Interview: Carol Orsborn

Carol Orsborn, SVP and co-chair of the Fleishman Hillard FH Boom practice, and author of Boom: Marketing to the Ultimate Power Consumer - the Baby Boomer Woman, talked to PRWeek about her book and the history, impact, and status of marketing to baby boomer men and women.

Carol Orsborn, SVP and co-chair of the Fleishman Hillard FH Boom practice, and author of Boom: Marketing to the Ultimate Power Consumer - the Baby Boomer Woman, talked to PRWeek about her book and the history, impact, and status of marketing to baby boomer men and women.

What inspired you to write this book? Or let me go back even further and ask what inspired you to get involved with baby boomer marketing in the first place?

I’d like to point out that Boom is co-authored by Mary Brown. It’s my 15th book written for and about boomers so I’ve really been fascinated by this generation. Primarily, I’m a leading x-boomer which means I’m one of the oldest boomers, and I began to realize really early in my career - in my early 20’s – that things would occur to me that would then be adopted by society as a whole…. I really got serious about this as a study about ten years ago. I took a sabbatical and got my PhD in adult development and ritual studies from Vanderbilt University.

Even ten years ago, there was so much attention paid to youth marketing, but being in PR all these years and knowing the numbers, power, and wealth of this demographic, I knew that somewhere down the road we would be rediscovered again. 

So a lot of this was based on what you had seen when you were younger and how you envisioned the future?

It was also common sense. To my mind, it was the stereotypes that were keeping the blinders on marketers from seeing the power and potential in this demographic. We were the demographic that really invented youth marketing when we were young because there [were] so many of us. We’re hitting our 50s and 60s and - this is true when you look at surveys and such - many of our generation feel we haven’t peeked yet. So we’re not getting sidelined; we’re still spending plenty of money and making plenty of decisions, and companies are finally waking up to the fact that, in many cases, this is a more important demographic than youth markets.

How are companies waking up to this?

It’s industry by industry. When one marketer goes out on a limb in an industry, whether it’s cruising or financial or pharmaceutical or whatever, and have a big win with it, all of a sudden everyone else is looking at it and saying we need one of those too.

[At] FH Boom, we have people of all ages working in this practice - so it’s not just boomers talking to boomers; it’s [also] really young marketers who are seeing this as a way to make their careers. You always try to bring in the next new market that’s been undertapped. A smart younger marketer will say there’s a gold mine out there; I want to build my career on this.

How is Boom most relevant in the area of PR today? What are the key points a marketer targeting this demographic should walk away with?

The book is specifically about marketing to baby boomer women, and that’s because women influence 80% of the 2.1 trillion dollars boomers spend every year on consumer goods and services. When you’re talking about marketing to boomers, you’re, in many cases, talking about marketing to boomer women. The second thing is you can’t say there’s any such thing as the boomer woman. There’s a big span between early 40s and early 60s.

The main thing that’s been a consensus, not only because of our book but also because of our work with various clients, is that it’s much more efficient to target people by life stage than by age. In other words, a 40-something and 50-something who are both first-time empty nesters are going to have more in common than a 40-something who’s got a new-born and a 40-something who’s an empty nester. It’s a crazy time for us because at age 50 you could be single, dating, married, divorced, cohabiting… you could be all over the board basically. 

You describe an untapped and unexpectedly complex boomer woman, both psychologically and statistically. How were you able to characterize this woman who has been so untapped and misunderstood? How do you relate to the demographic?

The GI generation – our older brothers and sisters and going out into our parental generation ([the latter] which I would call more of a senior elderly market) was formed at very different times. When they were growing up they believed that the government would actually come and help them, they believed in organizations, they were loyal, patriotic, they followed rules. When the boomers were young and in our formative years, we were going through things like the assassinations of JFK and Bobby Kennedy, we were dealing with Watergate, a very different time of history in which basically a whole generation became disenfranchised and lost their innocence. We had to learn to rely on ourselves and each other.

The other thing about our generation, there were just so many of us. We became very competitive about everything. It was the first generation where getting into school and getting jobs and getting noticed in classrooms really forged this kind of hyper-charged sense about it, which still holds sway for the majority of us that continue to work. And again, I think Gen X, the generation right behind us, a much smaller generation, has a much less competitiveness happening for them. Each one of them is special in their own way, each looks at their older brothers and sisters or parents and says, “You guys are nuts.”

So how did you compile all these psychological and statistical components into this book?

From a macro perspective, as an expert on adult development, I can take a look at the generation as a whole and come up with ways to categorize types based on socialization of the psychosocial profiling that provides us with a competitive edge. We can look at all the same data that other companies are looking at in terms of trying to figure out where we’re located geographically, how much money we’re making, and things like that.

But one of the key things that I brought in from my own research was understanding that you can have a 50-year-old who’s really mature and making decisions out of a sense of self-empowerment and self-worth, or you can have someone who’s the same age in a state of rebellion.

We know how the boomers are behaving today, but there’s never been a generation this large, educated, wealthy, and healthy at 62. It doesn’t mean we know how this generation is going to act at 72. We have some indicators, but we are all guessing to a certain degree.

Since Boom was released in 2006, how have new media and technology changed the way marketers might target boomer men and women?

Well I think it’s very important to understand that boomers are influenced by a peer recommendation. That doesn’t necessarily mean someone they even know; so [this includes] personal friends and organizations you belong to, but also going online. Many marketers discovered they’d rather have an unsolicited praise from a consumer online than to get written up in a major publication.

How are you using those new tools within the practice today?

One of the reasons I joined Fleishman is because they really have a wonderful group of practices that are defined, and in terms of this micro niche which really is true of the boomers as it is for consumers across the board, it’s very helpful. But when we go after a consumer, we’re now saying things like, do you know of an African American boomer woman? And we have to design the message for that group or a gay leading edge boomer from the south. What we have found is that there’s no one individual who can carry all the expertise anymore. It’s really a collaboration between the practice groups. We’ll have someone from our Hispanic practice, from the boomer practice, from the gay/lesbian practice on the phone together with the region of the country we’re trying to target. Then we can come up with an intelligent campaign to really gauge the nuances. I really think that FH Boom is a sign and symptomatic of the fact that PR is really becoming more of a science.
What types of clients at FH are interested in the practice, coming to you for PR and marketing?

We are getting clients who are coming to us directly, [such as] The Red Hat Society. It’s close to a million women who don red hats and purple dresses, and say, “We’re 55 and having a ball.” That’s a really great client for us, partly because it’s a tremendous magnet because of its visibility.

The obvious ones are the clients that Fleishman has already been representing that have suddenly realized they want to go after this demographic. If you just look at the roster of the Fleishman client list, you’ll see we’ve spanned some of the industries that really came on strong and fast with this and who value our expertise, but also have developed expertise on their own, like the pharmaceutical, financial, and insurance industries. Those are a few who really came out of the box and showed us that the market was there. But some that are really coming on are travel, who understand now that it’s the boomers that have the discretionary income and who are out there traveling, and what’s interesting is that they’re traveling multigenerationally. They’re bringing their kids and their grandkids, having family reunions and buying up timeshares, driving whole industries. The cruise industry is an example of that.

Another industry which is booming right now on the back of boomers is the wine industry. They discovered - and this was a big surprise to them - that Hispanics and boomers are two of the fastest growing categories in the wine business.

And we also have technology companies; they’ve been a great success. One of the companies came out with a phone specifically designed for boomers and their parents, and there have also been Palm Pilots and all kinds of products just coming out, appealing to either boomers or women or boomer women.

That’s how whole industries wake up, like when palm comes out with Zire, and all of a sudden it really takes off and everybody is saying gosh we need to take a look, what are the features, how is it being marketing, that kind of thing.

Let me go back to the new media and technology question. How is this shaping your practice and the actual activity of marketing and creating a PR campaign for these specific clients?

The ideal campaign would have a hands-on component, the opportunity for the boomer to actually specifically get their hands on the product or [interact with the] service organization – to have some sort of personal involvement. It’s very relationship-oriented; they want to feel like the organization behind whatever it is really cares about them personally and has integrity and authenticity. From that touch-point you need to be able to drive people to those relationships. Traditional media is still important, but ultimately if it’s a product of any size or importance the boomers sooner or later are going to be online doing their objective research. So everything has got to refer to everything else and the really important thing these days, as opposed to five years ago, is that the message has to be consistent from forum to forum…and this goes down to the details. The smartest marketers are really forming allegiances with one another and expanding their own services to encompass that level of detail.

You mentioned that traditional media and new media kind of rely on each other. What is the balance now between those types of media in relation to ten years ago?

Let me say that boomers have been very loyal to news media and the mainstream media, so if you want to reach boomers and beyond the older demographic, [you need to] have a traditional campaign that works with newspapers and radio stations and TV news. You’re going to reach boomers more efficiently than ever using traditional PR. That’s the first thing.

[Boomers] are very tech savvy, but we’re a cycle or two behind the younger folks. I think a lot of that is when you have a teenager in your home, you sort of pick it up from them, and then when your teenager goes to college and all of a sudden you’re an empty nester and left to your own devices.

There’s a high learning curve that needs higher motivation, and when it’s a matter of learning how to share file photos with the grandkids and things like that, [that desire] reignites. Again, I’d say the big surprise, ten years ago you would not have thought of a person 60 and beyond relying so heavily on the Internet and now we can’t live without it.

How has Fleishman Hillard succeeded in marketing to baby boomer women? How have you measured your success? Can you provide some examples?

One of the real signs of our success is we’ve done a lot of training. We’ve already been introduced into Asia. I should mention the boomer phenomenon is global, especially amongst any country that was involved in WWII, and it doesn’t matter what side of the war you were on; there was a boom that took place after the war was ended. FH Prime has been launched in Asia. In September, Plus magazine, which is Europe’s leading magazine for boomers, is bringing over a panel of boomer experts, and I am amongst them, to go to seven cities throughout Europe catching Europe up to date on all the successes on how we’re breaking the market open in this country. And we’re using the tour simultaneously to launch our FH Boom practice in Europe.

We’ve gone global really quickly because I think, again, the existing client demand is there to expand knowledge and know-how into this demographic.

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