Selling to Boomers: Go Sensual and Real, Not Overtly Sexual

NEW YORK — Target the woman, not her age.<br><br>That is the advice marketing experts give for companies eager to tap into the all-important boomer market which, as reported, has more money to spend on apparel and other products than any...

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NEW YORK — Target the woman, not her age.

This story first appeared in the November 6, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

That is the advice marketing experts give for companies eager to tap into the all-important boomer market which, as reported, has more money to spend on apparel and other products than any generation in history. While most brands continue to skew younger, more and more companies are recognizing the opportunity the boomers represent. And, marketing experts say, the way to appeal to them is with campaigns that convey sensuality, authenticity and — above all — sensibility.

It’s a formula that sounds deceptively simple, yet one that’s seldom applied. Now, there’s a group of fashion believers emerging who will neither minimize the implicit challenges nor discount the possibilities in making a more direct appeal to women in their 40s and 50s. More specifically, they are advising the best routes by which to reach the boomers include:

Expressing a softer tone in fashion ads that have tended to have a harder edge in recent years.

Communicating a brand’s message with more honesty and less fantasy.

Addressing a woman’s mindset, in marketing campaigns, and not her advancing age.

Part of what makes the challenge considerable is the subtle nature of the marketing attributes seen as most appealing to this group.

For instance, it’s one thing to say such ads demand a shift to a sensual aesthetic from the harder-edged, sexual images that prevailed in fashion ads from the Nineties through early this year, but as Donald P. Ziccardi, chief executive officer of ad agency Ziccardi Partners Friersen Mee Inc., observed: “There’s a fine line between sexuality and sensuality.” And it can be as much about an absence of certain imagery as it is about something portrayed. “Homoerotic undertones, lesbian imagery, and crotch shots are being erased from much fashion advertising,” Ziccardi noted. “Even Versace and YSL have retreated from it.”

One reason a softer approach is seen as more effective, said retail anthropologist Paco Underhill, is that when a woman reaches a certain age, her sense of self is based increasingly on who she is, rather than the apparel or labels she’s sporting. Moreover, said Underhill, who’s managing director of consultant Envirosell, “Part of what we recognize here is that mature women dress mostly for other women, rather than for men.”

Beyond pure sensuality, a dose of authenticity would be a big step in the right direction for fashion marketers mining boomers, among others, in a post-9/11 population, sources agreed. “Brands have to be truthful about what they represent in the world,” asserted Trey Laird, president and executive creative director of Laird & Co., whose clients include Gap and Donna Karan. “If they stay true to their vision, like an Abercrombie, brands can do a great job. I love the Apple campaign; it’s incredibly honest,” Laird said of the current TV spots that show everyday people talking in a manner that appears genuine, rather than scripted, about why they like various Apple computer products. “Miu Miu has a young sensibility and has always stayed true to that,” the advertising executive added.

Indeed, a fashion ad’s point of view was widely saluted as more significant than its actual imagery, and also more so than the ages of models portrayed, when it comes to luring women in mid-life. A handful of observers went so far as to predict that making an issue of age in marketing messages will soon become a dated concept — even though images of young adults and teens continue to dominate today’s fashion scene. “It’s so old-fashioned to say no one over 40 is cool,” claimed Laird, who himself is 37.

For one thing, sources noted, our increasing access to information and technology has liberated various lifestyles and tastes from age-based boundaries. “Think of all the people in their 50s with friends who are in their 30s,” said Jill Glover, president and executive creative director of ad agency Jill Glover Associates, whose clients include Eileen Fisher and Joseph Abboud. “Ten years ago, people may not have been ready for this, but today they are. It’s a void in contemporary culture that brands aren’t addressing the change. Age boundaries are melting away.”

One sensibility that could successfully speak to boomers is a celebration of comfort and restoration, advised trend consultant Jeffrey Miller. “It’s not about being young, groovy, making a scene you have to machete your way through,” Miller stated. “Some [boomers] are tired or burned out and want neither high-energy nor grande dame themes.

“Everything’s changing; the youthquake is so last century — so Mrs. Vreeland in the Sixties. But it’s going to take a Calvin Klein or a Tom Ford to convince us of this,” he added. “Ironically, boomers [in fashion media and marketing] have pushed themselves off to the side.”

More broadly, various defining moments that occur within each generation’s coming-of-age period shape core values that tend to remain constant throughout that group’s lifetime, say marketing experts including Geoff Meredith, president of San Francisco-based market researcher Lifestage Matrix. Thus, those values and formative experiences provide ways for marketers to connect with people, on a personal level, time and again, reasoned Meredith, co-author, with Charles D. Schewe, of “Defining Moments, Defining Markets,” published this year by Hungry Minds.

Yet another path to pursue is conducting campaigns using multigenerational models and themes, sources counseled, citing such brands as Eileen Fisher, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Dolce & Gabbana and Gap that have done so. “Truthful messages lie in not having either young or old [images], but both,” said Candace Corlett, a principal partner at WSL Strategic Retail. “Someone can be a Ralph Lauren person whether they’re 20, 55, or 70. Talbots is nearly ageless. Whether it’s George at Wal-Mart or Brooks Bros.’ updated collection, there are more labels offering apparel with a contemporary-yet-ageless point of view.”

Some marketing experts warned, however, that multigenerational efforts ought not to be mistaken for a sure thing, when it comes to attracting women in their 40s and 50s.

“Ask people who claim young fashion ads don’t address boomers why is it that magazines like Lear’s and Mirabella don’t succeed,” asserted Sam Shahid, the 61-year-old president and creative director of Shahid & Co., whose advertising clients include Abercrombie & Fitch, Tse, Bali and Wonderbra.

For one thing, observers noted, there’s often a chasm between ads aimed at a broad range of customers and the merchandise those people find when they visit a store. “I’m not sure the product in the Gap stores lived up to the heroism in those ads,” offered Glover, in speaking of the chain’s highly visible, “Gap. For Every Generation.” campaign, launched Aug. 15. And while praising the Gap campaign’s aesthetics, a number of observers pointed out the store’s original premise — and name — spoke to a generation gap between youth and adults and what each group wanted to wear. “It shows they’re desperate,” declared Marc Gobe, president, chief executive officer and executive creative director of Desgrippes Gobe group, a brand-image creation firm.

“We have turned away some [younger] people; it’s a tricky message,” acknowledged Gap Inc. spokeswoman Stacy MacLean, when asked to assess the “Gap. For Every Generation” campaign. For his part, Laird, whose agency handled the Gap ads, replied, “The whole point of the multigenerational campaign was for Gap to say, ‘We went after a younger group the past couple of years, and instead, we now want to market to all groups, including our heritage customer.’”

“Gap is trying extremely hard to appeal to the teen and tween market, while holding on to the baby boomers,” said one retail consultant who requested anonymity, adding Gap still has a ways to go, to that end. “Back in fall 1999, many of their customers walked in to Gap stores and saw things they hadn’t worn since 1969, like leather pants and tightly sculpted T-shirts,” the source said. “Many of those people walked out and never went back.”

By all accounts, a far more effective boomer marketing strategy has been mounted by Chico’s, in large part because its advertising, product and merchandising are integrated into a coherent package.

“Chico’s has a system; a lot of the store is about teaching,” Underhill said. “The salespeople are well trained and the straightforward store design is conducive to finding them. The sizing system is interesting, as well,” Underhill added. “Four size choices [0, 1, 2, 3] are just so much easier to deal with than traditional sizing, and once you know your size, that’s it.” In contrast, he said, Diesel’s store on Union Square has a layout he finds “confusing,” making it difficult to find a salesperson. This is especially problematic because the absence of mirrors in the dressing rooms encourages customers to step out and find salespeople to speak with about how things fit and how to accessorize. The concept is perfect for younger customers with plenty of shopping time, but could alienate time-pressed boomers.

“The 35-plus woman is under huge time pressure and is looking for someone to help her out, when she’s shopping for clothing,” Underhill stated. “She may or may not find that help in a department store.”

When Jim Frain, Chico’s vice president of marketing, joined the retailer in June 1999, he found the brand’s marketing image “was not keeping up” with its product or merchandising. That fall, a national TV campaign was launched; last spring, local and regional spots on shows such as ABC’s “The View” were added. A customer data base that numbered 50,000 people, when Frain joined, has been boosted to 3 million, with at least 1.5 million now receiving Chico’s catalogs each month. As for magazines, Chico’s has found Martha Stewart Living and Oprah Winfrey’s O particularly efficient in reaching its target customer, a 35- to 55-year-old woman with an annual household income of $100,000.

Chico’s is spending 3.5 percent of its annual sales on marketing, the same as in 2001, when that budget came to $13 million. Chico’s biggest marketing expense is its catalogs, Frain said, but he didn’t specify.

Asked which competitors he admires, Frain named Talbots, Anthropolgie and Banana Republic, citing their “effective combination of direct and traditional marketing, consistency, and patience.”

What’s changed the most for fashion marketers in 20 years, said Frain, is that it has become incumbent upon them to broaden their appeal. “Now, there’s hardly a boomer woman who isn’t sophisticated about what’s going on out there,” he remarked.Editor’s Note: This is the final part of a series examining marketing to the baby boom generation.

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