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Age-based labels: time to defy generational categories and clichés in marketing and PR

Agency insights - 2nd May 2023
Age-based labels: time to defy generational categories and clichés in marketing and PR

I was recently surprised by an article discussing how brands and marketers can better engage people aged ‘over 50’. It featured a group of marketing leaders discussing how the over-50s represent an untapped market, and how marketers can use influencers to better engage them.

And therein lies my concern. Since when did the over 50s become its own category? I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt as it may not have been meant as a sweeping generalisation, but it’s not the first time I’ve seen evidence of it – I’ve been asked myself in recent months how to target ‘that age group’, watched a webinar on the same topic and been in a workshop where someone asked that very question.

For the record, I’ve recently turned 50. My mum is in her 70s; my father in his 80s. According to the article and general discussion, we now seemingly exist in the same age group – with the same interests, preferences, and behaviours.

Interestingly, this generalisation speaks to a wider issue in the marketing, advertising, and PR worlds. Before we can walk, talk, or even have conscious thoughts – the majority of us are lumped into categories. Broad, sweeping assumptions about our personalities, tastes, and preferences based on arbitrary parameters like our gender, age, ethnicity, background, location, and more.

Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Baby Boomers – our age often dictates how we’re marketed to, how brands interact with us, and what we’re presented with any time we unlock our phone or open our laptop. These categories can and do have their place though – Dr Eliza Filby is a great generational expert who regularly delivers valuable and insight-driven content on generational values.

Rejecting stereotypes

However, this is where brands and marketers are falling short. And it rings especially true when targeting anyone aged over 50, a broad age group swarming with clichés. If the stereotypes are to be believed, everyone over a certain age wants to retire and go on a Saga holiday or cruise. They struggle with anything remotely technological and are wildly out of touch with the latest trends – it’s essentially ageism in advertising.

The reality is, humans are wonderfully complex and nuanced. No two of us are the same. We possess different hobbies, skills, and behaviours. And we want to be treated as an individual, not just another number in an arbitrary age group.

For example, someone in their 60s could go on cycling or hiking holidays in the Alps, while someone in their early 20s might love a caravan or canal boat trip in the UK. Just look at one of the UK’s most popular trainspotting influencers, an eccentric 22-year-old called Francis Bourgeois. He has over 1.6 million followers on Instagram alone, but if we were to listen to marketing and advertising clichés, his hobbies and interests typically place him in an older age category.

Keeping track of evolving tastes and preferences

From a purely anecdotal perspective, friends and colleagues agree. But it’s also an attitude backed by industry research. A recent Adobe report highlights there are an increasing number of people rejecting age-based labels:

  • Only one in three (31%) of British consumers find age-based groups relevant or useful.
  • Over three-quarters (76%) say they’re individuals with unique tastes, and don’t fit the generational labels into which they’re born.
  • Half of people (50%) expect brands to know who they are as individuals, and only engage them with content that’s relevant to who they are, in the moment.

Another consideration for brands is that our personalities evolve over time. We change and grow based on our experiences. The person we were five years ago may be wildly different from the person we are today.

According to the same research, over three-quarters (76%) of Brits say their tastes change every few months and are unimpressed when brands can’t keep up with their evolving preferences. Meanwhile, over half (51%) say they’re different people when compared to before the COVID-19 pandemic.

For example, many people may have picked up a new hobby during the pandemic. However, if that hobby didn’t stick, we expect brands to recognise and adapt to this – they collect enough of our consented information, after all.

Dynamic targeting and real-time insight

So, what’s the takeaway? First off, we need to stop lumping everyone over the age of 50 into the same category. It’s much better to base analysis and discussion on tighter, more specific generation categories.

But in today’s age, and with the vast arrays of personalisation technology and expertise on offer, we can go even further than that, combining historical and real-time insights to create an accurate picture of who that person is in the moment. Not last year, not last month, but right now.

If we think more dynamically about how we target people, and begin rejecting the stereotypical generational labels that consumers are already telling us they dislike, we can begin marketing to people based on the unique individuals they are.

For support in targeting your niche audience, how best to understand and reach them, let’s have a chat:

Trudi Beggs