The Next Big Thing

John Silliman Dodge
FMQB November 18, 2005

May 11, 2006 is the big day. You might not know it to look at me, but thatís the day when my experience, my education, my influence and my purchasing power all become irrelevant in the eyes of Madison Avenue. While Iím still on the vital side of the 25-54 demo, I thought make a few observations.

Ever since the Boomer Generation officially began in 1946, it has been influencing social and business megatrends. Every industry which has positioned itself in the path of this demographic juggernaut has boomed right along with the Boomers-from blue jeans to rock music to Coke to cars to homebuilders to daycare to financial services to travel to mental and physical healthcare to managed retirement. This is not a matter of interpretation or opinion; the data is irrefutable. Noting this, why in the world would media planners and buyers abandon this group wholesale at age 55? Wouldnít Mister Spock say this was illogical?

When Boomers reach any stage of life, as Dr. Ken Dychtwald, president of Age Wave notes, "The issues that concern them - whether financial, interpersonal, or even hormonal - become the dominant social, political, and marketplace themes at the time. Boomers donít just populate existing life stages or consumer trends, they transform them." Letís look at the numbers.

AARP, the American Association of Retired Persons starts recruiting at age 50. They currently have 35 million members and every single day, 10,000 new people become eligible to join. Half of the entire Boomer generation is now 50+. Remember that this demographic wave lasted nearly 20 years and added nearly 80 million Americans to the ranks.

The Merrill Lynch New Retirement Survey found that 81% of Boomers expect to continue working past 65. "They want the action," says Ken Dychtwald. "They don't want to be on the sidelines." People 60 years old today have an actuarial life expectancy of 82.3, though they expect medical science to extend that to 100. So forget traditional retirement; most Boomers want to work until they drop, though doing more meaningful work in their later years. Consider Fidelity Investments new tag line: "80 is the new 60." Consider their new spokesperson: Sir Paul McCartney.

So what happens in your entrepreneurial mind when you notice a huge swath of audience, a group with education and energy and influence and buying power, an entire demographic who is currently underserved by radio? What do you do? You invent new formats, of course. And which style of music radio comes into its own in the 50+ age group? Classical. Focus on the data. Age 50 is the point where classical radio, CD sales, and concert ticket purchases all begin to accelerate, a trend which stays on the upswing until the end. Classical music has a strong spiritual component which resonates with mature people, who have come to realize that there is more to life than a house and a car and an IRA. The sophistication and timelessness of the music goes hand in hand with this age groupís increasing desire for self-actualization, meaning, learning, expanding, and sampling new experiences. And classical music is a new experience for many. It doesnít matter when a piece of music was written-the first time you hear it, itís new to you.

Now Iím not talking about your fatherís classical radio. You ask the man on the street to imitate a DJ and he will immediately make a puking noise. Ask that same fellow to imitate a classical DJ and he will lift his nose in the air and speak as though a broomstick were positioned just so. That old school approach to classical radio wonít fly in the 21st century. The hushed museum tones, the religious reverence, the academic prerequisites, the tedious anecdotes about Mozart and the Third Duke of Patooty. All of that is just gone. Instead, imagine a bright, entertaining, sophisticated adult contemporary approach to the presentation, marketing, and promotion. Imagine a high profile personality radio format with a major passionate and enthusiastic attitude. Add a tightly-dayparted but broadly-based music list of the greatest hits of the 17, 18, and 1900ís, and boom-call it Neo-Classical. Itís not as radical as you might think. Theyíve been doing this quite successfully for more than ten years in London. Itís called Classic FM.

I programmed one of the Big Five classical stations in Boston in the 1990ís. Since then Iíve worked with commercial and noncommercial classical stations all over the country. Iím currently the board president of the Bellevue Philharmonic Orchestra in the Seattle area. I have never known music which makes people so passionate, music which is taken so personally and which becomes such an integral, daily part of their lifestyle. Of course, I could be wrong about Neo-Classical as a viable new format. Iím from way up here in the upper left hand corner of the country where people with totally outrageous and unrealistic business plans which no bank should underwrite go on to become fairly successful. Imagine a three dollar cup of coffee. Imagine unseating IBM. Imagine a new format that serves the biggest audience there is. Is that too wild an idea? Or is it just wild enough to work?

Matt Thornhill, president of the Boomer Project, a Richmond, Virginia marketing research and consultancy points out that one of every three adults in the US is a Boomer. 70% of the nationís net worth is in their hands, as is half of all the household discretionary income. Theyíre not "seniors" any more than Howard Stern, Jerry Seinfeld, Cher, Robin Williams, or Bill Clinton is a senior. Mature maybe (or not), but certainly not senior. These people think theyíre 35, yet we market to them like theyíre 75. Itís a little ironic, donít you think? They are better educated and richer than any previous generation in history. As their parents die, theyíre expected to benefit from the largest transfer of inherited wealth in history. They spent $2 trillion annually on consumer goods and services. And they fall off our media map at age 55.

You might be aware that for more than a decade, NPR-affiliated stations have been leaving the classical format and opting for news and information. The state of our world could be driving this trend. Many major American cities have reduced classical availability. Some no longer even support one classical station. All this spells one thing to me: opportunity. Itís a contrarian play, pure and simple. If you want to win, then donít follow-lead. Zig when others zag. Build in the path of growth. Remember what hockey superstar Wayne Gretszky said: if you want to be successful, skate to where the puck is headed, not to where the puck is now. And the demographic puck is moving toward 55+.

Will Neo-Classical be as big as Garth Brooks? You can bet your big black hat it wonít. You wonít be able to drop this, franchise-style into a market ala Bach in the Box. But Iím betting that with proper design, presentation and marketing, Neo-Classical can be a highly attractive 21st century format which appeals to tens of millions of Boomers in the strongest phase of their purchasing power and influence. But like I said, I could be wrong. Madison Avenue thinks so and those kids look pretty smart. Theyíve got their fingers on the pulse, Paris Hilton and all.

The Boomer generation is going to exit they way they entered-noisy, breaking rules, defying expectations and transforming industries to the very end. Gramps is taking jazz piano. Nana is going on an arts tour of Europe, solo. Uncle Dave fell in love with Beethoven. Dave fell in love with Barbara too, and now heís a brand new dad at age 58. Smart companies from A to Z have observed Boomer megatrends and have made their strategic plans to offer goods, services, experiences, information, value, and expanded quality of life to this group. What is your groupís profitable strategy to serve the single largest consumer segment in America? Where is the plan?