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The grey market

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The grey market

If life is more shades of grey than just black and white, why is it that Indian advertising doesn't feature many older people or senior citizens? Why is it that even products apt for that age group, such as anti-wrinkle cream, don't feature anyone older than 35? Is having them as the face of a brand `uncool'? (Discounting the Big B, of course.)

Many marketing experts believe that with growing life expectancy and a change in mindset, there is a big market in the 50-plus age group of the near future. This is today's and tomorrow's older-but-younger generation. One that has more money to spend, one that doesn't mind loosening the purse strings to spend a bit of that money on itself rather than put it away for the children or for a nest egg to stand them in good stead for the winter of their lives. It's a breed that believes in retiring from work, not from life, to quote an advertisement for insurance.

Catalyst spoke to some companies, advertising professionals and marketing consultants across various sectors to get a feel of what they thought of the issue. Most companies said that as the bulk of the consuming population comprised the youth, it made sense to speak only to them. A spokesperson for Hindustan Lever said: "In India, with 60 per cent of the population less than 25 years of age — and that is going to be so for the future also — the youth and middle-aged form a very large consumer group, which itself has not been fully addressed. In any case, HLL's range of home and personal care products and foods and beverages is targeted at families, comprising consumers of all ages. While we do not have any product specifically targeted at consumers over the age of 60, our products — a soap, a detergent, a toothpaste, shampoo — given their essential use, get automatically used by them as members of families."

The growing population of the greying still forms a small percentage, but in absolute numbers, it's sizeable, says Suresh Kumar of Mindspark Consulting. According to Census 2001 data, there are about 7.7 crore people above 60 years, constituting 7.2 per cent of the population. This is an increase from 6.8 per cent in 1991. According to WHO, this population's size will be 137 million by 2021. By 2010, there are going to be 24.8 crore of people aged above 45 and 15 crore aged above 55, he says, adding that the consumers among them "will certainly want services to meet their pace; not a tourist coach which rushes from one spot to another. Marketers will have to repackage their services to suit them."

U. Jairaj Rau, Vice-President & Client Services Director, JWT, Chennai, calls people in the 50-70 age group the "leisure class." Incredibly healthy ("you can't guess their age"), not dependent on their children, more literate than their parents, their income is good as are their savings, is how he describes them. The generation before theirs looked old and dressed old; the leisure class is comparatively more self-indulgent. However, they are very brand-loyal ("which is why older and Indian brands such as Philips and Videocon continue to do well").

They are not dismissed as elderly people, and do have a say in what's being bought. They are the window shoppers; weekdays and daytime is their time, he adds, saying they are making up for the son or daughter who doesn't have the time to shop. They are also "tricky customers," says Rau, in that they pose uncomfortable questions or wangle additional guarantees from the salesperson. They are very much at home with the computer, the Net, and mobile phones, he points out.

Also, as Ramanujam Sridhar, CEO of brand consultancy brandcomm, says, "This generation of elders is better qualified for retirement than the earlier generation. They won't have a problem adjusting to sudden unemployment as they are involved with, say, an NGO or academics. They've also led lives of reasonable comfort and are not going to drop standards of living suddenly. Their children are also not so dependent on them. Companies have not noticed these empty nesters in a big way — they probably fear being perceived as unfashionable."

Brands can retain their youthful faces and yet appeal to older people. According to Sridhar, one-to-one marketing is a big option for companies to tap this target market. To illustrate how much effort can go into understanding a person, he cites the example of the Bangalore Golf Club which keeps reading spectacles handy for its members in the event of their forgetting to bring them along. "Maybe there are easy pickings to be had here. It is a big, big opportunity, but there is very limited action," he says.

Krishna Mohan, Executive Director of O&M, Chennai, says there's huge potential which is growing by the day. Among this target group, the decision-making process is much, much more involved ("Each person will talk to at least five others"); and more importantly, they will talk only to people who understand and empathise with them, he says. Marketing O&M's Kodai Ecovillage for corporate executives who would soon like to withdraw from the rat race to pursue a passion showed him that the chances of closing sales doubled when agents in the same age group as the prospects spoke to them. "This audience needs to be slowly encouraged to buy rather than be given a sales pitch," he says.

From the advertiser's point of view, "youth is aspirational," so teenagers, young adults and young families become the "natural" choice for a brand's image. R. V. Raman, Business Head (Consumer Health Division), Himalaya Drug Company, who brings up the `aspirational' aspect, also says, "The spectrum of the age group depends purely on the product. If both older and younger people can use a product, `younger' can be the image the brand chooses to convey. One of our brands, Pure Herbs Shallaki (used to prevent/control joint pains), portrays an elderly man having fun with his grandson."

Madhukar Sabnavis, Country Manager (Planning), O&M, says it's "an old thought" that old people will make a brand old. Older people are comfortable with their ages, he says, calling it "a general evolution of society." He cites the example of SBI Life ads for pension plans, which feature the elderly, and portray them as being free from financial worries. The latest, in fact, has a husband presenting his wife a diamond ring on Valentine's Day. Interestingly, the target market is not that age group but younger people.

Says Pradeep Pandey, Communications Manager, SBI Life, "We want to speak to those who are 35-plus — that they should start investing money today for a comfortable retirement." Wasn't the company worried about alienating younger people or about appearing old? "We did consider that aspect but the emotions and concerns expressed in the ad — independence, indulgence in a luxury at that age — outweighed that factor. And the ad has been noticed," he says. Even last year, the company used older people in a print campaign and of the Rs 225-crore premium income earned in 2003-04, Rs 40 crore came from the pension plans. On whether SBI Life offered insurance schemes for senior citizens (not so common at present), he said every player would come up with them as the market evolved.

Sabnavis says the market is definitely sitting up and taking note of older people. "It does recognise that target groups are getting older. There is a relatively small number of products now but as it gets larger, advertisers will get more sensitive to them." Portrayal of 35-45-year-olds, quite common nowadays, is in itself a move towards this trend, but only the logical step in the evolution to using older persons, he says, adding that there is a definite trend in various sectors reflecting this reality. "How many movies 20 years ago would show a married couple as the protagonists? Today there are 28-year-old heroes with wives and babies and the audiences lap it up," he points out, adding that retail stores also have Western clothes for women in their thirties and forties.

When asked to name segments that would benefit from targeting older people, most experts Catalyst spoke to chose travel. Though the number and spends of young people are larger, those in their twenties would generally not have the kind of money it takes to go on a cruise or indulge in a hedonistic holiday in Las Vegas. Radhika Shastry, General Manager (India operations) of vacation ownership exchange firm RCI confirms that senior citizens are travelling more than ever before. "Plenty of them own timeshares. They generally do not like to travel during the crowded peak season. Apart from the fact that they like a quiet holiday there are also lots of elderly golfers who take exchanges to golf resorts," she says.

Ratna Chadha, Director (Sales), Tirun Travel Marketing, India Representative, Royal Caribbean International & Celebrity Cruises, says seniors normally look for value but do not downgrade their lifestyle all the same. "If they are accustomed to large spaces they will buy suites. Our experience is that they are mature travellers and know their mind." Royal Caribbean offers special promotional rates exclusively for this segment. "We offer a very comprehensive insurance plan for all passengers including the senior citizens, where there is no age bar, which is to the senior citizens' advantage, unlike other insurances," says Chadha. As many as 35-40 per cent of her customers are senior citizens.

O&M's Sabnavis says FMCG categories may be slow to target older people, unless it's health food. "When the diet food category explodes, given today's health-conscious middle-aged segment, we can expect to see a lot of advertising featuring older people. The previous lot of older people were fairly indulgent and reckless. `Stay healthy' is an important trigger to draw older audiences' attention," he says. Top-end automobiles, like the Mercedes Benz or Lexus, if they ever advertise here, will talk directly to the 50-year-olds.

According to S. Ramesh Kumar, Professor of Marketing, IIM-Bangalore, companies have to make a sustained effort to develop products for this age group. Like an Indian brand of sugar-free products with acceptable taste and reasonable pricing, or a lightweight fabric for apparel. However, these are niche and need adequate research, he cautions.

Recent reports in the Western media have mentioned how some of the world's best-known companies are training their sights on this segment. According to The Wall Street Journal, Ford is preparing to sell a sedan for empty nesters with a trunk that holds eight golf bags. Music retailer Virgin Megastores is redesigning its stores to draw fans of Led Zeppelin and Miles Davis.

The 78 million Americans who were 50 or older in 2001 controlled 67 per cent of the country's wealth ($28 trillion), according to US Census and Federal Reserve data. Households headed by a person in the 55-64 age group had a median net worth of $112,048 in 2000, as compared to the $7,240 reported for the under-35 age group. And in five years, nearly a third of the population will turn at least 50 years old.

The report also mentions that companies are finding ways to stay connected to the youth even as they show older people in their commercials. Sony has a grandmother shooting pictures of sharks under water — younger people identified with it, and older people liked it because it didn't typecast them as tired and mouldy.

Says Mindspark's Suresh, "By making products for older people, companies don't become fuddy-duddy. Whether one's 17 or 70, a brand should make them feel its specific needs have been taken care of."

Seven years ago, Catalyst devoted an entire issue to this subject. The articles pointed out that people above 60 were used in advertisements to build credibility of a product through experience, like a now-bottled-but-always-traditional remedy for fairness. Also that their less-consumerist nature and trait of brand loyalty makes them a somewhat unattractive proposition for advertisers. The issue dealt with how aged people were largely ignored by both Government and society, considered an insignificant minority, and not just in marketing terms.

Does grey matter? It seems it does, at least when it comes to the big bucks. Will this consumer be flattered to be the centre of attention? Or will she hate being categorised as grey, sprightly as she may feel? To twist a proverb, is old gold?


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