Mark Beasley reviews the latest – and, it is claimed, last – book by ‘ageing business’ guru, Dick Stroud. The full title is: ‘This I Know: the fantasies, fiction and fantastic potential of older consumers.’ and it is billed as ‘Dick Stroud’s ‘no bullshit’ story of the ageing business.’
Dick Stroud has been active in what he calls the ‘ageing business’ since 2003, which was when I first met him. I was involved in an age-related academic project, which went the way of all academic projects (filed and forgotten), while Dick went on to become one of the most active and respected advocates of the ‘ageing business’ – or ‘how to profit from demographic change’. As he says in the prologue, he has written two books, over 5,000 blog posts and hundreds of articles. Not to mention numerous conference presentations, consultancy projects and the development of ‘age friendly’ methodology and software.
That’s a lot of words – and Dick Stroud clearly feels that many of them have fallen on deaf ears. He has apparently said all that needs to be said – ‘for heaven’s sake, what more can be said? Why write another book?’. And if the world had paid more attention, it would surely have benefited greatly – as ‘mostly, my predictions and ideas have been right(ish).’ A tad arrogant perhaps, but Stroud does indeed know more than most about this subject.
The aims of the book are made clear. ‘This I Know’ is Dick Stroud’s ‘final word’ on the ageing business and he has chosen to state his case (of which he is certain) concisely (75 pages) and definitively. To do this, he has opted to manage without the support of tedious facts, charts, data and references, in the hope of producing something manageable and readable. Who has time to read another lengthy marketing textbook?
‘Much-repeated facts and fiction’
The book falls into three broad sections. The first of these summarises the background to our ageing society – ‘the social, demographic, financial and economic certainties’ that ‘drive the ageing business’. Emphasis is placed on economic and financial issues – which, it is made clear, are more complex than often assumed.
The ‘far-reaching effects’ of physiological ageing, a pet subject of Stroud’s, are mentioned as an important factor – which they are. However, psychological ageing – a subject that has received the most attention in this area for some years now – is not mentioned at all. Generational marketing – a serious academic and consultancy topic in the USA – is casually dismissed as the work of ‘amateur psychologists’, with as much value as a horoscope. Take that, Professor Schewe!
The second section of the book reviews why Government, business – and many others – have failed to act. An undercurrent of frustration and annoyance permeates this section. No-one is spared: the media (who find it difficult to cope with complex arguments), Government (who have failed to act), Business (‘companies always have something better to do’), marketers – ‘the failure of marketers’, not to mention the ‘shambolic mess’ that is the NHS and the financial services industry (with its wilfully complicated products).
The ‘ageing blob’ (a vast army of state and lottery funded organisations doing little of value) receives (and probably deserves) special mention, as do its associated pressure groups and their ‘skewed thinking’ and ‘simplistic understanding’. Even older people themselves – who ‘fail to exercise’ and are all too often ‘unprepared for getting old and hope for the best’ – must accept some responsibility.
However, Stroud reserves his best barbs for the ‘bright-eyed and bushy-tailed’ young marketers he imagines are reading his book, probably looking for soundbites for their next team presentation. These are addressed in a series of asides, mostly in the form of verbal slaps to the head, reminding them to pay attention and commenting on their stupidity. For example: ‘Younger readers will have disengaged from this section…much more interesting to focus on the latest innovation in social media or some other youth-centric activity than do anything about it.’ This goading of younger marketers seems particularly counter-productive and unnecessary.
Grudging acceptance and gerontophobia
In passing, we are reminded of two of Dick Stroud’s most important contributions to the ageing business – the concepts of ‘age neutrality’ and ‘age silos’. ‘Age neutrality’ recognises that a brand may well be consumed by people of all ages, not just younger people, and requires the avoidance or removal of all age-related references or implications. The ‘age silo’ brand – explicit in its targeting of older consumers, with products such as stair lifts and SOS alarms – should not assume that its solution will be welcomed, says Stroud, suggesting that ‘grudging acceptance’ is more likely.
The final section of the book draws some conclusions, in the form of two ‘lists’ – first, solutions and opportunities and then, ‘reasons you are likely to fail’. These are relatively short sections and the former in particular is quite limited, as the author admits. Among the reasons for failure is a new term to me – gerontophobia, defined as the fear of growing old, hatred or fear of the elderly. This, it seems to me, explains so much of the inaction mentioned in the book – ‘age just isn’t sexy in marketing terms’, as the academics Carrigan and Szmigin once said.
No light bulb moments
I will conclude this review with two comments. First, in my opinion, the book would be better if it were a little less bitter. As Stroud says: ‘perhaps I have been working in the ageing business too long and have become cynical, maybe defeatist.’ Like many, he had expected a ‘light bulb moment’ when business would come to its senses –and feels that this has not happened. It seems like he may taken this personally. But I do not entirely agree – there may not have been a light bulb moment, but I sense a lot of flickers.
Second, if you are going to say that the book is your final word – not mere opinion, but the summation of extensive experience and knowledge – then you have to be consistent. Statements like ‘I have little evidence to substantiate this statement’ and ‘I can’t offer you any hard evidence for this statement’ sow seeds of doubt, where none should be sown.
My own final word is this. Dick Stroud has made a great contribution to the ‘ageing business’ and deserves our thanks and praise – and what better way to show it than to buy this book? It is a little anecdotal, sometimes unstructured, definitely opinionated and often provocative – but that is what it was intended to be. However, it does have the great merit of brevity, for which we should be extremely grateful.
Here is a link to Dick Stroud’s page on Amazon.