Ford made a sort of gesture to the golden oldie audience in 1998 when it put movie star Dennis Hopper behind the wheel of its Cougar sports coupe in a TV commercial. The commercial re-created scenes from the cult film Easy Rider, which Hopper scripted, directed and starred in, and featured the classic Steppenwolf track Born To Be Wild.
Theme of the promotion was that a “more mature” Hopper meets his alter ego, having changed his transport from a Harley-Davidson to a Ford Cougar. Hopper exchanged glances with his former self then, still ‘wild at heart’, he roared off in the Cougar.
They have high disposable incomes, outnumber the twentysomethings and are no slouches at surfing the net for best buys. So why do carmakers continue to run the risk of alienating the over 50s with youth dominated marketing campaigns? Report by John Kendall.
Registration of births, marriages and deaths, as well as census information, provides indisputable evidence that in Britain - as in other western European countries - we’re not only living longer but birth rates are falling.
In motoring terms, it means that there will be more older drivers on the road and the number of older car buyers is growing. The Age Concern organisation highlights a few statistics. It forecasts that car licence holders over 70 will increase from 2m to 4.5m by 2015. Eighty per cent of new private premium car purchases – those not using company cash – are made by the over 50s. Over the past 20 years, the number of women drivers over 60 has risen from 15 per cent to 48 per cent.
Yet still carmakers seem fixated by the notion that any model – male or female – over 30 will display too high a mileage to promote its products. Away from the advertising billboards, Ford has been doing research into the needs of the older driver, but its ‘Third Age Suit’ is more likely to appeal to those who prefer a gentle drive to Bournemouth rather than jetting off to Bogota.
The suit, aimed at helping young designers appreciate the problems of reduced mobility, features extra padding around the knees, elbows, stomach and back to restrict movement in the way experienced by many older people. Rubber gloves which reduce sensation in the finger tips and glasses that simulate cataracts can add further to the ageing simulation.
“We wouldn’t consider designing for older buyers specifically,” says Andy Jamison, human factors specialist at Ford’s Dunton research centre in Essex, “The suit was a tool. Designers are mostly male and under 35 and the suit allowed them to empathise with older customers who have grown up with cars and don’t want to give up driving.”
The Focus was the first Ford to be designed using information gathered using the suit and Jamison believes that it was a useful device in considering access to the car, managing blind spots and designing the seating position. “Sitting higher is beneficial for all customers, but particularly for older drivers,” he added.
Generally, Jamison’s views were echoed by other manufacturers we spoke to. While none of them would consider designing a car specifically for older drivers, high seating positions, wider opening doors, reversing alarms, large clear instruments and switchgear are the kind of features not so evident on cars even 10 years ago.
Saab, with an average customer age of 43 (though buyers of the 9-5 model tend to be older), doesn’t seem a likely candidate to find particular favour among the over 50s. But spokesman Gary Axon highlighted some points of advantage. “Swedes tend to be taller than us, which gives access issues for older drivers. So Saab uses multi-stage door stays, while a swivelling seat option has been available from Saab dealers since the 1970s,” he says. Other features include the split level instrument display in the current 9-3. It was a spin-off from Saab’s aircraft division and means that a driver doesn’t need to re-focus on the instruments in the centre of the dash when glancing down from the road.
Significantly, it’s carmakers from the Far East which seem to be paying most attention to how shifting demographic patterns will influence product design and marketing. But in an apparent paradox, the likes of Hyundai and Toyota are seeking the views of teenagers. Toyota has created a new car brand – the Scion – aimed at what it calls Generation Y consumers, those between the ages of 18 and 22. Hyundai, meanwhile, is tapping into the ‘pre-Gen Y’ seam with a series of focus groups. The paradox is explained by the fact that carmakers generally have a customer profile which is getting progressively older and they need to take measures to retain any degree of market share in, say, 20 years’ time. When it comes to point of sale, we asked a selection of manufacturers if they incorporate any specific training for franchised sales staff to deal with the over 50s. The answer was negative. Several even suggested that targeting older drivers could be off-putting to other customers. At the same time, they were happy to suggest that the youth-orientated lifestyle images associated with car marketing made older buyers feel youthful too, without stopping to think about the apparent contradiction. Why should older buyers feel good about such marketing techniques if their needs are not being properly recognised? Isn’t it just as likely that they will find youthful images a turn-off when they find themselves in a showroom?
According to Lara Colenso of the Headlight Vision consultancy - which has studied the needs of older car buyers - it’s an issue that hasn’t yet registered on the motor industry’s radar. Perhaps that’s not surprising when new car sales are running at 2.5m annually. “Companies must look for strategies that work for this age group,” she says, adding that the motor industry is more likely to pay attention when it sees age-related strategies becoming effective in other sectors.While acknowledging that handling older customers is not a specific part of his company’s sales training, John Livingstone, managing director of Seat dealership W Livingstone, feels it’s one advantage that family owned dealers like his can offer over their plc-owned competitors. “Older customers are looking for yesterday’s standard of service,” he says, “There are a lot of good young guys selling, but it’s all technique. You need to spend a bit of time being polite. Customers come to us for that sort of service.”
David Grainger, head of four dealerships handling Honda, Mazda and Peugeot, believes that motor retailing has to reflect its “broad brush” customer base not just in terms of age but also gender and ethnicity. “We have several salespeople in their 50s and two over 60. Having an age range from trainees to those who offer huge experience makes for a great mix,” he said. For those dealers who haven’t given the age issue a thought, apart from the birthdays of their nearest and dearest, perhaps the question they should be asking is: If you have a growing customer base on your doorstep, one that has money in its pockets and is going to keep on growing, are you making every effort to bring it across your threshold?