Business Book Review

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Review: Ageless Marketing - Strategies for Reaching the Hearts and Minds of the New Customer Majority - by David B. Wolfe with Robert E. Snyder


In the 1960s, an age-based “get-them-young-before-some-other-brand-gets-them” marketing mantra emerged in answer to the suddenly large and growing young adult consumer market. According to Wolfe and Snyder, however, with the emergence of the New Customer Majority, consisting of people 40 and older, this aged-based idea has become outmoded. In Ageless Marketing, they present a practical alternative to the 1960s’ approach—one based on the values and desires that appeal to people across generations and that extend the reach of brands because of its inclusionary focus. Integrating new discoveries about human behavior, gleaned from genetic and brain research, and integrating these with time-tested concepts of development psychology, the authors provide a behavioral foundation for viewing and capturing customers that far transcends traditional statistical renderings.

“A fact overlooked by the prevailing Madison Avenue mind-set is that … this New Customer Majority, not youth and pre-middle-aged adults, is the primary source of today’s leading views, values, and behaviors in the marketplace.”
“Experiential segmentation prompts customers to insert themselves into a company’s customer portfolio by enticing their imaginations to flow toward its brands like a cartoon character led toward a tasty treat by a visible stream of aroma.”
In the past, 25-to-44-year-olds contributed more to the GDP than any other 20-year age group, but according to Wolfe and Snyder, this is no longer the case. As a result of the fact that 18-to-34-year-olds declined by 8 million during the 1990s (triggering the end of sales growth in many youth-oriented industries), the 25-to-44-year-old age group will have lost 4.3 million between 2001 and 2010. Thus, spending in this age group is projected to decrease by $115 billion during this period. In sharp contrast, the population consisting of 45-to-64-year-olds will grow by 16 million during this decade, becoming the New Customer Majority, and causing sales to grow by a projected $329 billion. And, by 2010, spending by people 45 and older will be $2.6 to $1.6 trillion more than spending by people between the ages of 18 and 39.

This aging customer universe challenges traditional ideas about segmentation. It is much easier to segment younger people and target them according to the characteristics by which they have been classified, simply because the worldviews, values, and behavior of young people tend to be more closely aligned with those of their peers. However, as people age, they become more individuated and more complex. Thus, those in the New Customer Majority are not so easily classified into any particular type of customer group, but fall into one segment and another, depending upon the shopping context. This means that as the adult median age continues to rise, the challenges of researchers and marketers will become more complex. Wolfe and Snyder believe that meeting this challenge requires seeing these “second-half” customers through a new consciousness.

People in second-half markets tend to be defined more by their core values and lifestyle profiles than by their ages. Around 40, people commonly experience a “personal paradigm shift” in which pursuit of ambitions is moderated by pursuit of balance. Questions like, “What is my life about, anyway?” and “At the end of the day, what matters most in life?” become primary considerations. After years of catering to the needs of their “social self,” these individuals begin a journey of self-actualization toward the “real self.”

Thus, in marketing to this New Customer Majority, it is crucial to understand how the forces of self-actualization drive changes in life purposes, core needs, and buying behavior. Sex, invoked to sell everything imaginable, is no longer the big “S” word in marketing, but has been replaced by the new big S word, self-actualization. And, though Gen Xers and Gen Yers have not yet begun a self-actualization journey, their behavior still seems to be deeply influenced by the New Customer Majority. As boomers pass into and through the autumn of their lives, the sheer weight of their numbers ensures their occupancy of the “psychological center of gravity” (PCG) and their influence on all society.

The authors insist that marketers cannot connect deeply with the hearts and minds of customers who are on this self-actualizing track if they project values that are more appropriate to the lifestyles of the young—lifestyles characterized by narcissistic and materialistic values that make product features, functional benefits, and economic value more salient. General ignorance of this fact, Wolfe and Snyder say, is playing a big role in the declining productivity of marketing.

Because dealing with emotional dimensions of customer behavior is more crucial in second-half markets than in first-half, basing marketing on “experiential segmentation” (i.e., brands are positioned according to the experiences they might lead to) can be more effective than basing it on the features and functional benefits used in market segmentation. By enabling customers to define a brand in terms of their perceptions rather than those of an advertising copywriter, experiential segmentation makes it easier for customers to make an emotional connection to the brand. This is a cornerstone of ageless marketing—a discipline based on values and desires that appeal to people across generational divides. Thus, it extends the reach of brands because of its inclusionary focus.

Wolfe and Snyder note that no two people perceive a product message exactly the same way—that in addition to inherited traits, life history, and present life circumstances, current season of life is a factor in each person’s perceptions. However, because each season is subject to inherent developmental objectives and catalysts, there is a great deal of predictability to these differences.

In Spring (childhood—the first two decades of life), which is characterized by fantastic, magical themes, the developmental objectives involve the acquisition of basic intellectual, emotional, and social skills needed to enter and navigate adulthood with reasonable success. This depends on play (i.e., modeling life), through which learning occurs.

Summer (young adulthood—the second two decades of life) is characterized by romantic, heroic themes. During this period, individuals integrate into social networks and undertake roles that serve their vocational, social, and personal aspirations in order to complete the development of their social selves. Here, the catalyst is a yearning for work, because work provides the material proof of a person’s social and vocational accomplishments. Thus, Summer is the season of acquisitiveness.

Fall (middle adulthood—the third two decades) is a season characterized by realistic, introspective themes by which individuals advance their inner selves to a higher quality of self-expression. This advancement involves an integration with the social self to yield a more resilient and balanced personality. Thus, the focus changes from becoming someone to being someone—it is a move toward a simpler life in which individuals progressively shift away from a focus on things to a focus on experience.

Winter, which constitutes the remaining years is characterized by ironic, paradoxical themes. It is a period of yearning for reconciliation with the world, the self, family, and friends. The result is a transcendent serenity that deepens one’s satisfaction with life and ameliorates any discomfiture with what the future may bring.

Wolfe and Snyder offer this season-of-life framework as a guide to more effective consumer research and marketing. They believe that basing marketing research, strategies, and execution on the developmental objectives and catalysts on the customer’s season of life will make marketing communications more relevant. Understanding the processes and milestones of psychological maturation offers a penetrating 360-degree view of the consumer that forms the backbone of developmental relationship marketing (DRM), Wolfe’s new paradigm for consumer research and marketing. DRM, “a … nonalgorithmic framework for discovering salient information about customers and for guiding the development and implementation of marketing programs,” is offered as an alternative to CRM’s dependence on algorithms. According to the authors, by reducing customers and their attributes to a mathematical problem, CRM reduces crucial nonquantifiable dimensions of the customer’s subjective self; however this subjective self exerts a strong influence on an individual’s motives for buying. CRM systems do an excellent job of tracking what people do, but they do not come close to tracking why people do what they do.

By marketing to values, rather than to age, and by being sensitive to season-of-life factors, marketers can extend their brand’s reach. The key to capturing the hearts and minds of the mature audience lies in first understanding both their most important values and their least. Values are defined as “(a) relatively stable thought or beliefs, (b) about desirable behaviors or ways of living, (c) that transcend situations, (d) guide decision making, and (e) are ordered by relative importance.” Thus, while “values guide actions and judgments across situations, attitudes and opinions are ‘domain-specific’.” For this reason, Value Portraits® offer a new approach to market segmentation that more effectively predicts the marketplace behavior of individuals in their Fall and Winter seasons.

Value Portraits are the results of a set of new, unique studies conducted by J. Walter Thompson’s Mature Market Group and Market Strategies’ Seniors Research Group of adults 45 to 61 and 62 and above. For the 45-to-61-year-olds (“leading-edge boomers”), 34 different values were summarized into the 14 dimensions (ranked from the most to least important )of altruism, family ties, intellectual curiosity, psychological well-being, spirituality, balance, leadership, civility, warm relationships, excitement, regret, conservatism, recognition, and national security. Values held by adults 62 and older were summarized into 14 dimensions: self-respect, family ties, faith and religion, warm relationships, kindness and compassion, intellectual curiosity, health and well-being, fun and happiness, conservative attitudes, financial security, power and recognition, excitement, and material possessions.

The authors note that the most critical factor in understanding the power of this research is that while all the values exist for all humans, they exhibit different degrees of intensity, depending on how individual experiences have shaped individual beliefs, and can, thus be categorized into such useful segments as “Woeful Worrier” “Liberal Loner,” “Fiscal Conservative,” “Active Achiever,” “True Blue Believer,” “In-Charge Intellectual,” “Intense Individualist,” “Hearth and Homemaker,” “Low-Energy Loner,” “Aloof Affluent,” “Educated Aficionado,” “Modern Moralist,” “Status Seeker,” Anxious Achiever,” “Intense Individualist,” and “Happy Helper.” This values-based segmentation has excellent potential to help marketers achieve greater insight into which words and phrases to use and which to avoid in each universe. Moreover, it will result in marketing to an ageless market because it eliminates chronological age as the sole basis of categorization and evaluation. When marketers take known information and look at it through the values lenses of their target market, they do not run the risk of filtering this information through their own eyes, which may hold strong biases concerning what a particular age demographic might mean. For, the reality is that as leading-edge boomers begin to age chronologically, there will be so many numbers, life stages, and types of boomers that trying to make sense of it all can be confusing, costly, and ineffective.

“Using values as a foundation upon which demographics can be overlaid, it is possible to narrow the size of the market … turning the ocean-size market into a swimming pool size target filled with very good prospects.”
“Connecting with customers is about doing the right things to get their attention and generate positive first impressions. … [which] are mainly a product of right brain mental processes.”
Given the differences in the meanings that older and younger customers draw from marketing messages, the natural assumption might be that it is unrealistic to develop messages for multiple age groups, which is, of course, the objective of ageless marketing. However, Wolfe and Snyder have found that when older people are targeted, younger buyers are easy to pick up. The key is to connect with customers by projecting their values through symbols that stand for those values and by using presentation techniques that speak across generations.

Marketing messages will only get into the conscious minds of the customer if they “earn a thumbs up” in the unconscious reaches of the brain. Thus marketers must consider five brain facts when creating marketing messages: (1) The right brain works in sensual imagery rather than in words. (2) Right brain images are direct reflections of reality as gauged by the senses, not abstract symbols of reality, such as words on a page. (3) The right brain leads in determining the relevance of incoming information. (4) Because the right brain looks for patterns/relationships, it forms a more holistic image than the left brain, which focuses more on detail. (5) The right brain is inclusionary and detects relationships; the left brain is exclusionary and detects categories.

If the right brain fails to sense a relationship between the interests of the individual and the contents of a product message, the product message has little chance of surviving information triage, which the authors define as “a set of processes by which the brain reduces information flow to what the conscious mind can manage.” Thus, the right brain may be thought of as the gatekeeper to the left brain (i.e., information relevance rather than novelty of presentation is more often the catalyst of intentional attention to the contents of a message). This is more so among second-half customers because they are less intrigued by fantastical novelty than are younger minds.

The authors note that it is a confirmed fact that “absent emotional response to a stimulus, a person cannot substantially relate the object of the stimulus to his or her personal interests.” The hemisphere principle of marketing communications—lead with the right; follow with the left—flows from this fact. Nonetheless, though emotional arousal precedes rational processing, what induces emotional arousal is subject to season-of-life factors.

Another element to consider is the tendency of effective right brain-oriented communications to be more subtle than left brain-oriented communications. Studies have found that “A subtle approach works better because it has a chance to get past the consumer’s barrier of skepticism.” A subtle approach also allows the customer’s imagination to define the product/service in terms of his or her own values, needs, and desires. However, when marketers combine elements that appeal to both sides of the brain, a “cognitively holistic” message results that is more effective with older consumers.

Due to their many years of experience, older customers are also more comfortable going with their gut feelings because their first impressions tend to be more complete than those of younger customers, who tend to pay more attention to the details of the trees rather than to the big picture of the forest. However, the quickness of second-half customer to make decisions based on first impressions does not mean they are more opinionated and less likely to switch brands. A 2002 study, underwritten by AARP, found that product category is a better predictor of brand loyalty than age, price is a stronger motivator among younger people for switching brands, and older people are more willing to switch to higher-priced brands to get better quality. Product messages also work best when first impressions are pleasing. “Fear ads” that scare people might work well with some, but they can damage a brand’s image in the eyes of the larger market (second-half customers), which would rather be pleased than shocked.

Context is another factor that shapes the significance of symbols, which have both objective and subjective meanings. First-half customers generally depend more on consensus-based objective meanings because more of their behavior is dependent upon what others think. People in second-half markets tend to depend more on subjective gut-feeling meanings. Some symbols have meanings that are specific to given peer, socioeconomic, and ethnic groups, while others are somewhat universal. Some have meanings that are uniquely shared among people in particular developmental and/or lifestyle stages. And, some meanings are influenced by mood. Thus, it is essential that marketers realize that what they think a marketing message means is not always the meaning customers attach to it. Customers are more interested in the meanings they themselves infer than in the meanings the marketer implies.

It is important to note that people sometimes infer meanings that lead to perceptions unsupported by reality. It is a situation (called meaning transference) in which the customer transfers the values from one object to another, despite objective reality—for example, when big taillights on a Chevy come to mean good engineering, simply because Mercedes uses big taillights. Thus, marketing messages that stimulate meaning transference can be more powerful than messages designed to invoke rational responses. This is due to the fact that, when meaning transference is stimulated, emotionally charged responses are produced that override left-brain cynicism or prejudice. “Sensation transference,” the process by which consumers transfer feelings from advertising and packaging to the product itself, is a similar phenomenon.

Finally, it is imperative to be aware of negative symbols, particularly those replete with “anti-being experience” meanings. When a product design or a service conveys symbols of conditions that repel, discomfort, threaten, or thwart a person from being what he or she wants to be, it triggers “identity values-originated self-preservation imperatives.” Regardless of age, people do not like messages that remind them of what they do not want to be: however, the older the market, the more important it is to refrain from subjecting people to anti-being experiences. Given the importance of the New Customer Majority (without whom, the authors note, many companies cannot grow their sales), it makes sense to double check every marketing communication for symbols created by those who lack full sensitivity to the value of various symbols among older people.

According to Wolfe and Snyder, it is an empirically proven fact that “a marketing message or brand must generate emotional arousal for customers to be able to experience the message or brand as having personal relevance to them.” Brand loyalty starts in the emotional right brain; customers bond with a brand when that brand generates pleasure that customers want to sustain. A product message that emphatically connects with customers in this way immediately gets their attention. When customers experience this kind of empathetic connection, they feel, rather than think the sender of the message is believable. This is why selling features and benefits (left-brain argument advertising) does not work as well as right-brain drama advertising, which evokes feelings. Before individuals can think something is believable, they must feel its credibility.

Although the importance of ongoing dialogue has long been stressed as a means of producing a 360-degree view of customers that promotes credibility, asking customers what they want, and how they want it is not a dialogue. It is a request for information that does not allow for the multidimensional nature of believability. A customer’s perception that a company is interesting is the first step; however, truly believable dialogue depends on three attributes: (1) conversational reciprocity, (2) reciprocal empathy, and (3) reciprocal vulnerability. It is not enough to invite consumer input; an enterprise also needs to show concretely how the consumer’s input actually influences the company to do something. It is not enough for a company to connect empathetically with consumers; it must make it possible for consumers to connect empathetically with the company and with the company’s brand. Finally, empathy is closely related to vulnerability, for when people express empathy, they reveal something of their private selves and, thus, become more vulnerable. Moreover, vulnerability, just like empathy, is also a two-way street that humanizes both sides of the marketer-consumer relationship.

Taking physiological changes associated with aging into consideration also begins the process of establishing believability and, thus, is another essential part of building empathetic bridges. Any marketer committed to getting a 360-degree view of second-half customers, must become aware of alterations in the five senses of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch, as well as the inevitable decline in muscle strength and cognitive abilities, correlated with aging. These all beg for fundamental alterations in the design of products, packaging, marketing messages, point-of-sale environments, and service delivery—alterations that customers of all ages would be more than willing to embrace.

* * *
Bibliographic notes by chapter and a subject index are provided.


In 1990, Wolfe wrote Serving the Ageless Market, which warned, “The Seniors are coming!” in hopes that corporate America would pay attention to the demographic-driven phenomenon just beginning to transform the marketplace. However, the business world was, at the time, preoccupied with the information technology explosion (among other things), employing it to lower costs significantly and make historic productivity gains in the process. Nonetheless, marketing, which thrives on information almost like no other discipline, became increasingly less productive, while consuming ever-increasing portions of the corporate budget. As Ageless Marketing drives home, “Consumer research and marketing have failed to realize the relationship between changes in the leading values, views, and behaviors of the marketplace and the New Customer Majority.”

This comprehensive exploration of why research and marketing have lost their way frequently veers off the beaten track of mainstream marketing ideas to offer a view from the perspective of a “new consciousness” that has many novel elements—the implications of which are profound. Thus, if one is only interested in tweaking a few marketing techniques and processes, this is not what is to be found here. Wolfe and Snyder have made a compelling case for changes so fundamental as to (in their opinion) rival the transformation wrought by the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment. They are quite serious, for they believe, without equivocation, that the welfare of the entire economy and thousands of businesses depends on an understanding that marketing’s mind-set must change to accommodate the arrival of the New Customer Majority as “the most powerful force in the consumer marketplace today.”

So, what are these novel elements? First, the new consciousness arises from seeing customers through the lens of developmental psychology, thus, offering insights into customer behavior that cannot be gained through traditional consumer research and marketing. These insights emerge from the integration of key empirically derived findings from brain science to formulate a new paradigm of developmental relationship marketing so as to facilitate an “authentic” 360-degree view of customers.

Secondly, the authors’ attempt to reduce the role that opinion plays in marketing decisions by offering a foundation firmly rooted in empirically grounded behavioral science that allows marketing to move beyond anecdotal knowledge and statistical “caricatures” of customers. The objective is to stop the parsing of human beings into dehumanized and dehumanizing numbers that obscure why marketing has been underperforming so grossly. The other objective is to provide the necessary tools for identifying and implementing marketing solutions that are eminently more effective in this era of the New Customer Majority.

Thus Ageless Marketing introduces a wholly new framework, formed by two essential human-behavior planks, which the authors says have been long ignored in consumer research, marketing practice, and the academic world: (1) The roots of behavior lie in an individual’s biological makeup and, thus, are beyond the reach of the conscious mind and traditional consumer research. (2) The conscious mind senses, perceives, thinks about, and acts on urges that originate outside of human consciousness. This integration of biology and psychology provide an understanding of behavior that is impossible to obtain with most surveys, focus groups, or other traditional tools of marketing.

Wolfe and Snyder open up new vistas of thought and exploration for those who complain (and rightly so) that: Advertising no longer works because mass channels of communication no longer exist. Product innovation no longer works because competitors can copy and offer success innovations in no time flat. Internet branding no longer works because generics are gaining market share. And, CRM doesn’t work for fast-moving consumer goods. The authors offer an antidote for marketing itself, which has fallen victim to its own mistakes and society’s consequent lack of trust. And, they throw out a strong, much needed life line to “Alice, the Seeker”—those individuals who have no particular distinction as a consumer, who are of little importance to marketers targeting mature adults, but who represent a huge, difficult market. Ageless Marketing provides the necessary tools for capturing that overlooked segment and gaining trillions in the process.

Reading Suggestions

Reading Time: 25-27 Hours, 380 Pages in Book

Ageless Marketing’s primary objective is to plot a path “toward a new consciousness that will clear away a numbers-saturated fog that obscures a clear-eyed view of why marketing has been grossly underperforming.” However, because this path is off the beaten track of the mainstream, there’s a lot of virgin “forest” through which one must trek. Wolfe and Snyder have organized, integrated, and evaluated insights into human behavior, classical developmental psychology, and new discoveries in genetics and brain science to build the common foundation that they feel has, to date, been lacking in marketing. As a consequence, they combine reports of original research, reviews of the literature, analyses of theoretical developments, and practical guidelines into a comprehensive and complex tutorial in which detail is layered upon detail and then explored from every possible perspective. It is a painstakingly researched and written work that demands a painstaking reading.

With that said, we recommend that you commit to setting aside the time to read no more than one or two chapters at a time. As you read each chapter, you will find what appears to be a lot of repetition that may tempt you to skip and skim. Don’t. These recurring themes from brain science, developmental psychology, sociology, demographics, the authors’ personal experiences in the field, etc., are like the indispensable pieces in a jigsaw puzzle: Separately, they may appear to be redundant, but without them, it is impossible to construct a full picture of current and future consumer behavior.


Chapter 1: Why Marketing Stopped Working
Chapter 2: Statistics Don’t Buy
Chapter 3: Second Half Customers Seen Through a New Consciousness

Chapter 4: Nature versus Nurture
Chapter 5: The New S Word in Marketing
Chapter 6: The Biological Roots of Customers’ Needs and Behavior
Chapter 7: Seasons of a Customer’s Life Interlude

Chapter 8: Value Portraits—a Matter of Values for the Fall and Winter Seasons of Life
Chapter 9: Value Portraits—a New Approach

Chapter 10: Life Satisfaction
Chapter 11: Family Connections and Complexities
Chapter 12: The Three Lifestyle Stages of Adult Life

Chapter 13: Symbols
Chapter 14: Building Empathetic Bridges
Chapter 15: The Truly Ageless Market
Appendix: Research Methodology

About the Authors

David B. Wolfe, considered an international expert on consumer behavior, laid the conceptual basis for Ageless Marketing through his pioneering work in developmental relationship marketing (DRM)—a marketing platform he originated. Wolfe is also the coauthor of The Forty Plus Market (1988), the author of Serving the Ageless Market (1990), and has written numerous articles for American Demographics, the Journal of Consumer Marketing, Marketing Insights, and the Journal of Health Care Marketing.

Robert E. Snyder, former head of the Mature Market Group of J. Walter Thompson, is currently a partner with Retirement Living Services of Hartford, Connecticut. He is widely regarded as an expert on the values, belief systems, and buying habits of older Americans, and continues to act as a spokesperson for Value Portraits® , a proprietary joint project between J. Walter Thompson and Market Strategies, Inc.

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