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The Importance of Being Age-Friendly

By: Dick Stroud

Publish Date: August  20,  2012


A quarter of a century ago Charles Scheme published a journal paper titled Marketing to our Aging Population: Responding to Physiological Changes. The paper outlined the implications for marketers as the senses, minds and bodies of consumer’s age.

Since then very little else has been researched and written about the subject. This is surprising because the median age of consumers in the USA and Europe has steadily increased.

Much has been written about the psychological effects of aging and the mechanics of segmenting and communicating with older consumers. Even more has been written about the apparent differences in attitudes and behaviours between the generations.

There is one factor that is common across all of the geographies, and all of the social and economic classes, and is shared by men and women. With a few small exceptions, the changes to consumers that result from their physical aging are universal, as are their implications for companies and governments.

Yet the most basic of questions has been largely ignored: ‘How do companies adapt to the relentless aging of their most important asset – their customers?’ Surprisingly, the recession and its effect on consumer spending, is forcing companies to take interest in this question.

Companies in Europe and the USA are desperately looking for growth opportunities. Slowly, often begrudgingly, they are realizing that any growth in consumer spending is more likely to come from older than younger customers.

Unfortunately, most companies don’t realize that adopting a business strategy to target older people involves many more things than creating a new advertising campaign.

In its report on Global Aging[1], the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) says: ‘companies should review their channel strategies to ensure that they are compatible with the needs of the silver segment’.

The task is even more extensive than BCG suggests. To satisfy the requirements of the older market requires companies to optimize all of the customer’s experiences and to ensure they match their customer’s physical abilities.

The author defines age-friendliness as an environment in which the unique physical needs of older people are satisfied in a way that is natural and beneficial for all ages. One wonders why all companies don’t aspire to this goal?

The importance of age-friendliness is not limited to how companies engage with their customers. We need age-friendly cities for citizens, we need age-friendly medical services for patients and age-friendly workplaces for employees.

So, how should companies respond to ensure their marketing and operations align with the aging population? These five actions are a good starting point.

1. Review the total customer journey

 

The following table shows how one of the experiences in the customer journey, the product, can be further refined into five sub-experiences. One of these sub-experiences, packaging, can then be divided into a further five touchpoints.

 

Experience

Categories of the customer journey

Sub-experience

Intersection between the business and the consumer

Touchpoint

The specific point being measured

     
    • Communications
    • Online
    • Retail
    • Product
    • Support

     

       
     
       
      • Assembly
      • Design
      • Packaging
      • Pricing
      • Warrant

       

       
         

        1. Graphics

        2. Handling and carrying

        3. Information

        4. Opening and closing

        5. Text

       

      Most customer journeys will have over a hundred touchpoints and each of these might be affected by one or more of the 12 affects of physiological aging shown in the following table.

      By reviewing each of the touchpoints and ensuring they are capable of responding to the aging minds, senses and bodies of customers, companies can radically improve the quality of the customer experience – not just for the older people but for all ages.

      Becoming age-friendly is not about making a few big changes it involves making small changes to multiple touchpoints. The devil is in the detail.

       

      2. Adopt Universal Design principles

      The mantra of Universal Design is that products and environments should be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.

      If a company genuinely adopts the culture of Universal Design and applies its principles to all the interactions with customers then it will be a long way towards becoming age-friendly.

      These Universal Design principles are basic common sense. Many companies "talk the talk" but few have embedded these principles into their corporate culture:

      • Equitable use - making the design appealing and useable by all ages.
      • Flexibility in use - accommodating a wide range of individual preferences and abilities.
      • Simple and intuitive use - ensuring the user’s experience and prior knowledge is not a barrier.
      • Perceptible information – communicating effectively irrespective of the ambient conditions and the user’s sensory abilities.
      • Tolerance for error – minimizing the consequences of accidental or unintended actions.
      • Low physical effort – minimizing the physical demands of using the design.
      • Size and space – ensuring the user’s body size and mobility is not a limitation.

      3. Sooner you start the better (less costly)

      I recently stayed in a hotel that had just completed a major refurbishment. It is unlikely that it will now change the design of the rooms and common areas for at least a decade. No thought had been given to ensuring the new design was age-friendly.

      The majority of the customers are aged 60-plus and their importance to the hotel will undoubtedly increase. Had the new designs been made age-friendly the additional cost to the hotel group would have been insignificant.

      The moral of this story is that it costs very little to incorporate age-friendliness into the original designs but much more if it has to be done retrospectively.

      4. Beware of ‘silos’ and CSR

      There are two common mistakes that companies make when implementing an age-friendly strategy. The first results from a lack of clarity for why the strategy is being adopted. The author has encountered many instances when age-friendliness is put into the same group of issues as disability and accessibility and is conceived as something a company is ethically compelled to do.

      Indeed, there may be an ethical dimension but its adoption is primarily for reasons that affect the P&L and Balance sheet.

      The second mistake is to underestimate the effort that it takes to implement a culture change that involves so many of the corporate silos.

      Age-friendliness is not just a ‘marketing issue’ but involves most of the operational functions within a company. As with any issue where the responsibility for implementation is diffused, it requires especially strong executive leadership to ensure it succeeds.5. Think sustainability – think age-friendliness.

      For many years the subject of ‘sustainability’ was of interest to a dedicated group of activists on the fringe of the business world. In a matter of five years it became the subject that dominates much of government and corporate decision-making.

      A similar change is taking place with the subject of ‘population aging’, which has moved from an academic debate between demographers and gerontologists to become a mega-issue that affects companies, large and small.

      The greatest mistake that companies make is to underestimate the scale of the changes that population will make their business and the speed that this issue will move up the list of corporate priorities.

      Company’s products, processes, channels and culture have to serve their customers. The one thing we know for certain is that this precious commodity is getting older.

      [1] BCG Global Aging. How companies can adapt to the new reality – Dec 2011