Jan 7, 2009

Lifestyle - India;The Great Down-aging Syndrome: Why 40 is the new 20

Prasad Sangameshwaran

Think Vijay Mallya, and things that spring to mind are beer, fast cars, marathon yacht parties and an array of dazzling women. Essentially
everything that one would associate with bubbling youth — except that in this case, the object of these associations is a 53-year-old industrialist. Of course, these connections are partly fuelled by the aura of the Kingfisher brand. But a large part also has to do with Mallya’s own stylish, age-defying persona.

Far from being an exception, however, Mallya is actually the most striking manifestation of a new behavioural paradigm that’s playing out across large swathes of Indian society — The Great Down-aging Syndrome. Across urban India, people in their 40s- and even 50s are displaying a propensity to defy age, not merely in terms of looking young but also by viewing age as just a number, and not a milestone that demands fundamental — and frequent — changes in behaviour and lifestyle.

The Down-aging Syndrome is at the heart of many subtle changes visible today. Take our Hindi film heroes, many of who will never see 40 again. They romance nubile nymphets half their age — which is precisely what 40-plus stars from the previous generations also did. The difference with the current crop, however, is that today’s 40-plus heroes take the pain to look young on screen.

So Aamir Khan and Shahrukh Khan as college-goers don’t draw sniggers the way stars from the 70s and 80s did when they sat in the college canteen or the classroom. Down-aging is evident in real life as well. Middle-aged executives are quietly opening accounts on Facebook, updating status messages on an hourly basis and adding fun applications — stuff that even five years ago they would have found utterly frivolous.

The T-shirt-andjeans ensemble is rapidly becoming the default dress code as T-shirts and jeans have strong ‘youth’ imagery; also, sporting Tshirts is more becoming nowadays thanks to the accent urban Indians are putting on physical fitness . This, incidentally, is also a symptom of the Down-aging Syndrome. And of course, the idea of retirement — embodied in the concepts of Vanaprastha and Sanyasa — has undergone a shift as well, with more and more Indians rising to the top echelons of power by their early forties. ICICI-Prudential’s tagline perhaps sums up the sentiment best: Retirement , sirf kaam se.

With India’s youth outnumbering every other age segment in the pop-strata , there’s greater pressure among the not-so-young to turn the clock back and feel ‘included’ by the young set — be it in office, social gatherings, or at times, even in the privacy of their homes.

“Demographics is clearly influencing psychographics,” declares adman Partha Sinha , chief strategy officer at BBH India. Across categories, the 41-to-50-year-olds are equally passionate consumers of products that one would normally tag as meant for the young. “If you look at the similarity in attitudes and lifestyles, indeed consumers are down-aging . People in their forties are behaving like the late-teens ,” agrees Hemant Mehta, senior vice-president , IMRB. Mehta adds that with the average age of the workforce being 24 years in most offices, those in their forties are also changing their language and clothes to be in synch with the majority.

One of the factors that has played a significant role in down-aging is the new-found belief in the advantage of looking young. With merit — and not years of experience alone — beginning to count in professional life, grey hair appears to have lost some of its lustre.

“The 40-plus crowd has the confidence to carry around their young looks. And there is no guilt about indulging like an 18-yearold ,” says Simeran Bhasin, marketing head for Fastrack , Hugo Boss and Tommy Hilfiger at Titan Industries . If Target Group Index (TGI), a study by IMRB that covers more than 300 categories to identify usage patterns, is any indicator , the down-aging phenomenon is here to stay. For instance, according to the study, nearly 41% of urban Indians in the age group of 41-to-50 think ‘it’s important to be attractive to the opposite sex’ . In comparison, the only group to rank higher is the 15-to-19-year-old , where 42% of respondents share that feeling.

It could be argued that there’s nothing new about vanity consciousness among 40-to-50-year-olds . After all, the multimillion-dollar beauty industry has been built on much of this vanity. But IMRB’s Mehta points out the feeling has just become a lot more, well, in-your-face , with the substantial increase in the number of beauty salons and gymnasiums in the last few years.

Rakesh Pandey, CEO, Kaya, the beauty services chain of Marico, reveals that there has been a significant increase in the number of clients asking for treatments like botox in the last two-three years. “Earlier, it was nice to look young. Now there is a huge premium attached to looking young,” he says, adding that the reasons for customers visiting outlets like Kaya range from the personal to the professional. For instance, several times clients visit Kaya clinics when they are changing jobs — to look more acceptable to the new employers.

Bhasin also points out that the staying young phenomenon has to do with a change in the mental make-up . In the past, people toned down their behaviour and appearance as they passed new milestones in life. For example, people would change their style of dressing immediately after they start working, undergo another change in attitude postmarriage , and so on. Not the current crop though. Today’s 40-plus lust after things they could never acquire when they were young.

Far from rolling back, the idea is to simply roll on. BBH’s Sinha points out that the ‘grow young’ trend need not be restricted to personal grooming or fashion. Technology-related products are also playing the great leveller. The enthusiasm goes beyond sleek laptops to include categories like mobile phones and MP3 players.

As per the TGI study, the ownership of premium mobiles or mobiles with radio is equal among older (41-to-50 years) and younger (15-to-19 years) segments. Ditto in the case of MP3 players. Rajeev Sharma, national brand planning director , Leo Burnett, points out that the similarity in choice of mobile handsets is partly influenced by the fact that, in many cases, it’s the young who are advising the 40-plus group on picking up handsets.

“The parent-child equation has changed. When we were growing up, parents knew best. Now, for choosing everything from a mobile phone to a TV to a car, the child knows best,” adds IMRB’s Mehta. In fact, at one level, this changing parentchild equation itself could be contributing to d o w n - a g i n g : with parents increasingly becoming their children’s ‘friends’ , parents are at greater liberty to dispense with the authoritarian ‘parent’ persona in favour of a younger ‘peer’ persona.

The Down-aging Syndrome manifests itself in some not-so-obvious industries as well — the tourism industry , for instance. When it comes to holidays in offbeat destinations, one would expect the young to take a massive lead in taking the road less travelled . But the 41-to-50-year-olds spring a surprise in the TGI study. While 43% of respondents in the 41-to-50-year-age bracket prefer to takeoff to an offbeat destination, only 44% of 15-to-19-year-olds prefer to get adventurous with their holidays. As consumption patterns converge, it’s natural to examine the implications of this trend on marketers —those who target the young as well as those who target the young-atheart .

Leo Burnett’s Sharma feels this trend will only drive the youth harder in search of exclusivity. “As older consumers start looking at traditionally youth-dominated categories like denim and mobiles, youth will look for extreme youth fashion that older people won’t or cannot imitate,” he says. Examples : low-rise jeans and extreme adventure sports.

Sharma also predicts that youth influence will transform categories that are not necessarily targeting the youth. “White spaces will emerge from non-youth categories incorporating youth drivers. We are already seeing cars with funky designs (Suzuki Swift), credit cards stressing on the need for spontaneity, entertainment and so on. Design, in particular, will emerge as extremely important across categories,” he says.

Shyam Sukhramani, marketing director , Levi Strauss India, adds that segmentation has, and will, become even more critical. “Sub-segmentation and micro-segmentation will be the key, going forward,” he says. According to him, companies will have to look at segments in greater detail, develop more products to cater to sub-segments , modify the marketing mix and deliver products that cater to every segment.

But in an environment where consumption trends are seemingly converging , seasoned marketers believe it’s important to not fall into classic marketing traps. “Target group definitions need to be even tighter under such circumstances ,” advises Harit Nagpal, CMO, Vodafone Essar. He adds that just because both the 40-to-50-year-olds and 15-to-19-year-olds consume MMS as a service, it would be incorrect to assume that both are using it for the same purpose .

Changing the definition of a target audience without understanding consumer motivations can be disastrous as well. For example, an older consumer might be attracted to a product or service targeted towards the youth because it targets the youth. Now, by broadening the target audience to ‘youth and beyond’ a marketer may end up losing the older consumer — as the fundamental reason they bought the product or service has been taken away.

As far as brand communication goes, what’s critical is targeting young consumers , even if relatively older consumers form a significant portion of the brand’s user base. “If we can convince the consumer at point of market entry to use our brands, they are likely to stay with our brands longer,” explains Sonali Dhawan, associate marketing director – beauty care, P&G India. And yes, there’s the additional benefit of the older set of consumers viewing the brand as ‘youth-centric’ . The good news for brands, of course, is that they now have age on their side.

1 comment:

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