Marketers Think They Know Older Adults: Their Interests, How They Like to Be Addressed, and What Matters to Them. But Is This True?
It’s time to make the case for more meaningful research into older adult consumer behavior, including their motivations and interests. Recently, one of my most trusted senior advisors, Ms. Judith Harrison of Waypoint Partners, came to me with a research question. Ms. Harrison was interested in identifying existing research that could help frame potential opportunity areas for older adult community engagement. She asked if I had prior research that might shed light on the area.
Engaging Older Adults: A Worthy Goal
The question arose because Ms. Harrison recently elected to work as a fellow and to devote a substantial amount of her time for a community based non-profit organization called United Neighborhood Houses (UNH). Ms. Harrison’s background is leading organizations as CEO, senior executive, and board member for consumer products, retail and business-to business firms.
UNH identified a strategic initiative of community engagement of older adults as a top priority and asked Ms. Harrison to build the strategic framework. They identified many benefits of community engagement that accrue to both the older adult and to the community. These include:
- Improvements in health and well-being
- Increased value and meaning in life
- Decreased social isolation
- Strengthening the broader community.
The goal of UNH’s initiative is identifying replicable program models based on a sound strategic framework. The initiative is called “Unleashing the Power of Older Adults: Senior Centers as Mobilizers for Community Change”. Ms. Harrison says:
“Never underestimate the importance of marrying people’s interests and skills, along with setting expectations. Data and evaluations are also critical. It’s important to articulate the outcomes that you are measuring against. While it’s not easy, you have to measure the performance against the defined outcomes.”
This initiative by UNH is one example for the usefulness of research into older adults’ motivations and interests, and it highlights the need for these insights.
Prior Research with Older Adults
Over the years, we’ve had the pleasure of studying many different consumer segments in B2C, and customers in B2B. On occasion, older adults have been a focus of the work. A few such assignments that stand out are naming and positioning for Vanguard’s asset management and trust service, market assessment for hearing aids for Johnson & Johnson, and a brand equity and value proposition for Ensure. In the case of these brands, at the time, their focus was clearly on consumers age 55+ and so we had a chance to study consumers age 60 and beyond.
More often, however, the relevant age range that we are asked to focus on by marketers has been younger, whether young adults (ages 15-24), moms and dads with children younger than 18 at home, or empty nesters between the ages of 50-64. If they are considered, the older consumers were often eliminated as a focus, as they are expected to belong to either the “Uninvolved Habitualists” segment (a brand loyal group who is not actively considering their decisions) or the “Price Driven” segment (a group that buys based on lowest prices). While our work involves both qualitative and quantitative research, the quantitative component is much less common for older adults.
Opportunity Areas for Older Adults Community Involvement
Getting a bit creative, we brainstormed some opportunity areas for UNH research with older adults. Some candidates emerged. For example, food is a top interest area for many adults, both men and women. It has broad appeal to all segments of consumers, including older adults.
Over the years, I’ve also seen gardening as a top activity for many consumers. While a hobby is not the same as community involvement, a list of the top ten hobbies for people over 65 may also provide guidance for a starting point. These are:
- Digital photography
- Building models
After reflection, the organization decided that rather than suggesting any starting opportunity areas, they will let the older adults select their own. One of the initial selections are intergenerational programs with older adults and elementary or middle school age children. The exact program is still in formulation.
The Power of the Name
As I’ve written about before, calling these consumers by a name that they like can be helpful, and researchers should be conscious of the issue. For instance, our alumni group led by Carolyn Boiarsky recently chose to call ourselves “Sages” rather than “Old Guard.” Others have suggested that the terms “Seniors” or “Elders” are acceptable, but “Senior Citizens” and “Elderly” are not appreciated. Another source suggests “Older People” as an option. Along these lines, the Frameworks Institute is a “partnership to create a better public understanding of older adults’ needs and contributions to society.”
By way of analogy, I know that that the term “Youth” is not appreciated by young adults ages 15-24. And, in some categories, viewing a customer as “youth” is equivalent to viewing them as undesirable. Based on some work we’ve led with young adults, I found that these consumers much preferred “young adult” to “youth.” In that case, the word “adult” showed respect for them as customers.
So, while we know there is considerable research on Baby Boomers, we are curious about the sources for more insightful data on older adults that can be used to drive programs. In our hunt for insights, we realized how little focus or time many consumer brands have given to older adults. These older adults are an important market segment; it’s time to better understand how they like to be addressed, and how to tap into their interests and motivations.