Are older people misrepresented?

Is your business misrepresenting older customers?


People aged over 50 make up more than half of the UK population, yet many brands disregard this key demographic in their customer service and CX thinking. What should be done to ensure 'older' customers aren't neglected? 

10th Nov 2021

Saga is regarded as something of a British institution. Founded in 1951, the company has been responsible for providing holiday experiences to the over 50s for 70+ years. Mention the brand name to most people in the UK, and chances are they’ll paint you a picture of vast groups of elderly pensioners idly stepping down from a coach at a coastal resort in Devon or a stately home in the Peak District. This image is arguable as synonymous with the Saga brand as Mickey Mouse is with Disney.    

In recent years, however, this representation has becoming increasingly jarring for the company. According to an internal survey, the average Saga customer feels 14 years younger than they are. 82% don’t want to be defined by age.

These are trends that are felt not just within Saga’s customer base. Many over-50s say they are healthier and fitter than they’ve ever been at other stages in their lives. According to a recent study, women aged 50-65 are happier with their age, relationship and confidence than women in their 20s.

And with the percentage of over-50s ever-increasing around the globe, the spending power of 'older' customers is fast growing too. In 2020, an EU review estimated that the 'silver economy' (a term that in itself may be regarded as somewhat jarring by many) generated 4.2 trillion euros in GDP and 78 million jobs. In the UK, homeowners over 50 hold £3 of every £4 in housing value, which amounts to £2.1 trillion, of which just 7% is still borrowed and they hold the same (77.3%) in financial wealth.

Experience over age

With over half of the UK’s population in the over-50 bracket, many brands have had to revaluate and reappraise what they understand about this key demographic as part of both their current or prospective customer base. Saga is no different. It’s led the company to a new advertising campaign alongside a major brand repositioning exercise in order to better capture the reality of the lifestyles, wants and needs of the over-50s; in the process, placing a huge emphasis on ‘experience’, rather than age.

“We conducted a semiotics study at Saga – alongside a number of different research studies –looking at how older people are often presented in the media and in advertising,” explains Stuart Beamish, Saga’s group chief customer officer and a key figure in the company’s repositioning work.

“It was fascinating to see how often the older generation were presented as sitting on the sofa with a hot cup of tea and portrayed in a more sedentary lifestyle. The reality of over-50s is they’re actually some of the most active people in society and live extremely varied lifestyles, balancing looking after grandchildren, hobbies, projects and part-time work alongside other things. Often the way older people are portrayed doesn’t reflect the lives they lead.”    

Saga’s findings mirrored a study by Gransnet and Mumsnet which showed that 78% of those aged 50 or over felt under-represented or misrepresented by advertising, while 49% said they actively avoided brands that ignored them. An additional 69% suggested they would be more receptive to brands if their advertising represented over-50s more accurately.

“There can be a tendency to misrepresent the older demographic,” says Beamish. “There’s often nothing deliberate about that but sometimes we can lump older people into an over-50s demographic and have a tendency maybe to spend more time and effort to segment and understand other demographics and age groups.”

Inclusive service design

A key area brands can focus on is how experiences and services are designed. In a research paper, Older People as a Focus for Inclusive Design, Alan Newell from the University of Dundee found that service design often underpins whether brands represent “marginalised” demographics in the right way or not.

“Many designers, particularly software designers, tend to design for young, middle-aged people and rarely consider the challenges which their systems will present to older people,” Newell explained. “This could be because of the stereotypical view that older people are not interested in new technology, but this is a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

This thinking can be applied to service design; in particular to digital communication and service channel use which is often considered less relevant to older generations. Yet, 83% of 65-74 year olds are internet users in the UK. Over half of people aged 70 are on Facebook, and 68% of 50-59 year olds. A study from Software Advice suggests that almost half of people aged 55 or over have at some point interacted with customer service via live chat (albeit with 9.5% admitting to using the channel ‘unsuccessfully’ – although perhaps underlining the issue of digital services not being designed with the demographic in mind).

Beamish says it’s a trend that Saga, so often led by direct marketing and phone-based communication for customer service, has not neglected: “Customers are increasingly preferring to be served digitally in a combination of on and offline so we need to be able to see and measure the impact of our digital communications”.

And he adds that customer insight must be central to driving and delivering on service and experience expectations of older generations, as well as anecdotal and feedback data from employees to help guide customer strategy.  

“Not only do we have a significant programme of customer insight to serve customers but we also see our colleagues as a rich source of insight. Executive teams have customer moments where we share part of the customer experience or we’ll ask customer-facing colleagues to join us and share their experiences.

“It’s critical to see colleagues as sources of customer insight. Having data joined up in a way that helps us understand our customers and act on that understanding.”

Empathetic thinking

Of course, being able to empathise with older customers is a critical factor in being able to meet their expectations, and this is significant in the role customer experience and service professionals play in ensuring older customers aren’t misrepresented.

Alex Allwood, customer experience trainer and consultant in Australia, explains in her book Customer Empathy that many brands have often failed to understand how they can empathise with older demographics, and highlights the work of Patti Moore, the ‘Mother of Empathy’ (Moore once used prosthetics to disguise herself as an eighty-year-old woman with reduced mobility, eyesight, and hearing; to give her the capacity to respond to people, products and environments as an elder person for a brand empathy experiment) as an example of brands needing to think outside the box in their attempts to empathise with this most vital of demographic:

“Empathy is the gift in innovation that opens up possibilities, delivering surprising insights. This is the gift of understanding other people’s point of view, seeing their world differently, and feeling their experiences from their perspective. Empathy can be switched on using tools such as personas, customer journey stories and employing methods such as first-hand customer conversations, co-creation, prototyping or role-playing and has the potential to benefit not just a few customers, but customer experiences ‘for all’.

“So maybe a shift in our CX practice is needed. A change to be inclusive in our day-to-day thinking and problem-solving for our customers. My dad, and your dad; our elderly folk need our help, just like us, they want to access to product and service experiences that make their lives better too.”

This is also reflecting in the work Beamish, and Saga, have been able to do to get to the nub of how over-50s and older customers should be represented by them, as a brand.

“It’s all about how customers feel,” he notes. “We did a big piece of work around CX and drilled it down to three things that were most important: simple, personal and special.

“As an example around simplicity – for our older customers, if your online experience is difficult, it can be the case for some older people that it’s something they’ve done wrong. That creates a negative impact on that customer that goes far beyond CX and actually impacts their confidence online. This is why, for us, simplicity in experience is key – more important than anything else. We don’t want customers coming away from an experience thinking they’ve done something wrong and having a negative experience with us. We want their experience to be the opposite.”    


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