An Ageless Marketing Strategy

Many brands still distinguish themselves as for the “young” – take Abercrombie & Fitch – or “older” – take Yardley. “Demographics are still an extremely important segmentation tool,” says Jane Asscher, managing partner at 23red. “They are the basis of the market research industry, which underpins the ‘media currencies’ on which £18bn are traded annually in the UK.”

Marketers are right to consider the age of their potential customers and position their brand accordingly, she says. “Many brands, after all, are in market segments which are of particular interest to people of one age group, but not another. Generally speaking, for example, a person’s palate starts life with a desire for sweet tastes, but with maturity often develops a preference for dryer ones – wine being a good example.” Other product categories come into their own with major life events, such as the birth of a child, the purchase of a property or the need for a car, she says – with large swathes of the population reaching these milestones at roughly the same age.

“Age is frequently an aspect of targeting because it can correlate so strongly with other variables such as income and household composition,” agrees Jon Cano Lopez, director of data intelligence at Communisis. “It is also useful in terms of defining attitudes and needs towards the product, as these will vary by age for the same product. This in turn is useful when framing the tone, offer and creativity of marketing messages.”

What you lose from not targeting everyone, you gain in having a rapport with your audience and understanding what they want – and don’t want – says Mark Blayney Stuart, head of research at CIM, who believes there will always be brands aimed at different age groups. “When it works, it is very successful because you tap into a niche and can capitalise on a market you understand well.”

Forever young 
With youth being eternally desirable and branding all about image, it’s no wonder age remains a focus for marketers. Add to this the marketing principle that people feel first and think second, and you see why so many marketers want to be associated with youth – including those reaching out to all ages. “We live in a world in which people aspire to age gracefully and retain a youthful, engaged outlook, taking an active part in society – so it’s hardly surprising that many successful brands display these ‘youthful in spirit’ characteristics, regardless of the potential age of their consumers,” says Kate Wheaton, director of strategy at Tullo Marshall Warren, who reports a huge reduction in the number of brands targeting over-50s. Recent research by Vox Pops International confirms this, yet the overwhelming majority of over‑50s surveyed said they had more money and time than their younger counterparts. “Out with the old age pensioner badge and in with the new Peter Pan generation who aren’t quite ready to grow old yet,” concludes the study.

But age does not have to be reduced to a dichotomy of “young” or “old”. Increasingly sophisticated measurement tools enable marketers to be more precise in both profiling and targeting customers, says Asscher – and these tools allow age to be used as a platform to analyse other factors such as interests, lifestyles and media habits. “For example, a basic analysis reveals that women aged 45-55 index highly for usage of hair colourants, but if you add marital status, there’s a much bigger spike for the divorced. One might infer from this that the role of product category in personal makeover is particularly relevant to women making a fresh start and seeking new partners. This insight has clear implications for both creative content and media selection both on and offline.”

For Boots, grouping by age and gender – and using insights about the needs and motivations of women in certain age groups – has led to its brand positioning around the “Feel Good” strapline, says Natasha Joslin, data strategy director at agency LIDA. “However, the Boots Advantage Card provides more in-depth knowledge about customers, going much further than demographics – what they purchase, how often and how much they spend.”

Demographics is best utilised as a starting point for identifying those consumers who may be interested in your product, but it’s only part of the equation, concludes Anthony Donaldson, head of planning at Haygarth, who agrees that segmentation needs to go much deeper. 

Out of date 
SAS UK solutions marketing manager Charles Randall goes further still, claiming age shouldn’t feature in the equation at all. “Take online travel retailer Expedia – it’s using analytics to segment customer groups based entirely on past purchasing behaviours. Examining frequency and times of travel uncovered a large ‘business traveller’ group, which demographic information had bracketed elsewhere. This knowledge allowed Expedia to create marketing campaigns tailored to appeal to the newly discovered customer group. Often, organisations aren’t aware of how much data they already have – information on spending habits, preferences and unaddressed needs.”

An increasing number of marketers have created an ageless, democratic brand offer. “So many brands have taught us that there’s no such thing as prescriptive age,” says Kate Waddell, managing director of consumer brands consultancy, Dragon Rouge. “Think GAP, Nokia, Clark’s, Zara, Apple – proof positive that brands don’t need to rely on age.” Conversely, brands that have focused too much on age, such as Eve magazine, have failed.

But all is not lost for the concept of age, with growing numbers of marketers claiming that channel management is where age comes into its own. New research by SAP found that 18-24 year olds are five times more likely to use a QR code on their phones than the over 55-year-old customers – just one example of how different age groups use different channels. “Grouping customers by age can be a really useful tool for marketers in channel planning,” concludes Joslin.

But, she adds, this approach can also create broad brush segments based on the assumption that everyone in a certain age band has the same needs and motivations as each other. Indeed, SAP’s research found that the expectation and demand for better customer service, different channels of access, such as in-store and online, and immediate and personalised information is evident across all age groups – generation 
X and Y.

“There are so many assumptions about demographics that can be proved wrong – such as the belief that older people are more proactive about their privacy, with younger people less concerned,” says CIM’s Stuart. “In reality,” he claims, “studies show there are plenty of young people very defensive about privacy and some older people who are less so.”

Brandhouse managing director Crispin Reed says prejudice against the older generation is strong, “In academic studies using implicit association tests, it has been proven that age stereotypes are much stronger than those for gender or race. Our behaviour and attitudes are far more likely to be adversely skewed when it comes to dealing with older people.”

Brandhouse explains that a white male meeting three strangers, one female, one black and one elderly person, would be more likely to hold stronger stereotypes around the older person than around the woman or the black person, according to the study.

“This is true even if I think consciously that I am level headed and not prone to suffering from prejudice,” he says. These prejudices are evident in current TV advertising, he says. “I think there are two interesting examples of TV commercials that are on air at the moment, one which addresses an older audience well: M&S, with the soundtrack Me and Mrs Jones. 
The other falls into a stereotype trap: Aviva’s “Silver Bob”, where at the end he refers to bacon sandwiches.”

Among the biggest prejudices held around age and channels is that social networking is for the young, while older people favour direct mail. In fact, women over the age of 55 are one of the fastest growing user segments on Facebook, while many older people do not respond to direct marketing at all. But provided you don’t rush to such assumptions, age can be hugely beneficial, insists Match UK managing director Karl Gregory.

“A study by agency SocialCode found that older users are more likely to click on a Facebook ad, while younger users tend to click the Like button instead. Facebook ad clickers are also more likely to be women. The lesson for marketers is that when targeting a certain demographic on Facebook, they can tailor their campaigns to the user segment. This is where technology has played a hugely influential role in breaking down barriers to ensure that age groups no longer exist in silo.”

A new generation 
But others insist age is a red herring, even in channel management. “We believe that demographics are dead,” says Ayla de Moraes, planner at Weapon7. “In the digital world, we can track actual customer behaviour and use that data to inform highly efficient targeting strategies effectively in real time. We are moving towards an always-on world and we plan communications tailored to that world. In such a universe, the idea of grouping people together because they share an age range seems anachronistic.”

She provides the example of delivering a website experience for Mercedes-Benz to launch the CLS-Class, built to be relevant to buyers thought to be in the 40-55 age range. “What the usage data from the website showed was that 20 per cent of the people who accessed the site did so on a tablet or smartphone device. We immediately knew that we needed to ensure all communications to this target audience were optimised for this device going forward.

“If we had used demographics only when thinking about designing future channel experiences, then we may have missed a vital opportunity to deliver seamless experiences across all of our audience’s channels of choice. This huge opportunity is why we used actual behaviour, as opposed to generalised and meaningless demographics, to inform our channel thinking and our overall brand strategy.”

Professor Hugh Wilson of Cranfield School of Management believes it’s time for change. The majority of marketers base behavioural targeting on customer segmentation by demographics, he says, whereas new research from SAS reveals that marketers should be looking at how customers interact with different channels, rather than to which age group they belong. Six main consumer groups were determined from the SAS research by how they viewed and reacted to different encounters with brands – and none of them were related to age, he points out. For example, an “astute alpha” is defined as technologically savvy and a confident complainer, whereas an “internet investigator” is media aware and less price sensitive than most. Based on their behaviour, the “astute alpha” prefers 
face-to-face interaction with a brand, whereas an “internet investigator” is happiest communicating with a brand online. These groups can then be profiled in detail, and more effective campaigns can be developed accordingly.

Customer-led targeting 
What happens when demographic targeting goes wrong? The One Show was originally devised for a youth audience, whereas its viewers are predominantly over-60s. Surprisingly, perhaps, many marketers argue this doesn’t matter.

“Never mind that The One Show didn’t reach its intended target – it found an appreciative audience and if it’s responding to that, it’s still a success,” explains Stuart. “A BBC producer might think Chris Evans appeals to younger people, but if the over-50s take him to their hearts, who’s to argue with that?”

Reed agrees. “If a brand is developed with a specific target in mind, only to find that it ends up appealing to a different audience further down the road, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing so long as the brand owner is aware of the shift in real time (as opposed to long after the event), accepts the shift on commercial grounds (they are still making money) and has flexibility in their business plan to adapt accordingly.”

It’s the flexibility that will ultimately be the lifesaver for any age related errors in marketing, Reed says. “Gin is a classic example. In the 80s, the sector faced the situation that many of its consumers were literally dying – the crusty colonels down at the golf club. Through innovation and change in tastes, the category has changed. The super-premium category is driving a renaissance in the overall gin sector and attracting a new swathe of relatively younger consumers.” 

5 fundamentals of filtering


1. Make sure that your data is accurate and fit for purpose before you begin analysis.

2. Try to drill down your target into as many different levels of customer type as possible. Avoid targeting broad audiences – it makes it more difficult to distinguish specific consumer groups.


3. Make sure you use proper techniques to identify significant differences between demographic groups.


4. Test external data and collect it in a variety of ways. Different techniques produce different results depending on customer profile, so validate different approaches and determine the best one for your target.


5. Don’t take self‑reported statistics at face value. Consumers often overestimate their income, job role and expertise in a bid to appear younger, richer and more influential than they really are, which can affect your results. 

Source: Daniel Cross, director of strategy, Lateral Group


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