Go back 15 years and it would have been rare to find a consumer brief that did not target twentysomethings. Brands were falling over themselves to grab a slice of young people's disposable income, create loyal customers for the long term and be seen as 'cool'. But with young people bearing the brunt of the bleak economy, brands are beginning to look elsewhere.
The young ones
Twentysomethings have been the starting point for most PR campaigns over the past couple of decades. They were the trend-setters and opinion formers. With few set outgoings, they tended to have high disposable income. And with a lifetime of spending ahead of them and few brand attachments, brand managers were keen to create loyalty early on.
'Every brief that was produced by marketers up to the early 2000s had a formulaic approach to audience targeting, and this tended to be summarised in two lines: twentysomethings and anyone else you think may matter,' says Red Dog Communications director Marc Landsberg, who launched the original Fantasy Football and was head of sponsorship/events at Orange in the 1990s. 'Back then even suggesting a campaign for anyone over the age of 50 was considered at best ironic humour and at worst career suicide,' he adds.
But this focus appears to be blurring. Some PR professionals are looking at other age groups, others are abandoning demographic targeting altogether, and some are even moving on from the whole notion of campaign targeting.
The main reason for this shift is economic: rising student debt, soaring property prices, and high youth unemployment leave the twentysomething of 2012 in a much worse financial situation than those of 2002, 1992 or even 1982. Today's fiftysomethings may talk about the dark days of the first Thatcher recession, but they had been paid to go to university, and in real terms house prices were a quarter of their current prices.
But the shift is not just about economics. Grayling's planning director Katy Cosh believes that the younger generation has a different mindset and social environment to their parents, which demands a new approach from brands. 'Brands have traditionally focused their greatest efforts on 18- to 34-year-olds, hoping to establish early brand loyalty that would pay back over their lifetime. However, Generations X and Y are not on the whole brand loyal. They have unprecedented choice and consumer intelligence. Rather than buying into a brand in their twenties and remaining loyal to it through their lives, they tend to make highly researched decisions on a case by case basis,' she says.
This is having a profound effect on PR campaigns across many different sectors.
Landsberg points to mobile phone operators and record labels. 'These companies have transformed their PR targeting,' he says. 'They've moved on from running stereotypical one-dimensional campaigns aimed at twentysomethings to a more sophisticated approach, aiming to reach up to 20 different audience groups per product.'
Even brands such as relationship website eHarmony, which one might expect to appeal to those in their twenties, are conscious of the need to look beyond this demographic. 'It is important for us, and all brands, to tell a story that isn't specific to age but appeals to future users as well,' says UK country manager Ottokar Rosenberger.
Some agencies have understood the power of the silver surfers - the baby boomer generation who are enjoying a relatively luxurious retirement. Lexis launched a separate division called Sixty, targeting those over 50, while its client DBApparel UK recently repositioned lingerie brand Playtex for older women.
'A 50-year-old woman isn't going to buy anti-ageing cream from a 20-year-old, a point that L'Oreal got when it started using Jane Fonda in its ads,' says Juliet Cameron, head of consumer at Octopus Communications.
Are age groups irrelevant?
But this shift is not simply about switching from targeting young high earners to targeting older wealthy spenders. 'I would argue that age has become increasingly irrelevant,' says Cameron. Many are casting off the demographic age profiles as outdated models to target audiences. O2's head of PR and social media Alex Pearmain says his campaigns are now much more focused on behaviour than on age. 'We look for passion points,' he explains. 'It could be a time-pressured parent who needs quick access to information, or a gadget enthusiast who is interested in the latest devices, or someone who wants to be in constant contact with their wide circle of friends.'
The onset of digital media has also broken down the media's tight readership. The days of simply going to The Daily Telegraph or the Financial Times for a serious campaign targeting the over-fifties, or to Grazia or FHM for a light-hearted piece targeting twentysomethings, are over. Now social platforms tend to aggregate huge swathes of friends, family, followers and fans from all different circles, and brands need to be able to connect with self-selecting temporal groups based on particular interests, categories or behaviours.
'This is a new world of "content fusion" where you might catch wind of a latest article from a variety of sources, as well as the follow-up endorsement, recommendation or commentary from different audiences. Word of mouth brings the moment to life and together in an instant,' says James Kirkham, co-founder of creative agency Holler.
Peer to peer
Many brands still have some way to go. The world may have changed since 2002 but some brand managers seem not to have noticed. Crispin Reed, MD at marketing agency Brandhouse, believes this is a result of the demographic make-up of those brand managers themselves. 'Often they are in their late twenties or early thirties themselves and so struggle to gain a perspective on other social groups,' he explains.
Oxfam's head of PR Katie Abbotts agrees: 'I think that a lot of people in their twenties just assume that other people in their twenties are the best audience. There's this horrid obsession with making things cool. I for one will be very happy to see this view disappear. At Oxfam we target people who have a tendency to give money to charity or who care about justice or want fashion to be ethical. Age is less important.'
In the years to come the brands with the most effective PR campaigns will be those like O2 and Oxfam that focus on values rather than demographics. Chris Hirst, CEO of ad agency Grey London, points to jeans as the model to follow. 'Denim brands are about rebellion, youth, and sex, yet there is hardly a person in the UK today, young or old, who doesn't own a pair,' he says. 'Successful jeans brands pull off the trick of maintaining their brand values, while selling to a wide age demographic,' he adds.
Identifying new groups based on values and behaviour rather than just age could prove lucrative for brands, for example digital mums, empty nesters or gadget geeks. PR professionals who invest in more sophisticated audience targeting will surely reap rewards. The time may have come for brands to grow up.
THE NEW TARGETS? PRETENDERS TO THE YOUTH THRONE
With more than 700,000 children born in the UK every year, mums make up a sizeable market. As more women take control of the family finances they become increasingly important to marketers. Time-poor, many now do their shopping online, using social networks to gather recommendations, read reviews and discuss purchases.
A third of the UK population is aged over 50 and the group will continue to grow over the next few decades. Furthermore, many of them own their own homes, their children have left the nest, and they are putting off retirement, earning money well into their sixties. It is increasingly these Baby Boomers who have the money to spend.
The Consumer Electronics Association recently declared that worldwide sales of gadgets will top one trillion dollars in 2012. Gadget Geeks are fanatical about their devices, with a voracious appetite for reviews and product statistics, and a willingness to spend whatever is necessary in order to get the latest piece of kit.