Let’s be honest, few generations were more aptly named than the baby boomers. While the moniker may have risen from a historically specific fertility trend, in many ways it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. As writer P.J. O’Rourke once described it: “We’re stuck with being forever described as exploding infants.”
For better or worse, the nickname fits (and I can say this, as I am a boomer myself). Baby boomers have spent their reign in power exploding pieces of themselves everywhere, recreating the universe as they see fit.
For the business world in particular, this has given rise to the idea of a customized economy and an expectation of tailored messaging. As boomers age (and demand new ways to prove they are in fact not “old”), industries across the board will need to reinvent their products and marketing strategies in order to attract this generation’s (massive) spending dollars.
To do this, understanding how to communicate with boomers is key. Expert tip: Treat boomers as the special snowflakes they so obviously are.
Who are the Baby Boomers?
Baby boomers are the 76.4 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964. In the 2012 U.S. Census, they accounted for a quarter of the population and 68 percent of the labor force. They’re also expected to be the longest-living generation to date, with the healthiest among them likely to reach 95.
Arriving on the heels of the civics (also known as the greatest generation, who grew up in the Great Depression, saved the world, took on race relations and defeated communism), the boomers took over a world arguably more comfortable than any of their ancestors had known. With opportunity and prosperity as their literal birthright, they redefined the idea of self and adopted selfish living.
Politics, the economy, religion and society all became ideas of the micro instead of macro, mini universes customized to each person’s own interests and needs. These little bubbles helped propel civil rights, environmentalism and women’s liberation; pushed American pop culture to the front of the world’s stage; and saw sacrifice as boomers paid their own ways through school, becoming the first generation to enter adulthood burdened by large debt.
Boomers also took ownership of the idea of youth. They see themselves as forever young and have held a tight grip on that perception since. This year, the youngest of the boomers turn 50, while the oldest have been hitting retirement age since 2011. But unlike the generations before them, this massive generation simply refuses to grow old.
Quickly becoming the largest aging population in history, they are once again demanding change by rewriting the ideas of health care, entertainment and recreation, real estate and every industry in between.
What’s in it for Business?
First, the reality: Thanks to larger instances of debt, a willingness to splurge instead of save and severe hits to their portfolios during the Great Recession, boomers are entering their retirement years less prepared than they perhaps hoped to be.
That’s not to say, however, that they have no money. Because they do, to the tune of $3 trillion worth of buying power in the U.S. Combined with their love of self and a tendency to spend to feed their whims, boomers represent a large, strong and wealthy faction of the economy — one with a lot of time with which to spend their disposable incomes.
In addition, boomers are also reinventing themselves and and exploring new interests. These “new passionates” are dedicating their time, money and personal networks to the civic issues, business pursuits and social trends savvy enough to garner boomer notice.
How do Businesses Communicate with Boomers?
Avoid mentioning their age. Boomers are aging very differently than the generations before, who seemed happy to throw in the youth towel once the big 5-0 came around. For the most part, boomers are simply refusing to grow old.
They don’t want to be treated as “seniors,” inundated with messaging focused on health conditions and retirement planning. Though this age bracket may indeed need a few prescriptions and some information regarding investment opportunities, they won’t be found playing bridge at the senior center. They believe their best days still lay ahead.
Messaging focused on how to create those days is key, and boomers are as trend-focused and status-conscious as their younger counterparts. They want to see their faces in the mix with the 20-and-30-somethings, so create marketing messages accordingly.
Just give them the facts. Unlike younger consumers who tend to be more susceptible to marketing claims, boomers are turned off by hyperbole. When considering a purchase, the 50+ crowd wants only the facts. With years of buying (and financing those purchases) behind them, boomers have a depth of consumer intelligence, which allows them to sniff out hype.
Focus on inspiration and aspiration. In other words, be positive and don’t focus on fear. As I’ve mentioned, baby boomers are aspirational for their futures and respond to messaging that offers solutions to how they can feed their ambitions. Older Americans process incoming information in such a way that they’re more likely to ignore negative images, concepts and ideas. When communicating with boomers, remember to share your product or service’s information optimistically, outlining the benefits and value of what you are selling.
Recognize that their situation is constantly changing. Boomers represent the full spectrum of life stages: parents with younger children, empty-nesters (and no-longer-empty-nesters), grandparents, full-time workers, part-time workers, reinvented entrepreneurs, retirees and caretakers to their own aging parents. A single message for all boomers does not exist. Customized, targeted messaging is what they expect and respond to.
Finding the right marketing mix to successfully reach the boomer market is not an easy endeavor. Because of their general focus on the self, long-term loyalty and network referrals aren’t as prevalent as with the civic generation. Businesses must create custom, inspirational and believable messaging to convince boomers to give them their money in the first place. Then, to keep boomers as customers, businesses must also find ways to build in feedback and opportunities for one-on-one attention in order to maintain the connections.
Boomers may be a lot of work, but they can also offer big rewards to businesses willing to cater to their demands. Not to mention, while the younger gen-X and millennial generations each require their own communication styles, they’ve all been shaped by the world of the boomers, so knowing how to reach boomers is a solid foundation for messaging to the generations arriving on their heels.