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The Language & Philosophy of Ageless Marketing

By G. Richard Ambrosius –

Amazing! It took the 65th birthday parties of thousands of leading edge baby boomers for corporate America and the mainstream media to wake up to the fact that the median age of adults in the US increased by about a decade while they weren’t looking. Today, articles and conference topics on boomers are increasing, but understanding the aging marketplace has a long way to go.

For example, are Boomers now old people? What do we call them? Are they like other older people? What do they want? How do we get their attention?

If you are searching for four easy steps or six simple typologies that will insure success in the aging marketplace, you’ll not find them here. Why? Because, the typical boomer, like the typical senior, is as much like other boomers as a snowflake is like all the others. Consumers become more dissimilar as they age not more alike, although sharing common values.

Since so few have successfully targeted mature consumers, evidence on what works best is limited. Some have explored the mature market using traditional methods only to conclude there was little potential because consumers failed to respond. They blamed neither the messenger nor the message, but the intended recipient. Likewise, millions of dollars have been spent teaching aging sensitivity without first developing an empathetic understanding of the consumer and their decision-making processes. Unfortunately, this sensitivity training often reinforces ageism rather than correcting stereotypes.

To increase the probability of success, one must first abandon the approaches that worked so well in yesterday’s youth market; and adopt an ageless approach more likely to appeal to a maturing consumer base without alienating other segments.

Begin by projecting a positive, mindful image of aging. This positive image should underlie all communications, collateral material, and presentations. Consumers tend to select products/services that reflect images of what they want to be not what they are, and this applies to older adults as well. While physiological declines are a part of life, older consumers “feel” anywhere from 15 to 25 years younger than their biological age, which doesn’t mean they think they “look” 15 to 25 years younger. For example, when models are too young or engaged in extreme sports, older consumers simply dismiss the message. The key is to use realistic people in real world activities.

Advertising and communications should focus on health and well being; being productive, the importance of autonomy and involvement, the importance of relationships and being responsive to the wants, needs and aspirations of targeted consumers and stakeholders. Remember that a prospective customer’s mind will consider your initial message for from .2 to .8 of one second (your cognitive window of opportunity). Not much time to make a first impression – that is why every word and image is so important.

Word Power

To keep our conscious minds from being overloaded with unimportant information, our brains conduct what might be called information triage. Like a MASH unit sorting casualties according to severity and likelihood of surgical success, the brain sorts through billions of bits of information each moment to select information for the conscious mind to think about.

The brain does not process words; it processes pictures and sensory data in context with the circumstances. If there is a perception that “senior” means old, frail, dependent, bingo player, or other traditional stereotypes, the mind of a the targeted customer may “exclude” whatever is associated with that word from conscious consideration if they do not view themselves as fitting the stereotype. For example, the current stereotype that frustrates marketer in the senior living industry is the common perception that “retirement community” means a place to go when your health is failing…a place for the frail – the elderly.

A targeted consumer’s eyes and ears may detect what you are trying to tell them, but unless their brains sense personal relevance, little of the message content will reach their conscious mind. Your challenge therefore is creating messages that resonate with the needs and interests of the prospect in order to make it past the mental screening process.

Businesses need to sensitize team members to the power, both positive and negative, of the words we use, and subsequently begin using more inclusionary terms to describe customers, members, products and services and avoid the use of exclusionary term (words shrouded in stereotypes that could be perceived negatively). Inclusionary/conditional terms allow a people to then screen a message based on their expectations, aspirations, needs and life experience rather than preexisting stereotypes. Inclusionary terms are simply more likely to be positively perceived than the terms traditionally used.

The use of exclusionary terms could be costing you business, customers and profits. Even if 70% of your prospective customers have no problem with the term senior citizen, but 30% do; are you willing to give up 1/3 of the market on purpose?

Begin with the Basics

Although most of the following basic print standards are common knowledge, they have yet to be incorporated into the mainstream media. If you have not already done so, they should most definitely be incorporated into the communications standards of every organization targeting older consumers:

  • Type should be large enough to read easily, which means no smaller than 12 pt. with the rare exception of footnotes (11 pts.) and copyright notations, but type should never be smaller than 10 pt.
  • Avoid excessively large, all upper case or ornate typefaces (Old English, Bertram, Edwardian Script or French Script or similar fonts) in print ads and print materials. For body copy, always use serif type fonts such as Times New Roman, Garamond, Century Schoolbook or Courier. San Serif type, such as Arial, Century Gothic or Impact, should be limited to headlines and captions.
  • Avoid using more than a single hyphen in a row and never more than two and avoid windows in body copy.
  • Never leave two spaces between sentences. (Like the spaces preceding this sentence) Adequate spacing in controlled by the software. Use a single space after every period, colon, question mark or exclamation point. Set the desired word spacing to 90 or 95% in the spacing attributes dialog box with 75% as the minimum and 125% as the maximum. Also, set dashes either tight without spacing or spaced, but use whichever format you prefer consistently throughout the documents.
  • All body copy should justified left, ragged right in newsletters, correspondence, direct mail, editorials or articles. Do not indent the first line in correspondence, brochures, ads, press releases or articles. While flush left text with even word spacing is acceptable for ads and brochures, spacing must not be exaggerated; and therefore additional formatting may be necessary before printing.
  • Contrast is the key to readability. Older consumers tend to favor pastel shades, while negatively perceiving browns and grays. As the eye ages, the retina begins to yellow colors at the blue, green, purple end of the color spectrum, which are appealing, become difficult to distinguish…especially if used in contrast. Therefore, avoid using these colors together and use more easily distinguished colors such as yellows, oranges and reds.
  • Avoid using a photo or detailed graphic as a background for copy. Print placed on a photo is very difficult to see and your message may be ignored. In some instances, with adequate screening or text boxes, exceptions may be allowed but should be considered on a case-by-case basis.
  • Avoid using enamel paper or other glossy paper stock. Eyes become increasingly sensitive to glare over the years. A non-glossy, matt stock should be used for brochures with limited use of spot enamel on photos.

By mindfully pursuing an ageless approach to communications, perhaps the general public can come to view later life as the crown jewel of the human experience. In an ageless society, we will celebrate the uniqueness and worth of each individual regardless of their age. And one day, we may again revere the wisdom and life experience of elders.

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