Entrepreneur Edition with The Gerontologist’s Kerry Burnight
July 28, 2021
Adventurous agers. Communal caregivers. Empty nesters. Seniors. When brands lean on these categories to define adults ages 65+ in their marketing strategy, they’re often missing the point. An expert in aging, Gerontologist Kerry Burnight provides strategies on how to connect with an aging audience, or our future selves, in The 19: Entrepreneur Edition podcast.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:00:05] This is The 19. In 19 minutes or less, game-changing insights from Orange Label, the leading response marketing agency for established brands that are driven by a fearless entrepreneurial mindset.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:00:05] The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that the population of older adults will outnumber children for the first time in U.S. history in 2035. And yet, when we look at much of the advertising and marketing content around us, adults 65+ are often left out completely or catered to for age-related issues. Not only is this a disservice, it may be a major misstep as Euromonitor finds that more than 50% of U.S. income belongs to those over 55. National expert in aging, Kerry Burnight is dedicated to understanding older adults and making aging a better experience for all of us. With a PhD in Gerontology and 18 years as a professor of Geriatric Medicine, Kerry is now focused on advising brands on how to create everyday solutions that serve older people and the entire population. Welcome to The 19, Kerry, it’s great to have you!
Kerry Burnight: [00:01:20] Oh, I’m glad to be here!
Rochelle Reiter: [00:01:27] So we’ve worked together in various capacities over the years, and now you are having a new endeavor, which is called the Gerontologists. Can you tell me a little bit about that and what you do?
Kerry Burnight: [00:01:37] Yes, after about 30 years of real hands-on with older adults in geriatric medicine, I really had this front row seat of both the triumphs and the tragedies of older age. So we are right now at this really exciting time because there’s all this innovation, largely digital innovation in housing, health care, transportation, end of life, care-giving. But what companies are finding is that this innovation only makes a difference if it’s adopted, accepted, embraced by its intended users, older adults. So this advisory firm, The Gerontologist, it’s helping companies succeed in the human side of longevity.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:02:23] Mm hmm. That’s amazing. So knowing you and your mission to improve the second half of life, how does this guide and direct you in advising your clients on a daily basis?
Kerry Burnight: [00:02:33] Well, the clients these companies are incredibly new and innovative. And yet I’m guided by this really, really ancient Latin phrase that’s Nihil de nobis, sine nobis and it’s nothing about us without us. The companies, in order to succeed both short term and long term, need to be listening to be including the people that they’re hoping to serve. And so really the biggest thing, if there’s only one take home, it’s that companies learn how to listen to older adults.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:03:13] Yeah. Playing the typical situation why clients hire you. At what point are they at where they say we need Kerry and we need The Gerontologist?
Kerry Burnight: [00:03:23] I think any company that has its eyes open sees that demographic imperative that you pointed out early on, and that is that we are all aging and we can’t underestimate what it means, that the fastest growing segment of the population is those over 80. So companies recognize the medical, social, ethical, legal complexity of older age and they recognize that they need to know not only about gerontology, but also how to listen to older adults and then turn that learning into actionable strategy, into implementation and into outcomes that we can measure.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:04:06] Mm hmm. Mm hmm. There are some gray area in terminology around the population that 65 plus. How do you identify this segment?
Kerry Burnight: [00:04:16] I’m glad you asked because language matters in listening to people who like me are in their second half of life, there is consensus surrounding the fact that, above all, we are adults and there’s still a ton of paternalism and misconceptualization that old people are other or old people are cute, or somehow that old age is related to childhood and really nothing can be further from the truth. And so companies who don’t systematically discourage that inaccuracy quickly learn that their products, their services will not be adopted because people feel like you don’t know me and you are treating me as less than.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:05:09] Mm hmm. Some people say elders, some people say elderly, some people say seniors. What is your take on that and how to appropriately and with dignity identify that demographic?
Kerry Burnight: [00:05:20] I can hear sometimes in people’s voices they’re reaching for the right word and we see those words all used. When I have been in focus groups, there seems to be a lot of consensus around the emphasis on adults. So older adults is what I end up using most of the time. And just because it seems to be preferred now doesn’t mean that would always be the case. So it is good to also, you know, ask that question. Some of the focus groups with your clients or customers, you know, you maybe would start with older adults. The thing that happens is and I’m having that already in my 50s is that I feel so incredibly young. So even older adults. I’ll give an example. I work with a patient who is 89, and I brought him a shirt from a university that I worked with, UCI Geriatric Medicine, and he said, oh, I can’t wear this shirt because geriatric that seems, you know, that really doesn’t fit me.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:06:25] Yeah
Kerry Burnight: [00:06:26] And so that was good. I like absolutely you don’t you know, this is just my work shirt, but, you know, so I think asking the question is, is a good way. And then in the absence, you know, for now, I do use older adults or I’ll just sometimes say adults.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:06:43] Yeah, yeah. I think that’s true with most people is they feel young inside. So labeling that as a senior or as geriatric is offensive to some people. And that’s the last thing a marketer or a brand would want to do is turn off a demographic that they care about and they’re trying to reach with a particular message and share.
Kerry Burnight: [00:07:06] Yes!
Rochelle Reiter: [00:07:06] The value of their brand with them.
Kerry Burnight: [00:07:08] Exactly! And I think that we have so many more similarities. It’s that, you know, if you really want to know what seniors want, need or feel, start with thinking about it’s you, right?
Rochelle Reiter: [00:07:21] Yeah.
Kerry Burnight: [00:07:22] You’re going to blink your eye. You just were 14 and before you you’re going to be 91 very shortly. So, you know, think about it as it is not they. And any time I start working with a company and they’re using they and them and, you know, making it so other, that’s when I know right away, you know what? We need to get some older people here so that you can see that these assumptions of they are so different are really inaccurate.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:07:53] Sure. Sure. And focus groups and research and interviews are the way to kind of tap into those emotions.
Kerry Burnight: [00:07:59] Yes. And there are very specific ways to do it. There is a bias at times when you’re working with groups that they’ll not want to hurt your feelings. So they’ll say, I’ve been in groups. So they say, oh, it’s nice. Yes, it’s terrific because they don’t want to be impolite.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:08:16] Yes.
Kerry Burnight: [00:08:17] And so to really right from the beginning to say we expect to hear things that you don’t care for some parts of this. Let’s get into it. Let’s get gritty.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:08:26] Yeah, for sure. Just being having an authentic conversation and being real about it.
Kerry Burnight: [00:08:30] Yes. And having the variety. So, you know, some of the groups I’ve been involved with, it’s all white upper class people from a certain part of the country. And that’s really not getting at the variety. You know, we have seven million adults, 65 and older who are in same sex relationships. We have wonderful, wonderful people of all religious preferences and racial groups and different languages. So it is important also in our groups to recognize how we need to include our listening to a lot of different folks.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:09:08] Absolutely. Absolutely. That’s great. Are there ways to slice and dice that 65 plus age group even further?
Kerry Burnight: [00:09:19] Absolutely, it is the most heterogeneous group that exist, and so show me an 18-month-old and I know what they’re doing, show me an 81-year-old. And we have so much variation, we become more different than one another and more true to ourselves. So what people traditionally try to do in marketing is come up with these clever alliterations of adventurous agers or communal caregivers. I think the reality is in order to actually segment in a way that is meaningful, you need to take a step back and really look at out your purpose for the company. You’re why. So it makes a difference if you are transportation versus if you are high-end service if you’re the automobile industry. So before you jump too fast into these groups with these cute names, it’s what are you trying to do then? Talk to people who are would be users of the service or product and then really understand respect, changes in mobility, changes in vision, hearing, cognition, interests. What matters if you think that just by putting a silver-haired, smiling person in your ad that you’re somehow addressing seniors is really just going to show your ignorance or really cynicism.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:10:48] Sure. So it gets down to the messaging and how you’re speaking.
Kerry Burnight: [00:10:52] Very much so.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:10:53] To the demographic? Do you have any examples of marketing that slice and dice the segments that you’re talking about in terms of who’s doing it?
Kerry Burnight: [00:11:03] Right, fairly recently was exposed to a Kaiser ad, and it used the music that when I grow older, I want to be an old woman. And it was this I can actually could play that. And it showed the most aspirational older women doing profoundly important, interesting, fun, enjoyable. It gave such an example of connecting all ages because unlike other things. We are going to be our future, our future clients, really, right? So if I am targeting a demographic that is older, it is not them, it is us. And it is really a time of new longevity. And with so many advertisers doing it wrong, it stands out when somebody does it right.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:11:59] Yeah, for sure. And we were talking about that Fast Company article about marketing to seniors and why it’s so terrible right now. And most brands are missing the mark because they’re only looking at the age. They’re not looking at attitudes. They’re not doing the appropriate research, having the conversations with the target demographic to really understand. What are your thoughts on that?
Kerry Burnight: [00:12:19] I think that looking at values, for example, one of our biggest drivers as we get older is autonomy. That is the ability to decide what we want, when we want, how we want it with younger adults. Our perception of being older is always around safety, like how can I keep my mom safe? And so here you have this very different drivers of what matters. So in sometimes the payers are the older adults themselves and sometimes they are adult children. So it’s making sure that you think about who the message is going to, what are their drivers, and to make sure that older people are going to listen to ads that you create for younger people. And so things that don’t promote dignity like, you know, just to having all these I fallen and I can’t get up in adult diapers and different things. That isn’t the reality of aging.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:13:18] Yeah, there are a lot of healthy people over 65 that are doing amazing things.
Kerry Burnight: [00:13:23] Yes, the majority of us over 65.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:13:26] There is often more emphasis in marketing on anti-aging rather than pro-aging. Can you share with us a little bit about what that looks like and how businesses can be mindful of that?
Kerry Burnight: [00:13:40] I would love to and in fact, I’m writing a book on this very topic, so there is a multi-billion dollar anti-aging industry that has grown lucrative as a result of telling us from the minute we were born that it is bad and ugly and awful to get older. And this really was driven home to me when I was recently speaking in front of a group. It was a career day and I was speaking in front of a group of fourth graders and I asked the children, what happens when you get older, expecting it to start a conversation and all the children raised their hands. And I called on the first boy and he said, You get ugly. And I said, Oh, gosh, no. And then I thought I’d better call on a girl to see. And as I was going to call on someone else, all the children put their hands down because it was the first thing that they thought of, because we’ve that’s what we’ve been trained. So the anti-aging, fear-based, you know, do everything you can to not do it. It’s not only inaccurate, but it’s really, really detrimental. I had another privilege to speak to a group of adults who were all 90 and above.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:14:49] Wow.
Kerry Burnight: [00:14:49] And so when I asked them what was the best thing about being older, there were so many responses. And in fact, the literature shows us that self-reported quality of life is higher and higher as we get older. And that’s not the message we get at all. It’s only this message of decline and despair. And when I asked that same group, what was the worst part about getting older, they said being discounted, taken as less. And that’s a result of anti-aging. So this either pro-aging or a cognitive shift toward a different conceptualization of looking forward and embracing this additional 50 years. I think a lot of people are catching on, and I think advertisers and companies can get on to that into the new longevity. But this is not the longevity we have feared. This is one that we are creating.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:15:41] Yeah. If you could sum up your thoughts today in a sentence or two, what advice would you give brands when marketing to that older audience?
Kerry Burnight: [00:15:51] I can summarize it in three words. Number one, listen. Number two, recognize that you are ageist. I’m ageist. We are all living with inaccuracies about what it means to be older. And then third, change, because we’ve lived in a way that has been scared and ageist and made older people other. We have to be very proactive to say we’re going to do this differently. And it all starts and ends with listening.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:16:25] That’s amazing. Thank you so much for your insights today on the future of aging and how we can better serve our older adults. We really appreciate you being on the 19!
Kerry Burnight: [00:16:34] Well, thank you for spotlighting such an important topic.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:16:44] Thank you for listening to The 19: Entrepreneur Edition with Kerry Burnight. To learn more about Kerry’s advisory company, The Gerontologist Inc., visit TheGerontologist.com. If you have additional thoughts on this topic, send us an email! You can send questions, comments and more to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rochelle Reiter: [00:17:01] A Special thank you goes out to our contributors Studio Manager, Kelsey Phillips, Micah Panzich, who edits our show, and Ashley Ruiz, Content Writer. Be sure to subscribe to The 19 on iTunes and Google Play, and, if you like what you heard today, leave us a review!