How US Brands Bungle a Huge 3X Brexit Economy

Brexit as a teachable moment for US brand strategists

With a GDP of $2.86 trillion in 2018, the UK has the world’s 5th largest national economy. After January 31st, 2020 at 11:00 pm GMT – midnight in Brussels and Strasbourg where “the Union flag will be lowered overnight, discreetly” (UK Guardian)  – it is up for grabs as, keeping calm and carrying on, Old Blighty officially exits the European Union.

But it’s not as if EU marketers will give up on British consumers – they’ll just hustle harder to win their business.

Meanwhile, on this side of the Atlantic too many brands lack the courage, craft or creativity to compete in a booming economy three times that of the UK – the $8.3 trillion GDP created by Americans aged 50-plus.

It is the world’s 3rd largest economy, some 120 million people who account for 52% of all US consumer spending.

For example, Americans 50+ buy more new vehicles every year than the EU’s top three post-Brexit markets – Germany, France and Italy – combined.

So, why is this vast audience ignored by so many CMOs and ad agencies?

Look no further than weary old Madison Avenue myths.

Madison Avenue’s three most myopic memes

Fixated on the 18-49 demographic, advertising orthodoxy clings to three flimsy memes about consumers in the 50+ space. Allegedly, they are:

  • Easy to reach and easy to engage via conventional media and messaging
  • Set in their ways, reluctant to change and resistant to switching brands
  • Toxic to image because young prospects reject “old people” products

This dated dogma has been kicking around for well over half a century; in fact, apart from vinyl records, it’s about the only thing over 50 that group-think Adland openly embraces.

Sure, it made sense back in the 1950s/60s, when the Mad Men ruled and “we’ve never had it so good” confidence drove consumption. The Boomers’ free-spending parents, the 18-49 demo of the day, made ideal targets versus cautious grandmas and grandpas who spent sparingly, fearful another Great Depression might appear at any moment.

But it’s silly to pretend today’s Boomers and Gen Xers – who adapted decade after decade, driving innovation and invention on every front – become their own grandparents at the stroke of midnight as they turn fifty.

Refuting Myth #1: Easy to engage via conventional media/messaging

In general it’s true that the over 50 audience indexes high for media consumption.

Nielsen reports the median age of live television viewers is 56 and, while adults 18-49 watch around 3 hours of television daily, those over 50 watch about 6.5 hours.

Also, although viewing TV on digital platforms skews to the 18-44 demo, those 45 and over (older Gen X and Boomers) still make up almost half the audience for connected devices (45%) and digital viewing via computer, tablet or smartphone (43%).

However, brands need that extra viewing tonnage to get Boomers and Gen Xers to pay attention – not just recall, but really pay attention – because they’ve been advertised to all their lives. They’ve been there, done that.

And as for “easy” engagement, when not turning off older prospects with cliches and caricatures, advocates of allegedly age-agnostic messaging often forget there is no such thing as age-agnostic perception – see Boomers and the Age-Agnostic Advertising Trap.

Takeaway: consumers 50+ may be easy to expose to advertising – but they far from easy to engage.

And with good reason: Boomer / neXt research  finds 94% say as they have grown older, they have become wiser too.

Refuting Myth #2: Set in their ways, reluctant to switch brands

One word: Tesla.

The most valuable US auto brand delivered its first units in 2008. Barely a dozen years later, at the end of January 2020, its market capitalization is $100 billion – twice that of General Motors and almost three times that of Ford.

Credit venturesome Boomer, Gen X and Silent Generation visionaries who waited all their lives for viable EVs and were eager, not just willing, to adapt.

The median age of Tesla buyers is 54 for the Model S, 52 for the Model X and 46 for the Model 3 (Hodges & Company).

Which means a solid 100,000 of Tesla’s 2019 US sales of 223,200 went to the 50+ consumer space. And every one of those 100,000 vehicles was conquested from another premium auto brand that took their older buyers for granted.

No, Tesla is not a special case.

Boomers and Gen Xers  created the health food movement, got the athleisure wear industry off and running, jumped aboard global travel, deserted Detroit for import brands and brought digital technology across the chasm.

And they haven’t stopped adapting yet. Far from it.

An amazing 86% of consumers in the 54-73 age group tell us they enjoy learning about and trying new brands and products (Boomer / neXt Brand Courtship Study).

OK Boomer, what about “slow” adoption of smartphones?

It bears repeating, the 50-somethings who took Apple and Mac products to the pinnacle of cool are also older and wiser. A gazillion mobile formats had come and gone before the iPhone debuted – each one was the latest and greatest, naturally.

So they held back, confident that between Apple and its competitors, products would only improve.

And they did. Over 90% of Boomers and Xers now own a cellphone, three-quarters of them smart (Pew). And holdouts get to enjoy cameras, Internet, email and even Bluetooth on a flip phone budget.

Clearly, adaptation runs deep in the world’s 3rd largest economy: brands that fail to access its hidden histories and socio-cultural dynamics end up as followers, not leaders.

Refuting Myth #3: Toxic to brand image

Don’t misunderstand, we’re not singling out marketing Millennials for short-sighted targeting strategies – advertisers have been embarrassed by “old people” for a long time.

Back in 1988 the 30 year old Boomers who then populated creative departments were only too happy to diss their dads and ruin an iconic brand with the incredibly clumsy “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile” campaign.

Though the goal was to arrest a sales slide triggered by previous missteps, registrations fell from 715,000 in 1988 to just 403,000 five years later.

It seems old fogey loyalists didn’t react well to being insulted, and Boomers out beyond Adland’s self-centered matrix rolled their eyes at the condescension. Product, not posturing ruled.

Nevertheless, like Myths #1 and #2, the idea that targeting the over 50 and worse – ugh! – featuring them in ads scares off young prospects is, well, just a myth. In reality, the toxicity problem lays with marketing industry culture: the challenge of advertising to “old people” is more scary to marketers than to young buyers.

  • Of the almost 300 occupations surveyed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only hotels and restaurants have younger workers than the advertising and PR field (39 years of age). Fewer than 10% are over 50; the average ad agency creative person is only 28.
  • With a horrendous 80% attrition rate between 40 and 49, the pressure on marketing’s 40-somethings to go along with risk-free conventional wisdom is overwhelming.
  • Sadly, just as their life experience aligns with that of the world’s 3rd largest economy, almost all of marketing’s most valuable employees have already been shown the door.

Add the findings from a 2018 poll that found 51% of Millennials say Baby Boomers made things worse for their generation versus better (13%), and the likelihood of empathy plummets.

Is it any wonder that so many clumsy, under-informed strategies and executions result from this devastating congruence of negative forces?

Brexit times three demands smarter, more sensitive attitudes

Brands cannot Google or Big Data their way into Boomer/Gen X world; no matter how sophisticated the metrics, at some point they must persuasively engage its inhabitants. And to do that, they must learn the hidden, socio-cultural imprinting that created the silent symbolic language still driving brand destinies.

Boomer / neXt seminars and workshops teach these skills and train brands to regenerate in the 50+ consumer space; at $8.3 trillion, triple the size of the Brexit economy, the dividends are enormous. Contact us for information.

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