At its summer evening event, ‘Grey is the New Black’, delegates deliberated the hot topic of marketing to the over 50s. Three speakers provided varied and vivid insights into the older customer, producing some assumption-popping examples of how we get it wrong.

There is an experience gap in marketing to the over 50s. Most brand managers and researchers are under 35. So, while we may understand what it’s like to be young (or think we do), it’s a challenge to conceive what it is to be older.

No one wants to be seen as ‘grey’, ‘silver’ or the dreaded ‘evergreen’. However, finding a better descriptor is a challenge. The WPP Group’s Jeremy Bullmore admitted to being addressed as ‘a concession’ in his local cinema; ‘sex god’ was another suggestion; perhaps the PC alternative might be ‘life-rich’?

A key insight here came from both Jeremy and Seymourpowell’s Richard Seymour; don’t think ‘them’, think ‘us’. Relate to older consumers as ‘me in the future’. We’re unlikely to patronise our future selves.

Richard talked about the ‘slip-up in temporal calibration’ that means you reach an older age group than you target (this may work the other way round under 25). Jeremy reinforced the thought -- explaining that at 74 he is still a young, vibrant, attractive man inside -- the young Robert Redford to be exact. He doesn’t empathise with ads with lots of grey models.

There are real, age-related changes that require well-designed responses. Richard’s passionate plea is that these need not be compromises. An easy grip tap can be an ordinary one with ugly rubber additions, or a beautiful design that just happens to fit arthritic hands perfectly.

He also threw out a real challenge to research on design, showing a film of an older man struggling with the lock on his Stair-lift while singing its praises, and pointing out that traditional research would often report the words without the actions.

Headlight Vision’s Crawford Hollingworth reminded us that ‘older’ is not a homogeneous group; generations have distinct pasts, attitudes and behaviours. He contrasted living through the war years with the hedonism of the flower children. It’s a salutary thought that some of today’s grandparents were punks in the 70s.

We were urged to consider the changing lives of over 50s -- retirement, nests emptying, health issues -- and think afresh. What does an emptying nest mean to people, what do they lose, what do they gain, what opportunity might that create for brands?

Increasing health and time consciousness seem potent platforms for marketing. Older people procrastinate less -- they are no longer immortal -- and while they take more time over things they enjoy, they resent increasingly time wasted. Understanding this ‘value for energy’ equation in relation to a brand or sector can furnish a new perspective on potential bonds and barriers for older customers.

The sexes can respond differently to changes that come with age -- even if they are part of a couple. At the extremes, women may be inspired by more time to themselves, while men suffer a crisis at the withdrawal of activities like work and sport by which they have hitherto defined themselves. Fuller understanding and recognition of these factors represents another key challenge for both research and marketing.

We also need to examine the ties with youth. Parental work commitments mean many grandparents are at least part-time gatekeepers for many youth targeted brands, and also increasingly subject to the influence of youth. This suggests our assumptions about targeting either of these groups need much closer interrogation in the future.

We’re guilty of typecasting the over 50s -- perhaps because it suits us. But why should they retire quietly (and save all their hard-earned money to pass on to the next generation) when they are as hungry for life as the rest of us? They are still open to change and new experiences -- particularly if they are able to offer something better or more interesting.

Richard brought this heartfelt point home. He’s just 50, and mad as hell because his motorcycle insurance has dropped to an undignified low. How dare they assume he is no longer capable of raising hell? Excerpts from an Esquire survey showed that older men were actually more into sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll than other age groups.

My own, life-rich parents have labelled themselves ‘eccentric old menaces’; a delicate apologia to their middle-aged daughters for the fact that, at least in their book, retiring is a life stage rather than a state of mind.