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Hung up on being young

Vanita Kohli KhandekarYou need a lot of luck and chutzpah to navigate the new India if you are not a young consumer. Try buying shoes or clothes for older people. Or for ones with an ailment. It took me thousands of rupees worth of experiments with perfectly useless shoes and chappals from very good shops before I discovered Dr Scholl’s footwear. It works beautifully with my rheumatoid arthritis. All Bata shops stock the brand, in case you are looking. But it is a state secret, so only if someone tells you about the brand, will you hear the name.

Welcome to the fringes of consumerism. Everything in popular perception, dominated by media and advertising, centres around the youth, defined as 15-35 year olds. There is within corporate India an obsession with this market, which goes beyond the demographics that show that young people make up half the population, roughly. It doesn’t matter what is being sold. It doesn’t matter that those below 25 years of age probably have the worst purchasing power and those over 40 have the best. The other half doesn’t matter.


No market for old men: Marketers in India are obsessed with the youth. It is rare for companies and advertising to target old people and their needs

You could argue that advertising does acknowledge that older people exist and have desires and needs like others. Nice and sensitive so far. However, try decoding the marketing exercise. The ads for financial services may talk about a dignified old age, but are those products designed for ease of use for older people. When a cheque for pension doesn’t arrive what should you do? Call a number. Have you seen a 70-year-old navigate a call centre or understand the terms of a pension fund or mutual fund. It baffles most.

Most banks browbeat and force younger people to use ATM machines and online banking. I have to argue almost every year with my bank to ensure that I get a written statement. Now picture a much older person, your grandmum perhaps, who is very active around the house, trying to figure out this world. The chances are, she won’t be able to, though she is financially well-off.

There are dozens of niches and segments you could target profitably. There are holiday packages you could do for older people which involve slightly relaxed itineraries and maybe even chaperoned sightseeing. What about a channel for older people? What about a mobile phone with larger type and easier handling? None of this is unprofitable stuff, as any simple market mapping exercise will show you. It just hasn’t been done.  Dr Scholl’s for instance is not a cheap brand nor is Orthoheel, another similar brand. The consumers who buy these are willing to pay anything for the luxury of walking comfortably. Similarly parents are willing to spend any amount of money if they believe their child will benefit, intellectually, nutritionally or any other way. 

Old people and children are generally used as props in an advertising campaign. They look very good when you want to show a complete family. But a bulk of product development and communication in India is geared towards young people.  So why are Indian marketers ignoring large chunks of India. In the course of several conferences and conversations whenever I have brought up this question, the answers have been unclear. One expert told me that ‘showing youth is aspirational.’ Having young people in an ad is great for eye candy effect. 

So even if a mobile phone works very well for older people, no company wants to be seen as an old people’s brand. Secondly, targeting is an issue. While kids can be targeted easily through schools and now the plethora of channels on offer, targeting older people is difficult since media specific to them is not available. But the ecosystem usually builds up in response to a need. Once marketers are aware that there is a lucrative market in say old-people friendly banking products, homes or holidays, the media and targeting options will come up.

Lastly, advertisers, marketers and media are the biggest sufferers of a disease called 'people like us' syndrome. The sufferer assumes that everyone behaves like he or she does. So a brand manager transposes his media habits onto the poor consumer. Or a boss will always talk about what his wife, driver or daughter does. And since most of these people are hovering around the early thirties, late thirties, the youth thing fascinates them.  So if you are old and want marketers to hear you, speak up.  

The writer is a media specialist and author. Follow her on twitter at http://twitter.com/vanitakohlik

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