Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who’s the Fairest of them All?

That’s what the Evil Queen in Snow White wanted to know.

If you asked the same of someone controlling marketing dollars – and you’re over the age of 50 – the answer would not be YOU.

Instead, anyone who qualifies as a “millennial” (aged 18 – 34) seems to be the favorite target customer for companies with marketing and advertising budgets, no matter what they’re selling.

What’s behind the millennial preoccupation? Maybe it’s the lingering theory that if you hook ‘em when they’re young, you’ll have brand loyalty for a really long time. That’s misguided for many reasons – including the average shelf life of most companies, products and services. More importantly, this focus on younger consumers misses the mark given what we know about the purchasing power of baby boomers.

According to a recent AARP study, boomers account for nearly half of all consumer spending, yet only 10% of marketing dollars are aimed at them. NPR’s Ina Jaffe recently highlighted this lopsided approach to spending and demographics. Citing data from research firms like Nielsen, she reported that the trend will only grow: in five years, nearly half of all adults will be over the age of 50 and have 70% of all disposable income. Obviously, not everyone in this category is affluent, but they’ve had more time to earn and may have moved beyond some of life’s biggest expenses such as purchasing a home and paying for college tuition.

This is the “most vibrant market that’s hiding in plain sight,” according to Ken Dychwald, CEO of Age Wave, a San Francisco-based research and consulting firm focused on seniors. They have money, time and interest and make purchases for adult children and grandchildren including cars, vacations and starter homes. Dychwald believes that entering “new life stages” will also require a wide range of products and services. And, he suggests that boomers are less likely to be brand loyal – 20% of them will change religion and 50% change spouses!

As we spend time thinking about which consumers should garner marketing attention and why, a recent New York Times column proclaimed the return of the yuppie. Well, sort of. The term was coined to mark a certain type of conspicuous consumption, but today’s yuppie may be less voraciously acquisitive and more interested in simply keeping what he or she has. This instability has also splintered the group into many different types, or “micro yuppies.” Millennials would probably be yuppies, too, were it not for an uncertain job market and the burden of school loans. For now, their consumer lust is likely to be met by lower-priced items such as tech products, not cars.

Marketers often talk about customers as “aspirational” and use content to reflect a brand lifestyle beyond reach. The irony is that companies may be aspirational when it comes to targeting their marketing dollars because they aim for the customers they wish to have associated with their company or product. When such goals are not realistic, reaching marketing and sales targets become a challenge.

There’s an antidote for this ailment, and it works as preventive medicine, too: set your targets and develop your strategy using solid research and data. Make sure you hire experts and/or consult credible firms to conduct research or access and interpret consumer data. Work with firms experienced with evidence-based marketing strategies that suggest you measure performance and results. Hint: don’t hire firms that appear to have spring up overnight claiming to specialize in the latest must-appeal-to customer category like “diverse, fun, millennial mom.”

Marketing is both art and science. With so many different ways to reach potential customers, it can be confusing to make the right decisions about where to spend your budget. The television and cable networks get this. As part of their recent “up-fronts” (where they secured nearly $73 billion in marketing/advertising dollars), companies were promised new data-driven products to help them move beyond age and gender factors to sell, whether over the airwaves or online or mobile. And yet, after all of this research the most coveted sell-to age category remains 25-40.

Whether your current target audience is millennials, boomers or yuppies, the smartest strategy is to be data-driven. Don’t generalize or exclude. Try micro targeting. Use psychographic data. Don’t ignore consumers over age 50. And measure performance, tweaking your marketing approach as needed. Because as anyone who owns a mirror knows — one size never fits all.


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