Packaging can play a tremendous role in recognizing the truly disparate needs of an aging population. It is strikingly clear that marketers who base package design decisions on the right interpretation of research and demographics will win big. That’s because they will take the time to learn about the physical, emotional and cognitive effects of aging on Boomers and will design packaging that respects, but doesn’t overtly pander to, this mighty demographic.
The fact is that not until people reach their mid-80s do they fit the mold we currently ascribe to those much younger. For our aging Boomers, their 60s are the new 40s.
Affluence, better health and experience will combine to change the way we think about the aging population. The en-masse linear life progression through birth, young adulthood, marriage, wage earning, retirement and death is obsolete. Considering the aging population as one segment is also dangerous. Various physical, social and attitudinal factors splice this demographic into addressable segments that have less to do with age and more to do with the segmentation attributes we typically use to describe their younger cohorts.
This leads us to what is perhaps the key message for marketers: Don’t treat the aging Boomer like an aging Boomer. Don’t look at age and its presumed problems as an “empathy strategy”. Don’t use conspicuous design cues in packaging that scream “easy for the aged”. And never, ever, overestimate Boomers’ brand loyalty or underestimate their willingness to switch brands on you the moment a new product delivers better value, as they define it. Their experience allows them to size up a marketing effort quickly, and see through any attempt to ingratiate inappropriately.
Implicit in these statements is the expectation that the products Boomers buy are easy to handle and passively sympathetic to their needs. But they still must have mainstream appeal in look and functionality. The last thing aging consumers want to be reminded of is that age presents unique challenges, and that the products they use label them as “less capable”. They value the quality of an experience and will award their loyalty to the brand that delivers it beyond any gratuitous hype.
Understanding this Market
The aging population is leading active, forward-thinking and positive lives. They are interested in acquiring things for the home, and experiential travel. One recent study found that those ages 54 to 65 rank “traveling and seeing new places” as high as “maintaining/improving physical health” when asked about their hierarchy of values. They are dating more, having children (or grandchildren) later and starting new careers. They don’t feel old and don’t consider themselves constrained in any way. They are dramatically redefining the parameters of aging to suit themselves.
The fact is that, as a group, they are seeing physical and cognitive changes, but not as dire as you may think, and not for the same reasons. Certainly, visual and auditory skills deteriorate over time. This may have implications for package structure, as certain design cues in shape and auditory feedback go unrecognized. However, losses in hand and grip strength, muscular flexibility, range of motion and tactile feedback may have more consequences for ergonomics in package structure design. But wait…the evidence should not be taken at face value.
As we age, we lose strength due to a natural decrease in muscle mass and a diminished ability to apply force, or torque. Muscles fatigue faster and are less able to endure stress. So, opening that jar of mayo becomes more difficult because of the grip strength and prolonged exertion required to get the darn thing loose. Turning a handle or lifting a lever is tougher, too, because of lost wrist flexibility.
But, research shows that these effects are not necessarily age-related and vary tremendously from person to person for a range of reasons. One study found that working capacity was affected more by body composition and exercise habits than aging alone. Another study found that more than half of older consumers say that “ease of opening” does not influence their decision to buy.
When we think of ergonomics and packaging, we are quick to think of operations such as opening, dispensing and resealing. But ergonomics is involved in the full range of interactivity a consumer has with a product. Cognitive perception and cues (visual and auditory), along with the more obvious (but still often ignored) handling and operating issues must be considered. Even grasping from a store shelf or from storage at home can be a sensitive matter. But treating all aging consumers with the same kid gloves is sure to alienate many who still see themselves as more than capable. There’s that pesky segmentation issue again.
Clearly, older consumers take longer to complete certain physical tasks related to product usage. But this may be just as much due to their emphasis on greater accuracy and better results. Remember how they leverage a wealth of experience: Trial and error over the years has taught them to take the time to be more precise for a more certain outcome.
In addition, research shows that designs that are conspicuous in their efforts to address disability are not favored, even by the disabled. Use of such products sends a negative message to the world, and perhaps more importantly, to the user about their age and abilities. We would suggest that product and package design that assists those that need it should also serve those that don’t, without any adverse signals. It is clear that many older consumers face physical limits in handling products. Just don’t tell them that.
A Holistic Experience
Ice Cream “Slingers”
Ice Cream “Slingers” makes storing and serving bulk ice cream a breeze for anyone. The lid is simple to open with a quick flip of the thumb, and closing provides tactile feedback that suggests a secure seal. Inside, the ice cream is pre-portioned, with each “sling” holding three “scoops”.
Tailoring Your Packaging
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