17/11/2011 06:50 GMT | Updated 17/01/2012 05:12 GMT

The Young Apprentice and the Over 50s

Upon hearing the Young Apprentices' next task was to meet the challenge of marketing products to the 'over 50s', my reaction was: this could be fun! So before the episode aired I put together some predictions of some of the traps the candidates could fall into when marketing to the lucrative but challenging over 50s market.


The Apprentices will make one or two fundamental errors:

1. They will interpret over 50 to be over 70

2. They will use stereotypes, which are untrue and probably offensive!

At the heart of this challenge is whether the candidates can avoid falling into the 'stereotype trap'. They need to really understand what it's like to be an 'over 50' and must avoid lumping everyone over 50 into one group. After all, a 55-year-old is of a different generation than an 85-year-old.

However, if the pre-programme blurb from the BBC is anything to go by it does not bode well!

Both teams must select two products that they think will most appeal to their grandparents' generation and sell them direct to the public at a major exhibition...At the exhibition, under the watchful gaze of Nick and Karren, the teenagers find their elderly customers are no easy pushover.

Firstly both teams must select products that they think will most appeal to their "grandparents' generation". But the contestants are 17, so it's likely that their parents will also fall into the over 50s category. Secondly, the use of the word 'elderly' in itself comes with all sorts of connotations and loaded meanings.

Some stereotypes, or myths of middle age, they might use are the 'older person as incompetent' (e.g. the current AA ad with John Cleese), the kindly retired grandpa (e.g. the original Werther's Original TV ads) and the complaining, grumpy old man or woman stereotype - 'everything was better in my day'. If they're a bit more savvy they may try to think about people in youthful old age, but in doing this they will evoke another stereotype - the man or woman having a mid-life crisis. It is unlikely they will consider that people may be productively working, experienced with a mastery of life, better able to manage their emotions, happier and calmer.

The reality

So did the contestants fall into the traps that we expected? Mostly, yes!

The programme began in the Natural History Museum. As the voiceover said, it's "home to fossils dating back hundreds of years". Talk about invoking a stereotype before we've even got underway! However at least Lord Sugar recognised at the beginning the financial opportunity saying that the over 50s market is worth £260bn.

Haya al Dlame was appointed team leader because of the strength of her relationship with her grandmother - a perfect example of interpreting over 50 as over 70. Similarly Gbemi Okunlola said "old people want to 'dash' their money because they don't want to save any more" (raging against the dying of the light as Dylan Thomas would say?!) And a quote from Lewis Roman: "Every time I see an old person I feel sorry for them. I want to squeeze them".

Conversely Harry Maxwell was the only person to recognise that over 50s can be people like his parents. For this reason and this reason alone he would be the one I would select. None of the other contestants demonstrated any understanding of the potential differences between a 50 year old and a 'pensioner'.

The products chosen all reflected the stereotype of the over 50s being retired with not much to do - a shopping trolley, bird house, pie maker and compact vacuum cleaner. None of the contestants made any attempt to select their products based on an understanding of their customers.

Considerations for businesses

With this in mind, here are the top five things businesses need to consider when looking at the 'over 50s' market:

Don't treat it as one homogenous market. Break it down into much smaller segments.

Understand the wealth that resides within this segment. 55-64-year-olds in the UK have typically 80% more wealth than 25-34-year-olds.

Ensure your recruitment strategy accommodates this. A 25-year old graduate may be extremely bright but do they have the life experience to deeply understand the issues? That's not to say older people themselves wouldn't fall into the stereotype-trap.

Ensure products or services are really designed with an older target in mind, where appropriate.

Understand the deeper emotional drivers that motivate more mature people.

The final word goes to M&S. Their TV ad, "Mrs. Jones", is a great example of a brand that really understands its audience, a large part of which is going to be 'older'.