Longevity: Brand Possibilities and Pitfalls

Free bus travel is a useful perk once you are more mature. However, how typical is it to use free bus travel to reach a theatre, in order to use your student discount to buy a cut-price ticket? That was the experience of my mother, who is over 60 but was until recently also a student, having completed an online degree. Being eligible for ‘senior’ benefits as well as student discounts is going to become more common, and just one example of why we need to rethink what a ‘typical student’ or ‘typical retiree’ buys and enjoys. ‘Typical’ is on its way out.

‘Age’ has previously been a pretty good proxy for ‘stage’ – with marketers making assumptions about life stages and likely activity. However, as we enter the era of longevity, this is a dangerous pitfall that brands need to work hard to avoid. We are starting to see changes in traditional life paths and so brands need to be more sophisticated in their understanding of longevity. The opportunities for those that can do this successfully are sizeable.

Understanding the impact of longevity

The disposable income of many older consumers is well documented. However, spending power is only part of the story. If we only focus on their wallets, we miss something very important – their mindset. While these consumers are indeed older, they are also redefining what it means to be old as they age, and many of them don’t feel or act in ways that we would traditionally consider ‘old.’ Many of them are better characterised as being younger for longer, forcing us to put traditional assumptions aside and think afresh about what opportunities and challenges are associated with longevity.

Conventional algorithms to target those in their early twenties comprise plenty of ads for alcoholic drinks and mobile phone deals. Similarly, life insurance ads are often targeted at those with young children, and cruises at ‘empty nesters’ in their 60s.

People are living longer, with a child born in the West today having a more than 50% chance of living to be over 105. So what happens when life stages cease to be so predictable?

To explore this further we need to examine the three stages of life – the predictable pattern of education, career followed by retirement that we are familiar with in the West – through the perspective of two cohorts: those born after the Second World War, and those born in the late 80s and early 90s.

Those born post-war, approximately 1946-64, have a 50% chance of living to 89-94. For much of this group, the model of the three stage life is reasonably accurate – they have typically followed the path of education, career and then retirement. Some are now enjoying an extended middle age, having retired in good health and combined with strong finances, owning their own homes and substantive pensions. Many over-65 year olds are starting to reshape their lives as the realisation of longevity becomes more apparent – continuing to work into their 70s, returning to study later in life etc. However, for some, their extended middle age is unfortunately characterised by prolonged poor health, financial struggles and, for many, continuing to work is a necessity.

Those born in the mid/late 80s and early 90s have a 50% chance of living to 98-100 years. For this generation, the traditional three stage model appears untenable. Financially, the proportion of income that needs to be saved to enable retirement at 65 followed by living for a further 35 years is not viable. The idea of a 35-year retirement also raises the question of how to spend all that time? Working lives will evidently be much longer, but they will also need to be different. Raising children will become a smaller proportion of life, raising the possibility of taking turns in a relationship to focus on a career, or sharing extended periods of time focused on family.

The three stage life is increasingly unfit for purpose and individuals, organisations, society and governments all need to think afresh about what might replace it. (For more on this see my previous blog on the longevity landscape).

In place of the three stage life, I believe we are, in time, likely to see something less linear, more fluid and fragmented, but potentially also more divisive than our current situation. It is likely we will see a variety of interwoven, different models; bespoke routes through a 100-year life that individuals are crafting themselves. (See my blog for a more detailed exploration of what is over the horizon and might replace the three stage life).

The implications for brands

How can brands avoid the pitfalls and engage with the possibilities of longevity?

Brands need to incorporate fresh thinking and new questions when considering how they communicate with consumers. What we seek from brands at different times in our lives is going to fracture and diversify; they need to adjust – fast. Some thoughts on what this means for brands:

  • Don’t assume age = stage any more

This begins with simple checks regarding age-based stereotypes in advertising and communications. It is perhaps so ingrained that sometimes we fail to notice. However, it will quickly start to become more apparent which brands are out of step with their consumers and failing to resonate with others. Consider if your brand is still communicating as if the three stage life will continue to be the norm. Are you reflecting the shift that we are starting to see? It is likely that your consumers are starting to forge new and different routes through their lives which is impacting how they perceive and use your product or service? Think also about your future consumers and their mindset. It’s not just at the older age of the spectrum that we need to re-think how we communicate to consumers. The different paths taken by those in their 20s today, as they steer their ways through longer lives means their needs and wants will be extremely diverse, and we need to recognise them.

  • Think about need, not age

Thinking about need helps us to avoid stereotypes and focuses instead on an offer that is fit for purpose. If marketing to older consumers, we might need to use larger font sizes but we shouldn’t presume. Similarly, fresher’s week promotions for cheap alcohol might not be appropriate any more – millennials are drinking less alcohol than previous generations and offers for the sports centre might be more appealing. Again, the important point is not to assume based on age stereotypes. I know a lady who was offered discounted membership when she looked around a new gym because she was aged 55. She could potentially take advantage of this discounted rate for another 40 years or so – probably not what the gym chain had in mind when it started such a scheme!

  • Address living younger for longer in communications

Brands need to urgently address the current lack of representation of older people in communications. As the post-war generation age – and redefine ageing for us all – communications need to address them attitudinally and emotionally. 51% of older adults do not see adverts that reflect their age group (Nielsen). As the former Ad Agency CEO Bob Hoffman commented to the industry, “Americans aged over 75 buy six times as many new cars as people aged 16 to 24; do you really think it's a good idea to avoid these people?" and he called the relentless focus on younger consumers the “age delusion.” How to feature older consumers in communications needs careful research. An effective example is Haven, the UK holiday and caravan park brand: the company use older voices to portray customers in some of its radio ads. This subtly targets a key audience without explicit reference to age.

  • Combat the ‘Chamberlain effect’

“Old age is like Czechoslovakia to Neville Chamberlain: a far away country about which we know nothing.” Writing in the FT, Ian Leslie eloquently explains one of the pitfalls in branding in the age of longevity: older people rarely feature in our work places or in our research and we don’t spend very much time listening and learning from them, aside from grandparents. It is therefore unsurprising that older consumers can seem a mystery, or simply get forgotten by those in marketing. We can start to combat what I have therefore termed the ‘Chamberlain effect’ by ensuring we dedicate sufficient time to listen to and interact with people from a wider range of attitudes and life stages. Conducting focus groups is a great place to start; consider carefully the screener questions for your groups: this is not about age but attitude to longevity.

  • Ask the right questions and listen to the answers

To truly understand consumers, we need to listen not just to their explicitly stated views, but also the less voiced but critical attitudes and concerns that determine why they act in ways that they do.

Are your customers firmly entrenched in the three stage life, or starting to adapt? Segmentations these days are generally good at incorporating attitudinal data, but much less likely to incorporate customer attitudes regarding longevity specifically. It will be increasingly important to have in-depth understanding of how personal circumstances will influence attitudes to longevity, to ensure brand communications are on target.

It is imperative to know whether your consumers look ahead to a longer life with enthusiasm and excitement, or concern and fear. It may well also be accompanied with some uncertainty. They may or may not consider your brand fit for purpose as they navigate new paths. As individuals find their way through longer lives, new supportive touch points need to be explored. Now is the time to proactively consider whether your brand is in a suitable position to tap into these moments.

Taking three examples – finance, connectivity and skills:

  • Finance – those looking to study who are not 18 may require bespoke financial advice and/or products to finance their studies. Do Prudential have an adaptable and flexible approach to support the needs of all their customers?

  • Connectivity – could Skype market itself more explicitly to those across generations who are looking to stay connected? What brands are best placed to help families navigate new ways of working and staying in touch?

  • Skills – currently, most graduate programmes are exactly that – focused on recent graduates. Are schemes at the BBC and KPMG ready to receive applications from more mature applicants with diverse skills and experiences, or do they need to be re-thought?

Brands need to explore a number of issues newly exposed by longevity if they are to meet evolving consumer needs, including:

  • Attitudes to longevity, self-reliance, mental and physical agility

  • Extent of financial / other planning for extended middle age and beyond

  • Range and extent of non-three stage life actions that have already been undertaken

  • Relationships, family dynamics, work-based networks

  • Health and wellbeing fears and expectations, including loneliness, social status and connectivity

Whilst the Financial Services sector and brands that have traditionally targeted older consumers may have a good understanding of these issues amongst their customer base, these are now issues that impact all brands. Furthermore, as well as needing to know how older individuals view longevity, we must also start to develop a much richer understanding of how all consumers, regardless of age, are starting to feel about longer lives and reconfiguring their life choices. We all know that longer lives are here but in-depth research is yet to be done by most companies.

The possibilities of longevity

Erosion of the three-stage life will be complex and confusing for society and for individuals. The strongest brands will avoid pitfalls associated with longer lives by proactively supporting consumers in what could be a difficult time, acting as a source of comfort and familiarity on an uncertain and unfamiliar path. Brands can play a vital role in the transition away from the three-stage life. The questions is, which brands will help guide us and which will get left behind as their consumers move on? Forget ‘typical’ and start thinking about more complex, messy lives as we enter the era of longevity; but don’t take away my mother’s student discount just yet! If your brand can support consumers plot their own course through an extended life, helping them at new and difficult turning points, your brand stands a good chance of lasting through the next 100 years of its own life.

I am leading on longevity research at Message House to help our clients explore its implications. I will continue to share ideas and evidence in future posts.

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