The key to marketing to seniors? Don’t say “old”.

According to company tradition, the idea for Nike’s CruzrOne sneaker – a well-padded, chunky-soled running shoe that debuted in 2019 – arose out of a conversation between Nike designer Tinker Hatfield, and Phil Knight, the company’s co-founder. Hatfield made the mistake of congratulating Knight on his habit of walking 8 miles a day and received a quick beating from his billionaire boss.

“I was running,” Knight said dryly in a promotional video, with a slightly aggrieved expression. “I don’t run very fast.”

Nike makes shoes for sprinters and distance runners that cover all kinds of terrain. The conversation with Knight left Hatfield with the idea of ​​designing a shoe for a large, rapidly growing and often overlooked market: runners in no rush.

“There has to be a shoe for the slower runner,” Knight says in the ad. “And that’s me.”

What isn’t explicitly said in the video is that Knight is 80 years old. Age is never mentioned in CruzrOne’s marketing copy. By positioning the CruzrOne as a shoe that provides excellent support for runners who for some reason go at an extremely slow pace, Nike can bring to the mainstream market a product designed for older athletes.

It’s a perfect example of what Rob Chess, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, calls “stealth design”: a product that meets the specific needs of older consumers in a form that doesn’t scream, well, ” old “.

“Basically you put all of these elements that make it a lot more usable by an older customer, but you don’t necessarily advertise and showcase those elements,” Chess said. “Or if you do, you sure don’t position them like, you know, ‘Damn, we’re doing this for the elderly. “” (A Nike spokesperson declined interview requests.)

It’s part of a sea change in the way companies market their products to consumers who have lived past their 55th birthday. The large and rapidly expanding demographic has enormous purchasing power, but it has always been treated as a cohesive group that spends their days either in the shady hobbies of a Viagra ad or in the frail addiction of a. spot Life Alert.

In contrast, according to longevity experts, the most effective marketing campaigns today focus on the specific needs that a product or service meets and the lifestyle of the person buying it, ideally without explicitly mentioning age.

“I still see the word ‘senior’ and ‘elderly’ too often,” said Susan Golden, director of dciX, a Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute program for midlife professionals, and lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “The idea is to market not a name and not an age, but the stage of life or dynamism.”

In April, US households headed by people aged 55 or older held $ 92.3 trillion, or 69% of the country’s total wealth, according to Lowell Ricketts, a data scientist at the Institute for Economic Equity at the Federal Reserve Bank. of St. Louis. Today’s seniors are richer than previous generations, and there are many more of them. By 2060, 95 million people in the United States will be 65 or older, up from 52 million in 2018, and will make up 23% of the population, up from 16%, according to the Population Reference Bureau, a non-profit research group. Washington’s lucrative.

“They are the greatest opportunity and the fastest growing opportunity,” said Chess.

One of the reasons why so few products target the elderly is the belief of many entrepreneurs that they are less willing to switch brands or explore new products, said John Zapolski, Founder and CEO of Alive Ventures. , a startup studio that invests in brands focused on seniors. Another is that many people whose birth dates might qualify them for demographics don’t like to think of themselves as old or don’t relate to the version of the old one presented in a particular advertisement.

A marketing campaign that positions a product for an aging consumer is unlikely to attract younger buyers, said Joseph Coughlin, founder and director of AgeLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“But guess what? ” he added. “We also know that the elderly will run away with their hair on fire.”

Rather, Coughlin said companies should position their products as being for “an ageless lifestyle” that “keeps people engaged and productive, healthy and healthy.”

On the one hand, this approach risks dressing the same social stereotypes and pressures in new language, such as magazine covers urging readers to ‘get back healthy’ rather than explicitly telling them to lose weight, or makeup ads promising skin that looks “revitalized” without using the word “youth”.

On the other hand, focusing on the actual needs of consumers rather than their presumed age has the added benefit of appealing to all potential users of a product. One example offered by Margaret Morganroth Gullette, cultural critic and resident researcher at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, is the recent marketing campaign for Depend Absorbent Underwear.

“He’s an athlete, 20 reps deep,” an announcer intones in a 2020 ad as a middle-aged woman trains outdoors, “and sprinting past every leak.” In another TV spot, a woman who doesn’t seem old enough to collect Social Security is leading a business meeting.

Not all older people use absorbent underwear, but all people with incontinence do: people who are pregnant or in the postpartum period, who take certain medications, who have bladder problems, or a number of them. temporary or recurring health problems.

“It made absorbent underwear worthy and part of ordinary life,” Gullette said. An advertisement that recognizes this bodily reality, rather than simply showing an older model, she said, is “in some ways more revolutionary.”

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