OPINION: Time for mature thinking on the over-50 market

When Roger de Haan announced at the end of November that he would be selling his Saga travel and insurance business, there were suggestions that he could get as much as £1bn.

While that in itself is pretty newsworthy, what makes this such an interesting marketing case study is that de Haan's father, who founded the company back in the 50s, was one of the first to spot the profit potential of targeting those aged over 50.

It could be argued that one of the main reasons that Saga has been so successful is that it is still one of a kind. Apart from the usual medical devices and mobility aids, there are few other companies deigning to look at what they disparagingly called the Greys.

This is despite the raft of statistics being produced on a regular basis to show just where the spending power lies. To mention just a few: the over-50s control 80% of the nation's wealth and spend £145bn, or 40% of overall consumer spending. In the US, they control half of the country's disposable income.

There's more: in industrialised countries, people over 50 buy about half of all new cars and have a weakness for the top end of the range, according to The Economist. They also make up the biggest share of TV audiences.

But the herd instinct to worship at the altar of youth when it comes to developing and marketing products and services is still strong. Even if it weren't, the natural tendency is to see anyone over a certain age as part of an amorphous mass.

To be fair, a lot of that is because many in marketing are in their 30s or early-40s and have few reference points that can act as a basis for planning creative executions for this group. What they should do is have a look at a fascinating research report, Mature Thinking, published a few weeks ago by MRB, the research and planning division of specialist over-50s marketing agency Millennium.

It consists of a range of articles analysing every aspect of the mature market and what, how and why it buys. It covers sectors such as finance, cars, leisure, hobbies and charity, along with media habits. For example, it has found that the fastest-growing group online are the over-50s.

The report rubbishes the perception that everyone in this group is the same. Take what it terms the Thrivers, aged 50 to 59, who are redefining what it means to be 50-plus today. They have money, love to experiment, and don't like being depicted as old. They are the ones who came of age in the late-60s and early-70s and who have defined each stage of life as they've passed through it - a position they won't give up just because of age.

Note, too, that those companies brave enough to take their first steps into catering for over-50s can find it helps them with all age groups. A supermarket in Austria that has designed outlets for the older shopper, with free blood pressure tests, magnifying glasses at the checkout and staff aged between 50 and 60, has seen takings rise by 20%.

As Lord MacLaurin says in the report's introduction, it's as if marketers believe the earth is flat and that in marketing terms people slip off the edge as soon as they turn 50. Surely it's time to lay to rest such outdated and unprofitable notions.

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