When is a Niche Market a Mass Market?

I don’t usually start my column with a riddle, but it seems appropriate for the topic of marketing and selling to baby boomers.

We’re talking 90 million people in North America between the ages of 46 and 64, with a disposable income of $2 trillion. In Canada, about one-third of us are boomers, so marketing to us makes sense. First, let’s define this demographic in terms of what type of people they are; as one of them, I feel I can be honest here and say we’re wonderful people but, as J. Walker Smith and Ann Clurman say in Generation Ageless, “For decades, baby boomers have been chided for being self-absorbed, self-confident, and utterly self-centered, even narcissistic. There’s no argument here. Guilty as charged.” For better or worse, sales and marketing strategies better consider these traits, or they will fail. The subject of marketing to boomers is massive, and I thoroughly recommend their book. But for now, my half dozen truths.
First truth: we may age but we will never get old. Never call us seniors, not now when many of us are still in our 50s and not when we’re in our 60s or 70s. I know lots of people eligible for free passage mid-week on BC Ferries who still pay rather than admit they’re seniors. And don’t call us sir or madam, either. Market to us as if were young and vibrant — that’s how we see ourselves.
Second truth: we are far from stupid. Don’t ever, ever treat us as if we are stupid — that is just going to tick us off. I went into a local car dealer recently and couldn’t believe the rubbish the saleswoman was telling me; there was no way I was going to buy from her.
Third truth: we like to be treated royally. We think we’re special. We expect attention. If we were a personality type, we’d be “expressive” or “type A.” We like applause. It’s all about exceptional customer service.
Fourth truth: we’re not boring. Focus on what we like and what keeps us young. Remember, we may be aging but we’re still out to have fun and to seek experiences. The keys to our youthful attitude are adventure, fun, vigour, novelty, rule-breaking, and individuality. Build these into your promotional campaign. Promote the experience, not the product or service.
Fifth truth: many of us are free of some, if not all, of our responsibilities and want to play. Many boomers are not close to retirement and may never completely retire. Currently, we are in the empty-nest period and looking to spread our wings. Market products and services that emphasize this new freedom.
Sixth truth: boomers want quality. Boomers are highly discriminating. When downsizing homes, we may look for something smaller but of high quality. When trading in the minivan, we look for a vehicle that’s smaller but more luxurious or sportier. We want the highest quality we can afford, even if it stretches us financially.
Beyond these few truths, boomers like to express themselves and create value through experiences and not necessarily through material possessions, which we have a habit of taking for granted. We are a generation that got almost everything we ever wanted since childhood. That’s not to say that we don’t like to buy things, but we are looking for things that are special, that offer more. Boomers are smart buyers and look for intangible benefits over and above the norm.
As consumers, what are boomers buying? It all comes down to lifestyle. Boomers consider travel a necessity and spend on vacations. As they are aging, but heaven forbid, not getting older, there is a disconnect between mind and body so anything to do with fitness is on their radar. Health is an increasing concern, and technology is doing its part to bring boomer-oriented products to market, such as home defibrillators and wristwatches that transmit health data from patient to doctor.
What about the economic downturn? Isn’t that going to trim the sails of these profligate spenders? Well, it didn’t in the late ’70s, through rampant inflation, the oil crisis, and unstable markets. During that period, boomers refused to downgrade their expectations, continued to demand, and got what they wanted, and so it will be in 2010. The boomer market is nothing if not resilient.
So when is a niche market a mass market? When, as Yankelovich’s recent study shows, one niche market is the 27 per cent of boomers who purchased a pet since becoming empty nesters — an incredible niche/mass market of 6.2 million people, worth an estimated $3 billion. Choose the boomer niche of your choice — there are plenty.