10 Jul 2018

Age is just a number

How brands can negotiate the new generation gap. 

Tobias Phleps, CEO, Superunion Germany and Veronika Nikitina, Brand Strategist, Superunion Germany

“Everyone wants to be young.” This was the message from Dolce & Gabbana at their teenage-inspired show for Milan Fashion Week 2016, opened by teen icon Justin Bieber. Targeting and promoting youth is nothing new, especially in fashion and beauty. Whether it’s smooth, wrinkle-free skin, vitality or being a certain size, brands promote youthfulness as an aspirational quality. Fashion retailer Forever 21 has even integrated the ideal of eternal youth into its brand name.

But ideas of youth are evolving, and the relationship between youthfulness and demographics is losing its relevance. Celebrity culture and its fans may still nurture the obsession with eternal youth, but social perceptions of youth are generally changing. Youthfulness is being decoupled from biological age and is increasingly about lifestyle and beliefs. It is broadly understood as having an independent, active, adventurous attitude to life.

This paradigm shift is already being embraced by many brands. Uniqlo collaborated with the 63-year-old professor and influencer Lyn Slater for its LifeWear collection. Lyn Slater can also be seen in the new Mango advertising campaign, “A Story of Uniqueness”, alongside 29-year-old model Bhumika Aurora. L'Oréal uses 72-year-old actor Helen Mirren to promote its Age Perfect range under the motto “Gold, not Old”. These new role models personify the “young at heart” spirit, and the campaigns signal the value of age-agnostic brand management.

Lifestyle and beliefs are central to self-awareness and identification. But as people’s needs and characteristics continually evolve – and as age brackets and traditional gender roles continue to blur – the central question becomes one of how to define target groups. What can brands use to identify and pinpoint their target groups? As we enter a post-age era in the West, it is lifestyle and beliefs – our attitude to issues like sustainability, climate change, and politics – that shape our identity. For brands, this means placing beliefs and lifestyle at the heart of branding and communication.

Simplicity and versatility

Modern, urban and youthful consumers have a lifestyle driven by a desire for simplicity and versatility. The new fashion brand Arket, launched by H&M on 25th August 2017, targets the fast-paced lifestyle of urban professionals. The brand concentrates on these people’s needs: quality, versatility and longevity, and simplicity in the buying process. The collection is modern, without compromising on consumers’ desire to keep up with short-lived seasonal trends. Timelessness and simplicity are at the heart of Arket: staple designs are manufactured in a variety of materials that have different qualities, and are therefore suitable for every season of the year. Products remain in the range, and are the exact opposite of “fast fashion”. Arket shows that, when a brand understands a specific lifestyle and the needs associated with it, age is barely relevant.

Brands can also identify and address social and political beliefs. This is exactly what the Edeka supermarket chain did with their anti-racism campaign in August, when they showed empty shelves displaying the message: “How empty the shelf would be without foreigners”. The advertisement immediately became a viral hit and was broadly discussed across social media and in the press. This success helps Edeka stand out and be relevant in the fiercely competitive food retail trade.

The new challenge

In a world where easily measurable demographic data such as age and gender is no longer as relevant for predicting attitudes and behavior, brands must strike a crucial balance between addressing the individual and the market as a whole. To be credible, brands must increasingly address the lifestyles and attitudes of their target groups as specifically as possible. To achieve maximum relevance, they must be able to do this across a wide spectrum of target groups. This is a tough balancing act but one that – when done right – can fuel sustainable growth.