( the following is the Foreword I wrote for the just released book " Advertising in the Ageing Society : understanding representations, practitioners and consumers in Japan" authored by my good fiends Michel Prieler and Florian Kohlbacher and published by Palgrave Macmillan ... available on amazon.com )
Frustration. It’s the only word that describes the whole subject of marketing to the world’s aging populations. Not with the over-65s of the world themselves. They are a dynamic group of people who are breaking all preconceived rules about what “getting old” means. The frustration has been with my colleagues in the advertising, market research, marketing world, and the journalists who cover it and have been so slow to realize a simple truth: any reasonable analysis of the limited available data suggests that if you want to grow your business in the next few decades then you need to understand the “greys,” “silvers,” “seniors,” “aged,” “new life builder,” and “old.”I said limited data because it is also true that through combinations of lack of foresight, prejudice, and myths, most organizations have done little real investigation of how to talk to, research, market, and advertise to the 65+ age cohorts that are booming and blooming in so many countries. None more so than Japan. So any new study of how these age groups are represented in advertising is truly welcome.From 2003 I had the joy of spending a decade leading the Strategy Planning division of McCann Worldgroup in Japan. A joy because the experience of working in the advertising industry in that country is so different and thought-provoking. It did however have its frustra- tions and to my surprise the aging demographics of the country was perhaps the biggest of them.To provide some background, I first became interested in aging demographics and its impact on advertising in the late 1980s in my native Sydney. At the time the Australian Bureau of Census issued some reports discussing the potential aging of the population in the twenty-first century. I wrote a summary briefing and distributed it to the management of the McCann offices in Australia who in turn distributed it to clients. The next week I found that it had caused an unexpected stir. One of our clients was a famous manufacturer of toy automobiles who told our account director that they would now need to reconsider their future in the market if the population was going to get old. After all they made toys for kids. Of course we managedto explain that there would be decades before real aging took hold. More importantly I put together a scenario to explain what we now take for granted: an aging population means more living grandpar- ents and a greater ratio of adult relatives for each child which will mean spoiled boys and girls getting more gifts. And that high-end toy cars should do well.The new One Child Policy in China at that time was to prove that theory correct in that by the late 1990s there were numerous reports of how “kids” categories that took a higher-end approach were doing really well with the “let’s spoil our little emperor” scenario. A scenario we were to see repeated as families across many Asian markets began to voluntarily shrink the number of children per family. In a place like Japan, by the turn of the millennium, having just one child, who would be invariably spoiled by doting grandparents and great- grandparents, became the norm.More importantly the toy car story sparked my real interest in misconceptions about aging populations and what that might mean to advertising and marketing. I was fortunate over the subsequent years to lead a number of research projects across the Asia-Pacific region looking at how different generations reacted to a wide range of issues. In the course of these studies I paid special attention to what I called “New Life Builders,” those people aged between their mid-50s and early 70s who were getting close to retirement or had already retired, whose children were leaving or had left home, who unlike their own parents’ generation were likely to live for another 20 or 30 years and were realizing they needed to look forward to their future. A big change from the traditional view of retirement as “waiting for death” and a new stage of life for the new and devel- oping middle classes of Asia.Of course there were clients paying attention. Slowly and quite obviously some marketers started to notice the aging trend: the “usual suspects” of insurers, health service providers, retirement homes. Ask anyone in the industry to this day “which clients are benefiting or targeting the older population” and that is the answer you get.When I moved to Japan in 2003 I was well aware of it having the oldest demography. I had helped do enough studies to know that the Japanese market was starting to come to grips with knowing it had a “problem” with the possibility of an aging, shrinking population and not many answers. However, I was both surprised and disappointed to find that rather than seeing this as a big opportunity, marketers there were still looking at having a burgeoning older population as a problem. Just like their peers around the world over the previous 40 years, they were focused on “targeting the young” because of misconceptions about developing lifetime loyalty and habits. Misconceptions because the constant change that had happened in Japan in the previous four decades, the constant availability of new products and services, and the fast adaptation the Japanese had made to new technologies had meant change was more a norm than consistency in the behavior of potential consumers of any age. And certainly no less for the about-to-retire.Think about that. The experience of the typical 60-year-old in Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka in 2003 is certainly that of amazingly hard- working, dedicated, and passionate savers. But also the genera- tion that had lived with the rise of SONY, the introduction of the most advanced robot-driven manufacturing, the slickest transport systems, the leading edge of adopting new personal technologies. Forty years of the most advanced convenience stores in the world offering them services you still can’t get elsewhere and a constant flow of new products at a rate not matched in any other country. These are people who have spent their whole lives being trained by the world around them to try new products.Yes, there were Japanese companies actively targeting those over 60. But they were mostly of the usual cohort of industries: insur- ance, retirement funds and homes, healthcare. Some categories were making an effort in areas such as skincare and cosmetics. But these were more an adjunct of the old approach to aging. Products to “help hide the cracks, grey hair and deterioration of youthful looks.” In other words, marketers still saw aging as something to run away from and hide. Or something that meant preparing for a long, slow decline.That was doubly disappointing. In part because at the same time there was plentiful research indicating that the upcoming retire- ment of Japan’s equivalent to the baby boomer, the dankai, would make them healthier, wealthier, and more aware of their potential longevity than previous generations. And in part because they had a different attitude.A few examples involving music provide a great illustration. In 2006 we were conducting interviews and focus group discussions with men and women who were approaching retirement or had recently retired. Among those men who had retired in recent years – remember at the time the retirement age was 60 – we occasionally heard about their buying or taking up playing instruments and especially guitars again. Subsequently, in 2007, when the first of the dankai retired, it was reported that one of the fastest growing categories of sales for the year was again guitars. And in the years that followed there was a lot of reporting about men retiring, getting hold of a guitar, and re-forming bands that in many cases had been dormant since they graduated university: rock bands, cover bands of every genre of pop music popular in their youth in the 1960–1980 period.Should it be a surprise? Sure, these guys had given up their bands and instruments in their mid-20s to spend three and half decades as dedicated salarymen. However, they had also spent an awful lot of corporate bonding time pursuing their music in the form of karaoke nights. So why should marketers be surprised that this new “aging population” were actually rock ‘n’ rollers in their hearts?And for the next couple of decades at least many have money to spend on their passions. The current dankai generation who began retiring in 2007 and is tailing off over the next year or so managed to save a lot, and while they do retain a propensity for cautious invest- ment and want to pass on a legacy to their children and grandchil- dren, they are also more than happy to invest in the present, on enjoying retirement, and the next 30 years of their lives.I did start to see changes among marketers who realized they had to start talking to this new market. As Tokyo Disneyland put together plans for its 25th anniversary, the key focus was to get people to come back. For two and a half decades just about every family in the country had visited the park as parents and young children. So how to get people to return? What about the grandparents? As young parents they had brought their children a quarter-century ago, so how about getting them to return and relive the experience? Campaigns were developed to encourage grandparents and grand- children to come together. A different spin on the “toy car” story and the inevitable result of wanting to spoil the one or two grandchil- dren. But what was surprising was discovering that being re-introduced to Disney led to retired couples visiting on their own, to relive the memories or maybe just to have a little adventure.We noted too a growing trend for mother/daughter vacations. Adult daughters in their 20s and 30s going on trips with their 50–60-some- thing mothers. A chance to bond, a chance for the daughter to go on a more expensive journey often paid for by the mother, a chance for the mother to go and do something different and live young. A chance to learn from each other. It was a trend that became an impor- tant part of planning campaigns for most travel-related companies. It was a theme that we used in campaigns for MasterCard, Cathay Pacific, and others. As this book is published there is much reporting of the success of cruise-liner companies again targeting the dankai. We have also seen that where the tradition upon retirement had been that couples would take a short stay in Hawaii, the dankai are being more adventurous. They are now looking at destinations for post-retirement vacations spreading all over the world, with more culture and adventure variations and multiple trips being planned and undertaken.An older generation who actually want to travel and explore. That signaled a change in mentality.
Further evidence came in the beauty world. Shiseido, Kanebo, andothers have had success not by focusing on delivering advertising that said “cover up the problems of aging” but by emphasizing “you can continue to bring out your real beauty.” We have seen in recent years more campaigns feature 50-to-70-year-old women who empha- size their continuing vibrant personality as much as their being happy with continuing to express their own ongoing beauty.Of course “old” people and celebrities had always played a major part in advertising in Japan. The use of the celebrity endorser has always been very common, according to some research the biggest in the world. The image portrayed in Lost in Translation by Bill Murray of aged Hollywood stars making gratuitous commercials was and is still true. To this day Audrey Hepburn remains perhaps the most sought- after endorser in the country, decades after her death. However, that too is changing.Perhaps one of the most successful, and certainly talked about, campaigns of the past ten years has been for BOSS canned coffee and the use of Tommy Lee Jones playing the part of a stony-faced alien come to Earth and somewhat perplexed by the natives. Butthis was not a case of choosing the actor for his age, or even his fame. Indeed, when the campaign first came to popularity our own research found that among those of all ages who said they liked the advertising less than a third knew the star’s name. He was seen as having a “unique face” and character rather than as being an old, well-known endorser.In the past few years I was fortunate to persuade some clients like Johnson & Johnson to start really investigating the new dynamic of aging. We undertook a number of research studies, often unique in asking people 60–90 years of age to participate. And many of those clients are now actively undertaking the development of new prod- ucts and marketing campaigns to re-address the Japanese new life builder.But the frustration remains. Perhaps best summed up by my friend Toru Shibata, ex-president of Johnson & Johnson Consumer Japan, who complains that it is so difficult to talk to his market research suppliers, his advertising agencies, his own marketing departments about targeting 70-year-olds when they are all staffed by people in their 30s and 40s. To those “young” professionals talk of advertising to a 70-year-old seems like talking about their grandmother, or great- grandmother. A beloved relative but a boring and misunderstood target audience.And that is perhaps why we still see so much stereotyping in adver- tising use of the older generations. Stereotypes are hard to break. Getting marketers and their agencies to rethink the opportunities is hard. For example, understanding that rather than products and images “to help the feeble” it might be better to suggest that those same products that are good for those in their golden years are good for all is a concept slow to get started but with unlimited potential.With all that said, it is such a pleasure to have helped in a small way with the project and knowledge in this volume. As mentioned above, the amount of research into the habits, the beliefs, and the actual representation of older Japan, and older populations anywhere, in marketing communications is very thin. It is only in the past few years that national polls, tracking studies, and any form of general research even asked people over 60 to take part. As such, any addi- tion to our understanding is a big gain.I began by describing my frustration; let me end with hope.Japan is in a unique situation. Having the “oldest” demography on the planet it has the opportunity to lead the world in the understanding of how to incorporate an aging population into its active society, how to market to it, how to rethink the messaging that today’s modern retiree will find attractive. Personally I have long advocated that the aging population is Japan’s biggest opportunity. Let’s look forward to great marketing communication taking advantage of that possibility.
As an ex-librarian Dave loves to leave references for further reading. Here are a selection of articles and posts you might find of interest.