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  Engaging the Aging: Marketing to Europe's Seniors   Engaging the Aging: Marketing to Europe's Seniors  Emilie Boyer King  
Engaging the Aging: Marketing to Europe's Seniors A recent French billboard from, Europe's largest on-line travel booking service, features a grinning caricature of an older woman with large unfashionable sunglasses in a bikini, over which is splashed the caption “Stay fresh this summer.” Her husband, we assume, is the man with the oversized belly in the background. Is this meant to tempt our grandparents into a delirious last-minute holiday? Is it selling the idea that vacations are a laugh? And how about the slogan “heat wave 2004” on the top corner? Questionable taste after 15,000 old people died in France last year in a freak summer heat wave.
The commercial, according to's managing director in France, Pierre Paperon, was initially aimed at seniors, but was then extended to a much wider audience. "I got the idea from my grandmother who loves to travel, but it's for anyone really," he explains. The advertisement doesn't really work for anyone it seems, but its confusing message underlies a growing phenomenon in Europe. As the old continent's population ages, companies, which until now have largely ignored the over-50 consumer market, are starting to take notice. However, when brand owners like try to target this clientele—often for the first time—the message is often confusing and inappropriate.

Europe's population is aging. Consumers aged 55 and over will grow by 60 percent in the next 15 years, whereas the under-50 age group will remain stable. Unless they are in the business of selling retirement homes or hearing aids, companies have turned a blind eye to this graying market. While these “seniors” are more active and spendthrift than ever before, 86 percent feel that advertising isn't aimed at them. This isn't a mere feeling, it's fact: according to a report published in the Economist magazine in 2002, companies still spend over 95 percent of their marketing and advertising budgets on the under-50 age groups.

"Marketing for seniors is definitely behind the European age pyramid," says Frédéric Serrière, head of Senior Strategic consultancy and author of several books on marketing for seniors. "There is a growing awareness that this market is important, but people don't think they have to look into it now. It's going to take some time."

So why are companies not taking greater notice of this valuable market? Our youth-obsessed society doesn't help. Much as most people don't want to grow old, older people are not considered to be very exciting. The marketing and advertising industries are often dominated by young people who are not interested or focused on their parent's generation.

"We are in a society where there is strong preference for young people," writes Jean Paul Tréguer, founder of Senior Agency, an advertising consultancy for seniors, on his company's website. "Large worldwide corporations like Coca-Cola, Walt Disney, Sony and Nike were born in the 20th century, and they contributed to define the core target for advertising as 15- to 35- year-olds. Today, people in marketing, advertising and television still address the youngest consumer possible to build up loyalty. But this method ignores the fact that consumers age and one day they become completely out of phase with this style of product or its communication. While continually following this formula, the marketing people, agencies, and TV channels go to who they see as the easiest target and ignore the rapidly aging population."

On top of this, many brands do not want to be associated with strictly senior products. "If an advert is geared towards a senior market exclusively, it often harms the product," says Senior Strategic’s Serrière, explaining that a brand may not want to advertise in a magazine geared exclusively to seniors for fear of being associated with “old people” brands, which may damage their image. "These brands don't want to be linked to other 'senior' products," he adds.

But another reason is the complexity of the market itself. The over 50 group are a motley crew with different needs and desires. Getting the right message across to this relatively new target market is not an easy task.

"The image of the character sitting by the fire with a blanket on his or her knees is completely gone," says Mike Hayward, direct marketing manager of UK insurance company, Cornhill Direct. "These people have a reasonable amount of money, they are out all the time, having maybe two to four holidays a year. You have to try to use imagery that shows maturity but also an active lifestyle. In a lot of adverts you'll see a happy older couple on a cruise ship for example. But many are actually single, either through death or divorce these days. It's not easy to get the right balance."

So why should brands bother?

Improved health and hygiene mean that retirees can expect to live a much longer and fuller life than ever before, once they stop working. In the 1900s in Europe, the average life expectancy was 49 years, whereas in 1990, a 50-year-old could expect to live for at least another 24 years. Most of these retirees now want to make the most of their hard-earned retirement. The baby-boomers—the generation born after the Second World War—are particularly active and self-indulgent consumers. They live in relative financial comfort, and have the time and will to spend their money.

Seniors are choosy consumers. They are wiser, more rational and less influenced by fashion and trends. They also have time on their hands. If targeted in the right way, seniors can become very loyal and generous customers.

But how can brands effectively target this senior market?

"The key elements are to keep message direct," advises Hayward. "The over-50s are experienced consumers, so they don't want to read flowery language. You also need to give them a lot of information. Seniors have a lot of time on their hands and so you must be prepared for answering many more detailed questions than you would for 20-year-olds."

Serrière believes that attracting the over 50's requires not only adapting the advertising message, but a long-term strategy. "You need a global vision," he explains. "There is no point for example, for a telephone company to create a new product for seniors if it doesn't train a person to look after them. To be successful in this market, you need to think not only about marketing but also training staff, proper communication, perhaps setting up a hotline and also values. A lot of companies thinks that is a lot to think about!"

But some brands are tuning into the senior market. France counted 146 commercials aimed at seniors in the media in 2002, a comparatively small number compared to the total number of commercials, but a significant increase from previous years. included the senior category in their marketing strategy in France for the first time in January. Danone, French food and beverage multinational, is currently targeting seniors with its “immunity boosting” yogurt drink, Actimel. In 2001, cosmetics giant L'Oréal recruited Catherine Deneuve, the 61-year-old film star, to be the face of a hair-treatment product.

And it looks like perceptions of the over-50s in the media might be changing too. Christa Höhs, founder and director of a modeling agency for older men and women in Munich has seen her business literally take off over the last few years. Created in 1994, Senior Models has opened branches in Berlin and Spain, and is looking to expand into Italy next year.

"At the beginning, we started with pharmacy-clients mostly," explains Christa Höhs, an energetic 62-year-old and former senior model who began her modeling career in her 50s. "But over the years we got more and more insurance, cars and bank companies as clients. Today there is no branch we do not service—except fashion! But we started getting interest for fashion-models this year for the first time."

Seniors may never make it to the front pages of mainstream women's magazines, but estimates suggests that by 2015, the over-50s will account for between 50 to 60 percent of all incomes. Unless companies put serious thought into targeting these consumers, they could find themselves losing out as Europe's seniors come of age.    



Emilie Boyer King is a freelance journalist specializing in French topics for major dailies and magazines around the world. She lives in Paris where she previously worked for BusinessWeek, Bloomberg News and the International Herald Tribune.

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