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Dick Stroud, founder of 20 plus 30, knows more than most about what motivates the 50s+ to buy. In this feature he offers some tried and tested techniques for understanding older consumers.

Many researchers approach projects involving ‘older people’ and the study of their behaviour with an unwritten assumption that age is a useful proxy for behaviour. Life would be so simple if we could predict the needs, wants and desires of consumers purely on the basis of their chronological age.

The reality is far more complex. Age is one of the many factors that aggregate together to determine the dynamics of older consumers’ decision making.

Theories of ageing and behaviour

In addition to ageing there are a dozen other factors that can influence behavior. These are definitions of the most commonly used.

The Zeitgeist Effect
This is also known as the cohort or generational effect. The concepts are based on the ideas of the sociologist Karl Mannheim who theorised that generations have a collective set of outlooks, tastes and desires. The American marketer Brent Green is a leading proponent of this theory and believes that understanding these formative experiences provides insights that can be used to refine marketing strategies

Lifestyle
This is a collective description for the economic, educational, social and cultural factors that influence how older people behave. These factors can be aggregated into geodemographic segments like those used by Experian and CACI. In this case geographic location and housing type are used as a proxy to predict the lifestyle factors.

Alternatively, these might be bespoke lifestyle groups like the ones created by the media agency OMD, as mentioned in Janet Kiddle’s earlier paper. In addition to behaviour, lifestyle will influence practical characteristics such as life expectancy and healthiness.

Lifestage
The transition from work to retirement, from living in multi to single generation households and crossing the threshold to assume responsibility for parental care are three of the major lifestage events that older people experience. All of these can have a significant impact on behaviours.

The Mortality Effect
At the age of 65 a man can expect 10 more years of healthy life expectancy, women a year or two more. Most older people are not aware of this fact but they will be conscious of the onset of physical ageing and age-related illnesses. The youthful assumption that life will continue much as before is replaced with the awareness of their mortality. The ‘ticking clock’ can be the initiator of major life-changing events (i.e. the increasing divorce rate for 60 year olds).

Psychological
There is a collection of theories that are used to explain how ageing influences human values, self-awareness, beliefs, priorities and our very reason for being. The late David Wolfe was probably the most vocal proponent of the importance of these age related psychological factors as the mechanism for understanding behaviour in later life.

Gender
There are multiple theories about the difference in the consumer behavior of men and women but little that explains how these behaviours change as people age. The American marketers Marti Barletta (Marketing to Women, 2007) and Carol Orsborn (coauthor of Boom: Marketing to the Ultimate Power Consumer, 2006) have done most to expand our understanding of this subject.

Physiological
The most obvious outcome of ageing are the resulting physiological changes. There are at least 25 cognitive, physical and sensory ways in which our bodies change that are relevant to marketers. This is a surprisingly under-researched subject considering that physical ageing affects everybody, irrespective of nationality, wealth and social background.

Physiological ageing can be used to identify new product opportunities and to optimise the customer touchpoints so they are responsive to the ageing consumer population. This is the author’s primary area of research.

Researchers should also appreciate three other factors:

  • Nationality – there are significant ‘nationality effects’ that influence the way people age.
  • Sexuality – in some circumstances the sexuality of the older person is an important determinant of behavior.
  • The Recessionary Effect – the economic upheaval of the recession has altered many of the assumptions that older people have about their lifestyle and that of their children. This can create major upheavals in priorities and lifestyle.

Each of these theories has a band of loyal supporters who believe that their ideas are the best and possibly only way of understanding the machinations that make older people behave the way they do. The reality of researching the older market requires researchers to blend together the most appropriate mix of these factors.

What works in practice

With so many things influencing how they behave it is surprising that older people make any decisions.

For the last decade I have been trying to answer the question: “what theory to use in what circumstances” but there are no simple answers. I will conclude this short paper with my suggestions for making the best decision when formulating a research methodology to understand the older demographic.

The Zeitgeist Effect

Overall Verdict:
Intellectually appealing but extremely difficult to apply

Applications and Usefullness
It is a truism that an individual's formative experiences will affect their behaviour in later life. The difficult task is identifying a set of experiences that are shared by and have a uniform impact on a whole generation. More difficult still is to combine cohort effects with tangible factors such as lifestage and lifestyle.

Lifestyle

Overall Verdict:
Simple for tangible variables – harder for aspirational factors

Applications and Usefullness
Irrespective of a person’s age, the tangible factors of lifestyle are simple to identify and research (e.g. income, wealth, education, socio-economic group). The emotional factors are much harder to migrate from the research environment to their practical application (e.g. attitude to risk, positive outlook).

Lifestage

Overall Verdict:
Relatively simple but getting harder as lifestage boundaries become less well defined

Applications and Usefullness
Lifestage is a powerful factor but there is an increasing variation in the starting point and duration of the different phases. Important events like ‘retirement’ and ‘becoming empty nesters’ are less defined and likely to become more so.

The Mortality Effect

Overall Verdict:
Very powerful influencer of behaviour – difficult to apply

Applications and Usefullness
As the incidence of death and serious illness increases with age so does the importance of the ‘ticking clock’ syndrome. Perhaps because the discussion of death and infirmity are sensitive issues this factor is used less than would be expected.

Psychological

Overall Verdict:
The theory and constructs appear well founded in academic research but difficult to apply

Applications and Usefullness
This factor shares many of the same advantages and disadvantages as the Zeitgeist Effect. The theory appears obvious and appealing but extremely difficult for marketing practioneers to use in practice. So whilst the factor is useful as a conceptual framework it is difficult to apply when researching consumer preferences for fmcg products.

Gender

Overall Verdict:
Very powerful influence butdifficult to combine withother factors

Applications and Usefullness
Arguably the most important factor that determines household behaviour. All the evidence suggests that women become increasingly important in decision making as they age. What is less well understood is how the gender dynamic will change in future age cohorts of older people.

Physiological

Overall Verdict:
Simple to understand and toapply

Applications and Usefullness
The effects of physiological ageing are relatively easy to predict. The challenge is combining this factor with lifestyle. For instance, there is a sizeable number of older people who react to physical ageing by placing greater importance on wellness. Approximately the same percentage chose to ignore the results.

 

Dick Stroud
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2012