Our Understanding of the Baby Boomer Consumer
Mark Twain wrote, “The problem isn’t the things that we don’t know; it’s the things we ‘know’ that ain’t so.” His comment is simply a reflection of a common-sense reality. Today, marketing and selling draw on a lot of things “we ‘know’ that ain’t so.”
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For instance: Marketers once “knew” (and many still do) that people 50 and older rarely change brands. Everybody “knew” that once consumers settled in on a brand or a company, they became more resistant to switching to another brand or business as they got older. Research shows that to be wrong. We also learned that consumer behavior is pertinent to the subtleties of marketing, advertising, and sales practices. Here is some of what we’ve learned:
- As we age, our individualism increases - Baby Boomers are less subject to peer influence than are younger consumers. Marketing Implication: Keeping up with the Joneses is not as important as it once was; thus, advertising that invokes social status benefits does not play as well in Baby Boomer markets as it does in younger ones. Largely freed from worrying about reactions of others, Baby Boomers tend toward greater practicality in buying decisions than younger consumers.
- We develop an Increased demand for facts - Baby Boomers tend to be less responsive to sweeping claims in marketing messages as they age. Marketing Implication: Hyperbole turns them off. If Baby Boomers are interested in considering a purchase, they want unadorned facts. Years of buying equip them with knowledge of what to look for and what information they need for an intelligent purchase. However, they often don’t get to the point of asking for facts until a product has emotionally intrigued them.
- Our response to emotional stimuli increases - Baby Boomers tend to be quicker than younger consumers to reflect a lack of interest in or negative reaction to an offered product that doesn’t make an emotional connection. Marketing Implication: Such “first impressions” are more likely to be permanent than among younger people, who are more apt to give a marketer a second chance. On the other hand, you can embed a positive first impression especially deep in the emotions of the Baby Boomer — so much so that he or she is often more disposed to be a loyal customer than the younger consumer.
- We become less self-oriented, more altruistic - Baby Boomers tend to show increased response to marketing appeals reflecting altruistic values. Marketing Implication: This tracks with shared middle-age shifts toward stronger spiritual values in which concern for others increases. As their altruistic motivations grow and become more powerful, narcissistic and materialistic values wane in influence. Marketers to Baby Boomers must rethink their traditional egocentric appeals in marketing communications.
- As we age, we spend more time in making purchase decisions - People experience changes in their perceptions of time, and also the meaning and role of time in their lives as they grow older. Marketing Implication: For example, Baby Boomers often ignore time-urgency strategies in marketing — such as: “Offer good until —,” “Only three left in stock.” Generally, “time is not of the essence” is a common attitude among Baby Boomers, especially those who have retired.
- We often project what seems to be contradictory behavior - Sometimes we characterize Baby Boomers as selfish and selfless, penurious and profligate, spontaneous and deliberate, and so on. These different attributes lead some to describe Baby Boomers as contradictory — or at least, confusing in their behavior. Marketing Implication: Baby Boomers are not different in their conduct; they are sensitive to the context in their behavior. For example, a Baby Boomer may use coupons in a grocery store, after which she drives off in a Mercedes.
This activity is not evidence of conflicting behavior, but an example of the rules of thriftiness applied to basics, and the rules of full value applied to discretionary expenditures. In the first case, the price is the common denominator in consumers’ interest, in the second, there is no common denominator because each person calculates the whole value in a unique manner.
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How the human brain processes information and consumer behavior is very relevant to the dynamics of marketing practices.
Here's what we've learned:
- There are material differences between males and females in the architecture and functioning of their brains - This difference often leads to different responses to the same experiences. Women make greater use of right-brain functions in thinking processes, making them more subject to emotional arousal than males. However, research indicates that in later life, the gap between men and women in emotional sensitivity narrows. Men become more sensitive and depend on emotional reads of a situation to determine if it warrants further attention. Marketing Implication: Logic in product messages works better with males than females. However, this doesn’t mean qualitative differences in accuracy of perceptions because women make more efficient use of intuition, a right brain, and emotionally based function. However, once a woman experiences a favorable insight, she may become as rational in further processing a matter as a male. It’s just that her right brain is a more formidable gatekeeper to the left-brain than male brains are.
- Our motivations do not originate in the conscious mind. - The conscious mind is the executive officer that, like a corporate CEO, makes decisions on needs that have been framed at lower levels. Neurologist Richard Restak states in The Brain Has a Mind of Its Own, “We have reason to doubt that full awareness of our motives may be possible.” Adds brain researcher Bernard Baars in In the Theater of the Brain, “Our inability to report intentions and expectations just reflect the fact that they are not qualitatively conscious.” Marketing Implication: Answers consumers give researchers about their motivations are often incomplete or off the mark just because people can only speculate about their motives at deepest levels of the psyche. Creators of product messages need to become more intimately familiar, than is typical, with the “hidden drivers” of consumers’ behavior that consumers, about which they have little explicit knowledge. These drivers tend to be stage-of-life specific. For example, young people have stronger outer-directed motivations relating to social status than older people. Older people’s motivations tend to be qualitatively more experiential and less materialistic than younger people’s motivations.
- We use different brain sites and mental processes in answering researchers’ hypothetical questions than they use in real life situations - Research respondents tend to draw more heavily on the objective sequential reasoning of the left-brain than on the subjective emotional right brain in answering researchers’ questions. This left-brain bias is reversed in reacting to product messages and making buying decisions. Marketing Implication: We can improve research results by techniques that are more useful in defining consumers’ implicit testimonies that have not been distorted by undue influence from left-brain processing. The recent trend toward studying consumers in their natural living and shopping environments is justified by the finding that people process hypothetical information differently than they do real life information. Researchers need to make more use of indirect techniques to get behind the curtains of consciousness.
- Brain development is lifelong, and how we mentally process information changes from one decade of life to the next - This finding alters how people view and connect with the external world (worldview). Language style preferences also change over time. For example, youth and young adults have a more aggressive language style than older people. Marketing Implication: Product messages will be more efficient and effective when expressed in the stage-of-life language style of the core market to which you primarily address the message.
- Adolescent brains are significantly inferior to adult brains in reading facial expressions - The older people are, the more skilled they are at reading facial expressions. Marketing Implication: Product messages depicting people should reflect awareness the core audience’s ability to read facial expressions. For instance, older people’s greater sensitivity to facial expressions means that facial expressions should bear an authentic connection to the product and product message in Baby Boomer and older markets. Younger consumers will typically be more concerned with what people are doing than with what their faces are saying.
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We believe we can roughly divide Baby Boomer behavior perspectives into two approaches. The first emphasizes the objectivity of science and that the customer is considered a rational decision maker. In contrast, the subjective or emotional approach stresses the customer’s individual experience and the idea that Baby Boomer behavior is subject to multiple interpretations rather than one explanation only.
- When making discretionary-purchase decisions, Baby Boomers tend to have: 1) A decreased sensitivity to price; 2) Increased sensitivity to affordability; 3) Sharply increased sensitivity to value. Marketing Implication: Older consumers have more sophisticated ways of determining value than younger consumers. Value determination by older consumers tends to be an existentialist exercise whereby they combine soul (spiritual) values as well as mind (intellect) and body (tangible) values into the value determination process. Not only does an item purchased symbolize some aspect of the consumer’s being, but the entire purchase experience can also be a projection of the consumer’s whole being. For example, a person with a passionate concern for the homeless may more likely buy a product from a company with a program benefiting the homeless. To that consumer, the product has a high Meta values index, which is, an element of value unrelated to the product performance.
- As we approach midlife (40+), we increasingly draw on right brain functions -They begin relying less on left-brain sequential and rational reasoning and more on emotions — a.k.a. “gut feelings” or intuition. Marketing Implication: Product messages for Baby Boomers should have more affect (emotional toning) than product messages for younger people. Younger people tend to have a stronger reasoning bias. Thus product messages generally should implicitly or explicitly promote concrete reasons for purchase.
- Information entering the brain’s cortex (outer layers) is first processed mostly in the right brain - The right brain processes information as sensory images rather than as words and numbers. The left-brain focuses on figures and words. Marketing Implication: Product messages should be rich in sensory stimuli to increase customer attention. Even though the right brain can’t process words, words can create sensory images, as every storyteller knows. The older a market, the more important it is to present a product in story form.
- Emotion, not reason, is the final arbiter in decision-making. - Initial responses to information entering the brain are visceral. Changes in body states (e.g., pulse, hormonal flow, saliva flow, body temperature, etc.) generate emotions. When a matter fails to create emotions, a person will not take action on it. (Brain patients who have lost their emotional abilities while retaining full powers of comprehension and reasoning cannot make advantageous decisions in which they have a personal stake in the outcome.) Marketing Implication: A cardinal rule for developing effective product messages is go with the grain of the brain or “Lead with the right; follow with the left.” The only way to get into a person’s conscious mind is via the right brain. Again, the use of sensory images is a key to getting into the right brain.
- Gender tends to predispose responses to voice-overs in broadcast advertising - For example, research tells us that male voices are more knowledgeable when describing technical attributes of a product, while female voices are more knowledgeable when describing a product with references to love, relationships, and caring. Marketing Implication: Choose the voice to match the content and delivery style of a product message.
- Pictures of people in motion arouse the brain more quickly than posed pictures. Marketing Implication: Avoid posed pictures like the plague. Motion conveys vitality. Posed pictures convey lifelessness. We should mostly avoid posed pictures in marketing to Baby Boomers, although when they do market to them, marketers commonly use posed photos.
- Our sensitivity to price in nondiscretionary spending typically increases - As they age, many consumers develop higher economic “literacy” and skillfully apply it to get the best price — an objective not to be confused with “getting the best value.” Marketing Implication: Bargains primarily reflect cost factors while implicit in the term “value” are all attributes of the product, the purchase experience, and the expected ownership experience. In purchasing “need” items, older consumers tend to be more bargain-minded, whereas in purchasing “desire” items, they tend to be more value-minded in a holistic sense.
Research has shown that customers' final decisions are not the direct product of the reasoning process; in fact, emotions drive Baby Boomers in their purchase decisions. The reasoning process will confirm their decision, but it doesn't start there.
Your messages should resonate with the values and motivators of Baby Boomers. Although we all have core defining attributes and motivators that drive us, we manifest them differently as we move through the spring, summer, fall and winter of life. Selling to Baby Boomers is different primarily because of this shift in the manifestation of human values. Our need for autonomy, relationships, purpose, gaining knowledge/growth, rejuvenation and recreation are always with us. However, as we age, we manifest our values differently.
- Each experience we have prompts the brain to create clusters of neurons (brain cells) with predisposed responses to new but similar experiences. - As the population of these dispositional clusters or Defining Attributes increases, a person becomes more habituated and reflexive in his or her responses. This activity decreases sensitivity to external influences, like advertising, making a person more autonomous. Marketing Implication: Defining Attributes are the marketer’s equivalent of “hot buttons.” The older we are, the more hot buttons we have. This change is good news and bad news for marketers. First the bad news: It’s harder to change people’s patterns after the early adult years. Now, the good news: When a marketer hits a consumer’s hot buttons, the deal is almost done. The challenge is learning what those hot buttons are. Fortunately, there is remarkable consistency in the general nature of hot buttons among people in the same season of life. Knowledge of the Defining Attributes of consumers in the fall and winter of life will guide you to connect with their hot buttons.
- The initial determination of information relevance occurs unconsciously. - When a person sees an ad or a TV spot, the right brain initially determines if it has personal significance. The subsequent reasoning processes of the left-brain-only go to work on the ad after it has reached consciousness. The right brain conducts a process called information triage to reduce data flow to levels the conscious mind, with limited working memory (RAM) can handle. The primary criterion is relevance to a person’s interests. Marketing Implication: Imagine having a conversation in your office or at a social gathering when you hear your name come up in another conversation not far from you. Your brain was hearing the other conversation all along, but only when you heard your name did it see fit to alert your conscious mind to the other conversation. That’s what information triage is all about. Creating product messages that survive information triage is the biggest challenge in marketing. It has become fashionable to complain about advertising clutter. However, the clutter problem is in the brain, not on a television screen or in a magazine. When a message has relevance to a person’s interest, the right brain will take note. When we talk about having a “double take,” we acknowledge the right brain’s ability to pick up in a nanosecond something that has relevance to our interests.
Some Final Thoughts
The differences in consumer motivations and decision processes between consumers in the first and second half of life perplex many marketers who have yet to figure out how to market to older customers. The young are easier to analyze and sell. Now, with adults over the age of 45 in the majority, marketers are being compelled to figure out their values and behavior.
We’ve learned that it’s about new rules, new mindsets, and new processes. In short, it is a new, authentically customer-centric paradigm. New models challenge the mind because the mind has a natural bias toward preserving the old ways; even when old ways cease working as they once did. But when pain caused by an old paradigm’s breakdown exceeds peoples’ threshold of tolerance, they begin warming to new alternatives.
Finally, we’ve learned that today’s marketplace is unlike any before faced before. Most of its adult members are in the years when the influences of what Maslow called self-actualization begin to show up in behavior. Until the growth of 50+ customers, these forces had a little noticeable impact on the marketplace at-large. Now, however, such attributes of self-actualization oriented behavior are widely evidenced in your markets:
- Perceptions – more conditional, less absolutist (shades of gray vs. black and white). Experiential Segmentation/Conditional Positioning approaches are effective in branding
- Relationships– more autonomous, less dependent on sources (such as advertising) in making decisions. Honesty and authenticity leading to trust are essential.
- Social behavior – more individuated, less subject to “herd behavior,” less easy to pigeonhole into segments
- Decision making – more emotional (as in “gut feelings” or intuition), less “rational” in decision processes.
COMMENTARY: Information on marketing to Millennials can be found virtually anywhere these days, but what about Baby Boomers? Once a prime focus of marketers’ advertising strategies, Boomers are now being overshadowed by the newer, younger, and more technologically-savvy generations like Millennials and Gen Zers. In fact, according to Nielsen, less than five percent of advertising budgets are put toward Baby Boomers nowadays. Yes, this audience may be older, but they’re also massive in size and have significant spending power, which means you shouldn’t count the Boomers out of your media plans just yet. Born between 1946 and 1964, this generation (comprised of Americans ages 50 and older) account for nearly a quarter of the total U.S. population, with 76.4 million currently existing in the United States. That’s a lot of Boomers – and potential benefit for your brand.
But that’s not the only reason why you should put Baby Boomers at the top of your media plans. They’re also:
- Have substantial buying power
- Spend a good portion of their time online
In fact, digital marketing firm, Immersion Active, reports that Boomers have an annual disposable income of $2.4 trillion (or 70 percent of the nation’s disposable income) and account for $230 billion in sales of consumer packaged goods like coffee, diet soda and magazines (Nielsen). Additionally, Baby Boomers are becoming increasingly tech and internet savvy. Surprisingly, younger Boomers (ages 47 to 55) spent an average of 39.3 hours online per month in 2010, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Older Boomers (ages 56 to 65) averaged only slightly less, at 36.5 hours. More significantly, over one-third of all tablet owners in the U.S. are over the age of 45, while 66 percent regularly purchase from online retailers. For marketers, this means the Baby Boomer market is very lucrative – increasing sales or gaining share with the right set of tactics.
That being said, marketing to this older and more brand loyal generation can be tricky. Getting to know and understand what drives their attitudes and behavior is the first step toward efficiently reaching and targeting them. Here is some insight to help get you started:
BOOMERS USE SOCIAL MEDIA, BUT IN A DIFFERENT WAY
Despite stereotypes, Baby Boomers aren’t living in the Stone Age when it comes to social media. Yes, the average age of a user may be young, but a large percentage of social media profiles belong to people over the age of 55 – 27 million active users to be exact! (Immersion Active). In fact, Boomers are among the fastest growing groups on social media. Younger generations prefer Instagram or Snapchat to post photos of their nights out and weekend trips, whereas Boomers are more likely to use Facebook to engage with family and friends. Other common activities Boomers partake in on social sites include following groups/organizations (55 percent), posting/watching videos (40 percent), supporting causes (26 percent), and joining groups (23 percent). Diving even deeper into the numbers, Boomers strongly prefer Facebook over Twitter: 49 percent of online Boomers have a Facebook account, while only 18 percent use Twitter. As older Boomers become less active and moveable, social media is the ideal way for them to keep in touch with family and friends. This means that developing the right social marketing strategy is crucial if you want to reach Boomers during the moments that matter to them.
OFFER REAL, RELEVANT, AND RELATABLE CONTENT
Here’s the bad news: Baby Boomers don’t trust marketers. And as this generation continues to age, their skepticism toward advertising grows. A recent study conducted by Insights in Marketing revealed that Boomer men (26 percent) and women (21 percent) are the least likely of any generation to believe what advertisers and marketers say about their products and services. But their skepticism is warranted. This generation grew up during the nascency of television, watching advertising grow from its inception to where it is today. In fact, Boomers have spent pretty much their entire lives inundated with advertisements, so they’re used to seeing marketers use tactics without strong content plans to back them up. Many Boomers have bought products in the past that didn’t live up to their own expectations or the marketing hype in terms of messaging as well as in quality. To gain Boomers’ trust, marketers must focus on offering them information that will resonate based on significance and candor, which means ads should reflect relevant, real-life situations so that consumers can relate. Communicating with Boomer consumers in a simple manner, with compelling, clear and concise content is also crucial. This will help marketers attract and retain loyal Boomers today and in the years to come.
SLOT SEARCH INTO YOUR MEDIA PLANS
Search Engine Marketing (SEM) is a Baby Boomer’s best friend. In fact, a study conducted by the DMN3 Institute, a digital and direct marketing agency, found that the top online activity of Boomers was utilizing search engines (96 percent). Likewise, the top online destination for Boomers is Google Search. When respondents in the DMN3 study were asked about actions taken as a result of performing online activities, search drastically outperformed social media and viewing online videos in getting Boomers to take action, including making a purchase. The top referral result of search engine use? Boomers looked for additional information online 82.4 percent of the time, with visits to a company website coming in at a close second (77.5 percent). More significantly, over half of Boomers who use social networking sites will visit a company website or continue their search on a search engine as a result of seeing something on social media. This just goes to show how interconnected and vital search and social are in successfully reaching the Baby Boomer audience.
No matter which marketing tactic you choose, providing content that meets Boomers’ needs for information in a thought-provoking, strategic, and timely manner is critical. Because the fact of the matter is, you’re not going to get the eyeballs, action, call, or purchase if your audience isn’t interested in you or what you have to offer. To learn even more about Baby Boomers, check out the infographic below.
Courtesy of an article dated January 3, 2017 appearing in MediaPost Engage:Boomers and an article dated February 6, 2017 appearing in MediaPost Engage:Boomers and an article dated March 6, 2017 appearing in MediaPost Engage:Boomers and an article dated April 2, 2017 appearing in MediaPost Engage:Boomers
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