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How to appeal to the grey market

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The baby boomers are getting old. Jimmy Page is a baby boomer as is Mick Jagger. At 66 and 67 respectively, they both qualify for a free bus pass and the winter fuel allowance. That led me to wonder what they make of those depressing ads you find at the back of newspaper supplements – the ones for stair lifts, trousers with elasticated waists, walk-in baths and ugly shoes that look like the Clarks sandals my mother made me wear at wear to primary school, all clearly targeted at what marketers euphemistically call the “grey” or “mature” market.

There are now more people over 60 in the UK than under 14. With mortgages paid off and children who have finally flown the nest, their spending power is considerable. Of course, not all are affluent and, with pension provision looking increasingly shaky, the outlook for generation X that succeeds the baby boomers is considerably less rosy (while generation Y can probably forget about retirement altogether). But, for the moment, there are still a significant numbers of retirees with money to spend on high-ticket items such as holidays, cars and, ultimately, stair lifts.

The surprise, then, is that most campaigns aimed at the over-60s are horrendous. With few exceptions, they fall into one of two categories: the cliché ads that are intended to be aspirational and feature a handsome silver-haired couple in tailored leisurewear, standing in front of a vintage car; or the drab, copy-heavy ads about stair lifts and elasticated trousers, which are the antithesis of what any of us might aspire to.   

I’m not for one minute suggesting that anyone looks forward to the time when they will need a stair lift but surely the marketing profession can do better? In fact, it has to do better. While my parents’ generation, who are now in their eighties, are remarkably tolerant and undemanding, the same cannot be said of the baby boomers who are used to not only to getting what they want, but to being made to feel good in the process.

So how can we up our game? Here are a few thoughts:

First, don’t assume that everyone over 60 has had an aesthetic bypass. Good design is important. If you don’t believe me, have a look at the Trekinetic wheelchair invented by Mike Spindle and currently featured in an exhibition of 21st-century inventions at the British Library. Let’s face it, it’s cool. And yet who would have thought the word “wheelchair” and “cool” could sit comfortably together?

Second, as in all markets, it’s important to talk to the people you are selling to and avoid defaulting to stereotypes and clichés about what you think they are like. One advantage of everyone having to work longer is that there will be more people over 50 and 60 in marketing and advertising – disciplines that have traditionally been the preserve of the under-40s.

Thirdly, and most importantly, remember that you don’t collect a new personality with your bus pass. The grey market is essentially us with a few more wrinkles. If you think an ad is rubbish now, you will probably still think it is rubbish when you are 60, 70 or even 80.

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Frances Brindle is the British Library’s director of strategic marketing and communications. The British Library Business & IP Centre (BIPC) hosts events and workshops to help SMEs and growth businesses, focusing on e-marketing and growing your business on a shoe-string. The BIPC advises thousands of budding entrepreneurs on how to protect their ideas and nurture their brands. For more information, visit www.bl.uk/bipc

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