The key to marketing to older people? Don’t say ‘old.’
By Corinne Purtill
According to company lore, the idea for Nike’s CruzrOne sneaker — a well-cushioned, thick-soled running shoe that debuted in 2019 — originated with a conversation between a Nike designer, Tinker Hatfield, and Phil Knight, the company’s co-founder. Hatfield made the mistake of congratulating Knight on his habit of walking 8 miles a day and received a swift correction from his billionaire boss.
“I was running,” Knight says dryly in a promotional video, bearing a slightly aggrieved expression. “Just running not very fast.”
Nike makes shoes for sprinters and distance runners who cover all kinds of terrain. The conversation with Knight left Hatfield with an idea to design a shoe for a large, fast-growing and often overlooked market: runners who are not in a hurry.
“There needs to be a shoe for the slower runner,” Knight says in the ad. “And that’s me.”
What is not said explicitly in the video is that Knight is in his 80s. Age is never mentioned in any of the CruzrOne’s marketing copy. By positioning the CruzrOne as a shoe with excellent support for runners who — for whatever reason — go at an extremely slow pace, Nike can offer a product designed for the older athlete to the general market.
It is a perfect example of what Rob Chess, a Stanford Graduate School of Business lecturer, calls “stealth design”: a product that addresses specific needs of older consumers in a form that does not scream, well, “old.”
“You basically put all these elements in that make it much more usable by an older customer, but you don’t necessarily advertise and play up those elements,” Chess said. “Or if you do, you certainly don’t position them as, you know, ‘Gee, we’re doing this for older people.’” (A Nike spokesperson declined requests for interviews.)
It is part of a seismic shift in the way that companies market to consumers who have lived past their 55th birthday. The large and rapidly expanding demographic has enormous spending power, yet it has historically been treated as a homogeneous group that spends its days either in the louche leisure of a Viagra ad or the frail dependence of a Life Alert spot.
In contrast, longevity experts said, today’s most effective marketing campaigns focus on the specific needs a product or service addresses and the lifestyle of the person buying it — ideally without explicitly mentioning age at all.
“I still see the word ‘senior’ and ‘elderly’ too often,” said Susan Golden, director of dciX, a program of Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute for midlife professionals, and a lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “The idea is to market not to a name and not to an age, but to the stage of life or vibrancy.”
As of April, U.S. households headed by people 55 or older held $92.3 trillion, or 69% of the country’s total wealth, according to Lowell Ricketts, a data scientist at the Institute for Economic Equity at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. Older people today are wealthier than previous generations, and there are a lot more of them. By 2060, 95 million people in the United States will be 65 or older, up from 52 million in 2018, and constitute 23% of the population, up from 16%, according to the Population Reference Bureau, a nonprofit research group in Washington.
“They’re the biggest opportunity and the fastest-growing opportunity,” Chess said.
One reason so few products target older adults is a belief among many entrepreneurs that they are less willing to change brands or discover new products, said John Zapolski, founder and CEO of Alive Ventures, a startup studio that invests in brands focused on older people. Another is that a lot of people whose birthdates might qualify them for the demographic do not like to think of themselves as old or do not recognize themselves in the version of old presented in a particular ad.
A marketing campaign that positions a product for an aging consumer is unlikely to attract younger buyers, said Joseph Coughlin, founder and director of the AgeLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“But guess what?” he added. “We also know that old people will run with their hair on fire away from it.”
Coughlin said companies instead needed to position their products as being for “an ageless lifestyle” that “keeps people engaged and productive, healthy and well.”
On one hand, this approach risks dressing up the same social stereotypes and pressures in new language, akin to the magazine covers exhorting readers to “get healthy” rather than explicitly telling them to lose weight, or makeup ads promising skin that looks “revitalized” without using the word “younger.”
On the other, focusing on consumers’ actual needs instead of their assumed age has the added benefit of appealing to all of a product’s potential users. An example offered by Margaret Morganroth Gullette, a cultural critic and resident scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University, is the recent marketing campaign for the absorbent underwear Depend.
“This is an athlete, 20 reps deep,” an announcer intones in a 2020 ad as a middle-age woman works out outdoors, “and sprinting past every leak.” In another TV spot, a woman who does not appear old enough to collect Social Security leads a business meeting.
Not all older people have use for absorbent underwear, but everyone with incontinence does: people who are pregnant or postpartum, who are taking certain medicines, who have bladder conditions or any number of temporary or recurring health issues.
“It was making absorbent underwear dignified and part of an ordinary life,” Gullette said. An ad that acknowledges this bodily reality, rather than just showing an older model, she said, is “in some ways more revolutionary.”