News Analysis: Middle-aged market challenges PR

The middle-aged have more money and time to spend than ever before. Thomas Williams asks why PR practitioners and their clients have been so slow to recognise this potentially lucrative demographic trend.

When coach tour operator Wallace Arnold launched a rebranding exercise to attract a younger market (PRWeek, 7 May), it may have had more reason to do so than the prospect of its clients dying out.

Far from targeting the youth market that consumer PR agencies love to extol, the task handed to Brighter PR was to improve the image of coach travel with 45 to 60-year-olds. The age bracket may be narrow but it is rapidly becoming the most sought-after market to target.

Targeting the middle-aged

According to a 2002 report by charity Help the Aged 'Marketing and advertising to older people 2002', while around 95 per cent of advertising is aimed at under-35s, the majority of wealth and assets is held by people aged between 50 and 65. The charity also notes that the UK's over-50s spend £240bn a year, which amounted to 40 per cent of consumer spending in 2002.

In this age bracket lies a rich seam that companies as diverse as Wallace Arnold and mobile phone firm Orange are attempting to leverage. In the case of Orange, a shift towards a more middle-aged market not usually associated with mobile phones can be seen through the use of cinema promotions.

People in this age bracket often take an interest in the cinema, so the promotion is of particular appeal to them.

As Cake planning director Jim Dowling, who works on cinema promotion for Orange, explains: 'You are unlikely to find 45 to 60-year-olds downloading Eminem ring tones.

But you can persuade them to use their phones more if they can get free cinema tickets.'

As with Wallace Arnold, the other end of the assault on the 45-60 age bracket is probably most prevalent in the holiday market. Just a few years ago, Thomson Holidays made a deliberate shift away from the kind of package holiday deals it was famous for to keep hold of its core 45 to 60-year-old customer base.

For 20 years Thomson had sold its holidays to this age group through the brochure Young at Heart, but a radical change in the way the middle-aged regard themselves led the company to call a halt to further investment in the publication and its products.

'Young at Heart is not the way the over-50s want to be spoken to,' says Thomson head of PR Rachel O'Reilly. 'These people do not think of themselves as old and are just as likely to go on the same holidays as couples in their 20s and 30s.'

While Thomson still has Young at Heart and its staple of Spanish beach holidays aimed at the over-60s, white-water rafting, walking and hot-air ballooning are now the holidays more likely to be promoted.

O'Reilly and other PROs draw a very similar blank when asked about the publications they would use to target the 45 to 60-year-olds.

Although they admit that some publications, like the establishment Daily Telegraph, are more likely to have this kind of readership, they point out that women in their 50s could just as easily be reading the more youthful Red magazine.

'It is an age group that you can get very wrong and it is more defined by lifestyle, life stages and attitude,' says Ketchum Life division managing director Serena de Morgan.

Consolidated Communications board director Katie Eva puts it another way: 'It's about what's happening in people's lives and not the year they were born.'

The common theme in these comments is a fear that in making a direct appeal to the 45-60 age group, one might in some way appear to be patronising.

'If your target is 45-year-olds, do you really want to make them feel that they are 45?' asks Exposure managing partner Mark Stringer. 'People are getting their lives back much earlier then they used to and learning to take time out.'

Stringer's view is that, as with other social groups, the key is to allow people to feel that they do not have to conform to stereotype. As an example, he points to Exposure client Oxo, which emphasised what housewives could do with meals when rebranding its Oxo family rather than what they were expected to cook.

Defining the group

But a more potent change in the definition of what a 45 to 60-year-old is has meant that these people cannot identify with the images that are supposed to attract them. It is not uncommon for parents in their 50s and 60s to have very young children, making the traditional grey holiday seem less appealing and youthful mobile phones more attractive.

That said, Nokia UK head of corporate communications Mark Squires says that if the middle-aged group can be targeted at all, the method doesn't have to be that sophisticated: 'We know that in that particular age group, ease of use is paramount. So too many buttons to push is a turn-off.'

Forty-five to 60-year-olds constitute a big spending market that is politically influential, but the difficulty in defining who these people are has often led to a cack-handed lumping together of the group with the over-60s.

It is a strategy that is doomed to fail with a section of society that is perhaps more sensitive about its age than any other.

There are few PROs - in-house or agency - that will honestly claim to have had much experience in targeting such a narrow age group, and this is almost certainly because clients have not realised its significance as a market.

But the race to capture the attention of 45 to 65-year-olds is on, and it is not an easy course to run.

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