Brands Beware: Age Does Not Equal Stage

Proud parents watching a child graduate from university is a scenario that’s replicated up and down the country many times every year. But what about proud children taking time off school to watch one of their parents graduate?

My friend Charlie graduated two weeks ago and his young children were there in the audience enjoying the moment. The university was well prepared for them, with plenty of dedicated activities to keep kids entertained. Charlie’s experience is evidence of a wider shift we are seeing, borne out in our new longevity research: age is less connected to life stage than many assume.

We conducted a survey with a representative sample of the UK public specifically to understand attitudes to age and life stage. When we asked people what ages they associate with a life stage we saw some fascinating results. ‘Young’ is undoubtedly lasting longer, ‘old’ has got older, but what’s particularly interesting is middle age. It now spans 50 years – from around 25 to 75. If you ever doubted the middle-age spread, here it is!

As we are living longer, a life stage is less representative of people of a particular age. We tend to think that everyone under 25 only wants to go out drinking; that those in their early-60s are all thinking about retirement; and that everyone in the middle is juggling a career and caring. While all these are still true for some, there are lots of under 25s who don’t drink, a growing group of over 55s entering higher education, and given longer working lives, most people will have more than one middle age. The point is that we shouldn’t assume.

So why does this matter for brands? Because by assuming that age equals life stage, we’re missing out on the big opportunities to connect even better with our audiences.

We’re all familiar with age discrimination. Perhaps what we’re seeing is stage discrimination! It’s no longer just that our age is playing against us, but that age is being associated with a stage that we don’t reflect as much as we used to. By targeting products and services to a particular life stage we are losing out on consumers who might also find our offer appealing. Our research shows starkly that no age group feels well reflected in comms, so there are real opportunities for those that can get it right.

There’s a sizeable group who are redefining the assumption that being over 65 means retirement. For some it’s necessity and others it’s desire, but we see in our research that a huge 37% of retirees consider themselves to have an additional occupational status, like part-time work or volunteering, and 5% have two or more. In the US, 31% of gig economy workers are boomers. So comms that target those over 65 on the basis that they are simply ‘retired’ are missing the mark.

At what stage of life do you want to buy drinks with functional health benefits? We tested language used by Coca-Cola in marketing its Coke Plus drink that contains dietary fibre and is explicitly targeted at people “40 and older.” They claim an ageing population are more likely to be “health- and taste- conscious consumers” who want a product with health benefits. This may be correct but are they wise to link age and life stage in this way?

We found that only a third of 35-44 year olds found the Coca-Cola comms relevant to them. The same copy, tested with the age-specific reference removed, saw this score rise over 20 percentage points. The overt language associating age and stage also caused a clear negative spike in our language testing. This shouldn’t be surprising. We saw above that many people think middle age lasts until 75, so pushing a fibre message at 40 and lumping these people in with everyone older than they are seems off target. Some 40 year olds do want the product, but even if they do, most don’t want to be targeted in this way. Interestingly, the copy without the age and stage specific reference had broad appeal, so Coke is also missing the opportunity to market the drink at other audiences.

What about holidays? The idea of independent travel is often associated with young people at a stage of life when they can backpack around the world. The company G-Adventures tailors products to this group, offering “fast, fresh and fun adventures that never slow down … for travellers ages 18-39.” Again, we tested this and a second version which was identical except with the reference to age removed. The results tell us two important things.

First, the non-age-specific copy appealed to over half of those aged 55-74 years old. Half of people over 50 want fast, fun adventures that never slow down! This doesn’t mean G-Adventures should be putting teenagers and those in their 50s on the same mini-bus. But it does mean that it should think about putting a second bus on (or somebody else should!) in order to cater to those over 50. This would meet the clear demand for such an experience among this group.

Secondly, the message was appealing to 69% of target 25-34 year olds so it’s doing its job. But the version without the age-specific reference was just as appealing to them and it was much more appealing to those slightly older. As with the Coke example, consumers are reluctant to be categorised by age and stage and the appeal goes beyond the target audience. In other words, explicitly linking age and stage alienates would-be consumers and also fails to generate a positive spike with the brand’s target audience.

So where should brands start? There are some clear opportunities when we decouple age from life stage.

Be as open minded as your audiences

These examples show us that it’s not wrong to target based on age and sometimes it’s the smart thing to do. However, when you link age and stage you risk your target pushing back on being defined in this way and you could also be missing out on other potential audiences. Audiences are open minded and we are missing a trick if we don’t reflect this.

Consider multi-generational comms

The Barclays ‘start today’ campaign is based on the cross-generational desire to try something new, and resists the temptation to categorise based on age and assumed life-stage. It scores well with all ages in our research and shows that need states can be a powerful basis for comms. The appeal is neatly summarised by one survey respondent, aged over 55: “It makes it sound like no matter what your age is, everybody can do something new … it is never too late to do the thing you have always wanted to do or to try something new.”

Language matters

At 50, one can be both a new parent and eligible for an assisted living apartment. Language counts, and seemingly simple descriptions like ‘retired’, ‘young’, ‘old’ and ‘student’ can all give a distorted impression. The more we can develop a new language for longevity, the better placed we will be. It can be hard to think afresh when the comms and language linking age and stage are so ingrained. But if brands can tap into the decoupling of age and stage they will graduate with flying colours.

Rachel Lloyd is a Director at Message House. She leads their research on longevity to help clients explore its implications. Message House conducted an online survey among a nationally representative sample of the British public during November 8-9th 2018.