Marketing to Older Americans May Pose New Opportunities for Outdoor Brands

February 29, 2012

In 1998, the number of people older than 60 overtook those younger than 15 in the United States, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom. By 2047, based on current demographic trends, there will be more people older than 60 than younger than 15 worldwide, according to a recent report by A.T. Kearney. This presents an opportunity for the outdoor industry to expand sales by targeting this growing demographic. While most outdoor industry companies focus their advertising and customer acquisition strategies on the Millennial Generation, it might be time to broaden your approach.

Of course, targeting 20-somethings makes sense for many outdoor companies. Branding 101 calls for focusing on younger consumers while they remain open to new choices and lifestyles. More importantly, data from The Outdoor Foundation’s most recent participation report shows that participation in outdoor activities drops from a high of 70 percent among 11-15 year old males to a little over 50 percent for the 51-55 age group, 45 percent for 56-60, then actually increases slightly from 61-65 before plunging to about 33 percent at age 66 and older.

Many outdoor companies effectively serve the senior market by designing products that make the outdoors more accessible for all people. Lighter, more comfortable, warmer, dryer and more durable are all performance characteristics that appeal equally to college students, soccer moms and 50-plus empty nesters.

Still, given long-term demographic trends and the purchasing power of older consumers, the outdoor industry might want to take a cue from other industries that have begun targeting more affluent and more active baby boomers now approaching retirement.

“As people live longer, the implications for marketers, retailers and manufacturers promise to be both dramatic and far-reaching,” states the A.T. Kearney study on what it dubs the “agequake.”

Consider Toyota’s “Baby Boomers Gone Wild” campaign for its Venza crossover utility vehicle, or CUV. The campaign features empty nesters cavorting in their sporty, fuel-efficient Venza while their children fret at home over their parents’ unfulfilling lifestyles. It is based on consumer research by Saatchi & Saatchi that found active boomers are willing to spend on products and activities that promote personal growth and help them remain young.

Although many companies might struggle with how to reach younger consumers without alienating their older consumers, it seems companies can have it both ways.

Kayak makers catch on
Kayak and canoe makers have been among the first in the outdoor industry to seize this opportunity.

“We’ve definitely gone after the baby boomer market because they are buying,” said Sara Knies, director of marketing for Johnson Outdoor’s paddlesports brands, which include Old Town, Ocean Kayak and Necky Kayaks. “It’s very rare when a 24-year-old comes in and says, ‘Can I see a carbon Chatham?’ because those boats are $4,000.”

When designing its Dirigo series of kayaks, Johnson Outdoors brought in a panel of older consumers to get their input. They learned that seating, thigh braces and other comfort features were more important to older consumers then speed.

“The Millennial obsession makes sense,” said Cheri McKenzie, vice president and chief marketing officer for Confluence Watersports, which owns the Dagger, Mad River, Perception, Wavesport and Wilderness System brands. “But don’t forget about aging baby boomers. Sixty may be the new 50 or 45. The 60-year-old today is much more fit, a much more active consumer than in generations past.”

Connecting with consumers at any age
Designing the right product is the first step when targeting any consumer, but to connect with older consumers may require separate messaging.

“The way you engage consumers has everything to do with media selection and messaging,” McKenzie said. “This includes visual, emotional and informational. The combination of these three things can be very different for younger consumers than older ones. It’s difficult to create an ad for a product and think you’re going to appeal to a 25-year-old, as well as a 65-year-old. How you talk to them really needs to change, because at end of day you have to make an emotional connection. “

Because the median age of its customers is still in the upper 30s, Confluence has no plans to shift advertising dollars toward media that targets seniors. It has, however, moved more of its print advertising budget toward wider circulation lifestyle magazines, including Men’s Health, Men’s Journal and Garden and Gun, where readers tend to skew a little older. It also recently hired an over-60 couple to appear in ads for two ultra-light Mad River canoes.

Thule figures it attracts many older consumers by designing features that make loading gear easier for people of all ages and abilities. The company’s hitch racks, extendable cross bars and Hullavator (MSRP $589.95) car-top carrier have all sold well to older cyclists and paddlers, but they have also sold well to shorter consumers or those who suffer back, shoulder or elbow injuries, said Karl Weidemann, communications manager for Thule. The company does not set aside marketing dollars to target the older consumer, betting that they will find its products the same way other age groups do. Besides, the average age of its Hullavator customers is 38.

While Mountainsmith has not developed separate messaging for the senior market, it consciously avoids imagery that might discourage seniors or others from participating in outdoor activities, said National Sales Manager Jay Getzel. The company is introducing its first cane-style T-grip trekking pole — a design popular with older consumers — this spring.

“It’s our desire to be an inclusive specialty brand,” said Getzel. “We try not to alienate anyone based on age, skill set, sex, disability or anything else. I don’t need some buff climber climbing 5:14 on a cliff in Spain. In terms of the older demo, we try not to hype ourselves as out of league for that senior.”

The bottom line is that outdoor industry companies should consider how to reach consumers of all ages. Younger customers may offer the promise of lifetime dedication to a brand, but they might not have much purchasing power yet. Given the trends outlined by A.T. Kearney, now seems to be a good time for outdoor brands to reach out to the 60-plus crowd more proactively in order to tap into a growing population with potentially more discretionary income. Send your thoughts on the topic to