythology
Madison Avenue has fixated on targeting youth since the Mad Men, but in 2017 this fifties fad is well past its sell date.
It creates a paradox.
The 110+ million Americans aged 50+ are the mightiest money making machine the marketing world has ever known: as a country, this would be the 3rd largest economy on the planet – only the US itself and China are bigger.
But, bizarrely, mainstream brands spend over 90% of their ad budgets on the 18-49 demo because group-think tells them to.
So, every year, 4 million peak earning Gen Xers disappear from targeting as they turn fifty, replaced by around 4 million struggling, low-income 18-year-olds.
The rationale is that after fifty consumers no longer adapt, are easy to engage, wallow in nostalgia and scare off Millennials, aka the future.
The future of brand profitability resides with Boomers and Gen X and will for a long time.
In 2030, Boomers and Gen Xers age 50+ will number 120 million, up from 88 million today. According to Deloitte, Millennials will own just 16% of US wealth by then, while Boomers and Gen Xers will control almost five times as much (76%).
120 million outcasts – that’s a heck of a lot of fast-disappearing buying power.
Boomers and advertising: the age-agnostic trap
It’s a laudable concept. In principle.
Returning to a mid-century focus, what could be more age-agnostic than products in a modernist setting – no people, just symbols of, you know, shared truths?
But there’s a problem: there is no such thing as age-agnostic perception.
Some shared truths soar, some kinda-sorta work, some polarize and some – per an actual conversation overheard at West Elm on Black Friday – are the kiss of death.
40-Something: Mom, I love this credenza!
60-Something: I can’t stand all that fifties stuff – I had enough of it when I was a kid
Right on, Boomer Mom. Consumers perceive products and brands in the context of life experience, not just in the moment. And by age 50 these perspectives are voluminous, complex and even contradictory.
According to a CBS Research survey, the median age at which Millennials think adulthood starts is 30. Meanwhile, the typical ad agency creative is only aged 28 and the typical Boomer consumer is aged 62.
What could possibly go wrong?
Escaping the age-agnostic trap: trite tweaks won’t work
Is anyone really surprised to learn survey after survey shows consumers over 50 say advertisers are out of step with their priorities?
In 2015, ad agency influent50 found 83% of Boomers feel brands make mistakes when advertising to people their age.
Managing director Dave Austin noted “we’re tired of the idea that if you put a Rolling Stones song on a commercial, you’ll reach the over-50s … it doesn’t work that way.”
Austin’s research also sidelined shop-worn stereotypes, revealing Boomers as highly open (82%) to considering new brands when they go to make a purchase.
Our own 2017 Boomer / neXt survey of Americans age 50-71 found exactly the same: 84% enjoy learning about and trying new brands and products.
Interviewed by The New York Times, Brent Bouchez of Bouchez Page explained why so many brands fail to engage the 50-plus:
“Companies want to reach Boomers, but … with their general advertising message, usually a message created by and for a Millennial target.”
Frankly, we older professionals don’t blame those uber-talented Millennial agency staffers – they have been conditioned by tradition, programmed by precedent, boxed in by bosses.
Fortunately, there is an escape from the age-agnostic trap, but trite tweaks don’t work.
And you can’t Google your way to Boomer World, nor can you master Boomer-speak and Boomer-think with Big Data algorithms.
No pain, no gain.
But, with effort, study and experienced coaches who are themselves residents of Boomer World, conditioning can be reversed and brands re-generated … imagine all that incredible Millennial creativity unleashed and refocused on the world’s 3rd largest economy.