Opinion: Rubber Band Meets Rubber Brand

If you closed your eyes for a minute and imagined a typical gamer, what would you see? If you’re like most people (even most marketers), it’s probably a guy around 17, wearing torn jeans and a J!INX T-shirt, eyes narrowed at Call of Duty 4 lighting up his computer screen. His room—dark because the blinds are drawn—is strewn with spent cans of Monster Energy. The air thumps with Eminem’s “Not Afraid.”

If I haven’t totally nailed your own mental image with this description, chances are I’ve come awfully close. OK now, you can open your eyes.

Our player is, in fact, a 43-year-old soccer mom, trim in her Ann Taylor, polishing her high score on her laptop on the kitchen table. OK, she’s a “social gamer,” not as hard-core as the stereotypical brooding teen above, but you get the point.

Or do you? These days, my grandparents are on Facebook, dad’s Linked-In, mom tweets and my niece posts videos on her band’s Web site (which she built herself—and she’s 14). And it’s not like all these people just got wired yesterday either. The adoption rate of technology is increasing exponentially in every sense-quantity, levels of interactivity and in terms of demographics. I don’t need to convene a focus group to prove that digital’s reach is expanding at the rate of the universe-my very own family is proof of it.

We hear a lot about how technology adopters are getting younger all the time, but we should remember that they’re getting older as well. According to the Pew Research Center, 74 percent of boomers use the Web, and they make up 34 percent of the online community overall. And check out these recent stats from the Entertainment Software Association: Right now, two-thirds of American households play computer and videogames; the traditional gamer’s average age stands at 35-and over 26 percent of users are 50 and older. My agency has been watching this trend for some time now and spending no small amount of time and energy to keep up with it.

But I’m not sure how much company we have. Much of marketing skews young, of course, but I think that too many strategies miss their targets by neglecting consumers in their 40s, 50s and 60s. So I’d like to propose a different approach. Think of technology adoption by consumers (old, young and everyone in between) as a rubber band. It expands and changes shape all the time. Your marketing should be like that too. Much like that expanding rubber band, think of the pent-up energy involved: The more you can stretch it out, the further it’ll fly when you release it. In this way, our rubber band becomes a rubber brand.

Marketers err by looking at technology adoption as a demographic. In fact, it’s a mind-set. Age, sex, societal status—none of that is as important as the simple fact that a consumer has decided to embrace a given technology. For this reason, agencies and corporate marketers need to continually reconsider, refresh and diversify their approaches to reach these ever-widening adoption bases. Economic conditions aside, boomers should re-emerge as a key group to target across many product categories. So, if your approach has forgotten about this segment, it’s time to experiment with the elasticity of your rubber brand.

Most brands want to be tacitly aspirational. As such, in no way am I proposing that, say, Activision should target my father (let alone mom or grandma) for its upcoming COD Black Ops release. At the same time, however, I’m baffled by the advertising community’s neglect of what had been considered the most influential generation in terms of its size and buying power. If I didn’t know any better, I’d be led to think that consumers aged 40-60 are uniformly impotent, tired, broke and feeble-at least based on the brands I see aimed at them: Enzyte, Ben-Gay and mortgage refinancing. While the recession has been hard on everyone, the truth is that middle-aged and older Americans are resilient, powerful and more fiscally solvent than any teenager downing a can of Monster in his dark room.

Product marketing plans need to address this population as if they have “hang time”—they’re not going anywhere anytime soon. The faster marketers realize this (and stretch their marketing to accommodate them) the greater the potential for success. Tactful approaches are what’s called for, perhaps with a little dash of humor. After all, if we stay with my rubber-band metaphor, if you stretch the thing too far you’ll see it snap and fly apart. So when you’re convincing your parents that they should get with the times and buy that new 3-D television, you can counter their pessimism (along with the fear that watching too much of it will leave them with itchy eyes) by sneaking a little bottle of Visine in the plastic bag with the remote, manual and batteries. Now that’s product integration for the next generation of consumers—your consumers.

Uh, that Visine idea is mine, by the way. But don’t worry. If you’re smart, you’ve already started cooking up some elastic marketing ideas of your own.

Andrew Harris is the vp of brand development for Petrol and can be contacted at Andrew@PetrolAd.com.