Baby Boomers: The New Disability Market

Note: This article was originally written for Brandchannel on December 16, 2011.

Young adults dressed in 1960's hippie style at a gathering
In the 1960s, these baby boomers turned Western culture upside down. In the 2010s, they will challenge our perceptions of what senior citizens can do.

As 2011 winds down, it will be remembered as the year the baby boomers turned 65 for the first time, become officially eligible for Social Security next year, and increasingly experience the challenges of an aging body. Long a marketer’s dream by virtue of their sheer size, baby boomers will redefine yet another demographic: the mature consumer.

For decades, consumers who are over 60 have generally been treated as a separate entity in consumer purchasing decisions, as infirmities associated with aging give rise to products and services that specifically accommodate them. Such products include the Clapper, large-print books, and a growing assortment of stylish home products for the eight in ten boomers who told the AARP they intend to “age in place.”

Baby boomers have long been defined by their active lifestyles, openness to technology, and willingness to go against conventional thinking. They’re working longer, retiring later — or earlier, to launch dream businesses — and maintaining the healthy and active lifestyles that inspire some marketers to call them “zoomers.” More sophisticated than their parents’ generation, don’t expect them to be interested in a gimmicky product that makes it easier to turn lights off and on without getting up from the couch.

This presents a challenge for brands that want to capture the aging baby boomer market, but are not well equipped to understand what the market wants. For decades, marketers were used to advertising to younger people because they typically represented the largest age group in the classic population pyramid, and they’re open to new ideas and had the disposable income to adopt them.

Yet as baby boomers reach their golden years, they still represent a quarter of the population of the U.S., control 80% of personal financial assets, over 50% of discretionary spending, 77% of prescription drug purchases, and 61% of over-the-counter medication sales. By limiting themselves to wooing younger generations, businesses risk shunning a demographic that will continue to be a significant influence in business and political decisions in the U.S. and other developed countries with declining birth rates.

Marketers may well look to a market that millions of baby boomers will become part of because of debilitating conditions associated with aging: people with disabilities. People who have spent their lives living with specific disabilities have long experience with purchasing products that enable them to function effectively in society. Like baby boomers, they do not always want the Clapper, either.

The disabled community knows what it needs: robust, reliable and effective products that enable people with disabilities to live out the lives they desire. The technological advances that gave us the computer, the Internet, and mobile devices have opened up a whole set of amazing possibilities for people with disabilities. Ekso Bionics’ exoskeleton prototype is a forward-thinking example of what some paraplegics want: not merely content with wheelchairs, they want to walk on an equivalent eye-level with their non-paraplegic peers. Instead of hearing aids, deaf people are increasingly embracing cochlear implants that not only amplify sound, but also open up access to the entire range of sounds previously only available to those with normal hearing. Research is being done on retinal implants that could enable blind people to see better – some of them, it seems, would toss their walking canes if they could.

Increasingly, companies and brands are trying to adapt to the baby boomer reality with new products, services and messages aimed at the aging segment and people with disabilities. Those that are smart about adapting to the shifting needs and abilities of aging consumers may find themselves looking a lot more attractive to consumers who have become used to dealing with brands that have never really taken their needs into account.

The disability market alone cannot be ignored. More than 54 million Americans have a disability, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. A Johns Hopkins study published last month estimates that about one in five Americans aged 12 and older have a hearing loss that is severe enough to make communication difficult. The study concludes that about 48 million Americans have hearing loss in at least one ear, and found that hearing loss doubled every decade of life. So remember that HR executive who timidly suggested captioning your web videos in the name of corporate social responsibility? Do it now and put it under your marketing budget. Yell, if you must, and take comfort in the knowledge that 20% of your team probably won’t understand what you said.

When it comes to serving the juggernaut of baby boomers approaching their twilight years, consider a pioneering report from AT Kearney called “What do Mature Consumers Want?” The study surveyed almost 3,000 people in 23 countries. One of the main takeaways of this report, says Jim Morehouse, senior partner of AT Kearney in Chicago, is that “retailers will deal with older consumers who will have difficulty reading labels in their stores, and who need a place to sit down and relax while shopping. For businesses that focus on efficiency for busy younger consumers with little free time, this will be a major change in their retailing philosophy.” Yet, go to a department store, and more often than not, employees will continue to steer shoppers to what they think they want, with little consideration for their specific (age-related) needs.

Marketers consistently overlook consumers with different needs because they’re perceived to be a hassle: larger type, tailored messages, accessible design, and other adaptations cost money. We prefer that our brands be viewed as aspirational instead of practical, even though these instincts need not be mutually exclusive.

The reality is that, just like in any part of the business, marketing results need to be measured through increased sales and ROI. When dealing with a huge demographic that is aging yet still holds a majority of disposable income, the marketing meme can be reframed in a way that incorporates aging baby boomers into the dialogue.

An added incentive: When products and services are marketed in a way that is inclusive to those over 60, they also attract younger consumers. Universal design (or inclusive design) has been demonstrated to satisfy and excite consumers of any age. Look at how Steve Jobs championed simple, easy-to-use products that could appeal to everyone — and demanded that the design of Apple’s iPods, iPhones and iPads appeal to all users in an appealing, elegant way. (Of course, Siri is not accessible to deaf people who sign, but trust Apple to pay attention to customer feedback to figure out a way to address that in future versions.)

Brands that creatively address the shifting needs of aging consumers will find themselves in a win-win situation with new markets to tap. Employing multiple forms of communication raises the odds that your message will get through, and might also be adapted to populations in which English is not a first language. The technologies that make life easier for your customers can increase loyalty within your ranks, and internal brand engagement, too.

To start, marketers could take a page or two out of the playbook of companies that do profit from people with disabilities: wheelchair makers like Braun and Permobil, hearing aid manufacturers like Starkey and Siemens, and other assistive device-makers that have long served people with disabilities. Central to their sales message is that they understand the needs of the customers they serve, and modify their products to best suit what they need. As AT Kearney’s Morehouse puts it, “Wal-Mart and IBM need to observe how companies have successfully served people with disabilities, and incorporate those best practices to accommodate the needs of mature consumers.”

“A major challenge for senior citizens with hearing loss is face-to-face interaction with consumer-facing businesses, such as rental car companies, airlines, and department stores,” says Brenda Battat, the Executive Director of the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA). “There needs to be sensitivity among these businesses in servicing late-deafened baby boomers to make sure they get what they need.”

The usual instinct when serving people with disabilities is to be earnest and condescending — which immediately gives consumers the message that you either feel sorry for them or think they’re part of a club you will never belong to. Ann O’Reilly of Euro RSCG argues that “the baby boom generation is unlikely to take kindly to images of doddering seniors unable to help themselves, such as the medical alert commercials showing old ladies on the floor saying ‘I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!'” Instead, O’Reilly says, play to your customers’ strengths and desire for products that enhance their lives.

If your marketing team is limited to 23-year-old Facebook fans who seem cut from a similar cloth, then it helps to augment it with people who reflect the audience you’re trying to reach. Although studies consistently show that diverse teams are more productive and successful, most companies have yet to appreciate the business case for diversity among their own staff.

Policymakers may look at the aging population as a burden that will drain public coffers and slow growth. For business leaders and marketers, however, boomers are a huge opportunity to engage a new set of brand loyalists. By understanding and adapting to the shifting needs of mature consumers, including looking to lessons learned from marketing to disabled consumers, they can figure out ways to make their products and messages reach a much wider and deeper audience of influencers. As boomers increasingly cope with the challenges that millions of people with disabilities have been dealing with every day, the consequences could be profound.

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