Online Extra: Marketers, Don't Call Them "Seniors"

Companies that think today's 50-plus boomers are like their parents are missing a huge opportunity, says consultant Matt Thornhill

This year, about half of the 77 million members of the baby boom generation will be age 50 or older. In the marketing business, age 50 has traditionally been the age at which a consumer's value to mass marketers plummets. But boomers, with their vast numbers, unprecedented wealth and life expectancy, and surprisingly energetic lifestyles, present a huge business opportunity to marketers ranging from consumer-products and clothing companies to auto makers and food companies.

BusinessWeek Correspondent Louise Lee spoke with Matt Thornhill, president of The Boomer Project, a marketing consulting firm based in Richmond, Va., about Corporate America's changing attitudes toward the middle-aged consumers. Edited excerpts follow:

Why is the boomer generation in danger of falling off the marketing radar screen?

Boomers have aged themselves out of the traditional sweet spot of ages 18 to 49. As boomers aged, advertisers and marketers started to ignore them. Now, advertisers are slowly waking up to it. For example Gap (GPS ) is re-embracing the audience, with its new store concept for boomer women.

Why are marketers targeting the boomers now?

The 50-and-up market will grow by 70% over the next 15 years. Four million people a year are hitting age 50. It's adding up. There's enough to take notice. If you're going to grow your business, you will have to market to people over 50.

Why does the notion of middle-age traditionally turn marketers off?

There has been a myth that brand choices are established at a young age and once set, they're set in stone. It's true in some categories, like soap and shampoo. It's not true on cars, shoes, coffee, and TVs. They wrongly believe that 50-plussers won't be their consumers for long.

Which companies are doing the right thing in regard to boomers?

Certain companies are moving in the right direction. With its amusement parks, Disney (DIS ) has sent the message "come back after the kids are gone." People in the ads are clearly in their 50s.

Kitchenware retailer Sur La Table holds cooking classes. It appeals to boomers with time and money and interest in experiences and less interest in things. They've already got a kitchen full of gizmos. Now they want to know what to do with them all.

Pillsbury sells resealable bags of frozen biscuits. Ads show two empty nesters and the Pillsbury Doughboy dims the lights so they can reconnect with each other now that the kids are gone.

What influence has the boomer generation had on marketers?

The mass-marketing age didn't happen until boomers came around. As boomers grew up, they've always driven category after category, whether imported cars or Nikes. They've been the target for most marketing efforts up until they aged themselves out of the 18-to-49 demographic. Now they're transforming what it means to be older, to be a grandparent. And companies need to take note.

How much more work do marketers have left to do?

About 66% of boomers over age 50 still agree with the statement, "Advertisers target people younger than me." Someone needs to slap [companies] upside the head and say, "You need to keep targeting them."

How should marketers view the boomer generation?

They aren't "seniors." Jerry Seinfeld and Howard Stern are in their 50s. So is Robin Williams. You can't label them as "seniors." Boomers don't want age-related labels to describe themselves.

The generation gap is still there. Boomers don't want much to do with their parents. Marketers shouldn't group them with the previous generation of seniors. They should treat these 50-year-olds as a separate group.

What's the main difference between the boomer generation and their parents' generation?

The boomers' parents lived a linear life of school, job, marriage, kids, worked 40 years with a single company, retired, and moved away to Florida. Boomers live a cyclical life of school, job, marriage, children, divorce, new marriage, job, more school, relocation, new career, and so forth. You can't conclude where a boomer is in life just by age.

What's the implication of continuing to work past the traditional retirement age of 65?

Most boomers believe they'll keep working. If they do that, they keep earning disposable income. They keep spending money on work clothes, buying things. They keep looking for jobs and stay active.

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