ith all the focus on youth culture in the soft drinks world, it is easy to forget the importance of the older generations to the well-being of the industry. Ignore the significance of the 45 to 60-year olds at your peril Sarah Reed warns.

Few parents will be surprised to hear that they are important to the soft drinks market. In the UK alone, their children drink over 400 litres of soft drinks per head every year, clearly making them the most important market segment today for soft drinks manufacturers.

Depending on their age, and access to disposable income, children display very different behaviour when it comes to buying soft drinks. Children aged 3 to 9 (per capita consumption of soft drinks around 230 litres) and tweenagers aged 10 to 13 (per capita consumption of over 435 litres of soft drinks) tend to rely quite heavily on pester power.

With significant disposable income, teens (per capita consumption of soft drinks of around 434 litres) are relatively independent of their parents in terms of soft drink purchases.

Youth is clearly important to this industry. First, youth represents the biggest consumer group of soft drinks and second, assuming many life-long consumption habits are actually learned in youth, capturing this market now is essential to manufacturers' long-term profits.

What is less well understood is the importance of the older generation to this market, as a group itself.

Spending more
The Office of National Statistics Family Expenditure Survey 1999/2000 data show that households headed by 45- to 60 year-olds spend more per person on carbonated drinks per week than any other age group (actually spending the same on average - £1.40 - per week as households headed by 30 to 45 year-olds). They also spend more on fruit juices, squashes and bottled water than any other age group with the exception of the one that immediately precedes theirs - 30- to 44 year-olds. Their average £1.60 per week is quite considerably higher than the £1.20 average per week spent by younger (less than 30) household heads.
 
We conclude that this group of people should continue to be marketed to, albeit with different products, supported by communications that are fundamentally - and appropriately - different from those used for today's youth market.

While these figures may appear to be less dramatic that those associated with the under 17-year- olds mentioned earlier, they do nevertheless show that the current 45 to 60 age group is important for soft drinks manufacturers.

Today, however, most businesses either aren't interested in them, don't understand the need to communicate with them, or don't know how to. For brands firmly wedded to youth, this is understandable. However, brands that try to communicate with this group - as many should - need to be careful how they do it.

First, not all older consumers are the same and second, it is now widely accepted that there is no one approach to the study of ageing. People age as biological, social, and psychological beings. As human existence is inherently multi-dimensional, it helps to take a multi-dimensional approach to explain ageing and age-related behaviour in later life.

Biological ageing does affect customer needs and purchasing behaviour. Therefore it provides opportunities (and potential pitfalls) for new product development, appropriate communications, and even retail environments. 

People aged 45 to 54 are particularly interested in looking after their health. They are also more knowledgeable about healthcare, more flexible and more youthful in their outlook than their parents' generation. Around 40% of consumers in this age group use alternative medicines - more than for any other age group (younger or older). Around 41% of 45- to 54-year-olds take vitamins and health supplements .

Their immediate elders, 55- to 64-year-olds, are more likely than any other age group to have used or considered using almost all types of alternative therapies.

With regard to healthy eating, this group is also far more likely than any other to have strong concerns regarding food safety, food labelling, the use of chemicals in food production, and genetically modified food, and will opt for organic food wherever possible. A recent report states that highlighting the healthy features and benefits of products aimed at older consumers is likely to resonate particularly well with this age group. Nutraceutical and low fat and light brands are particularly appealing to people between the ages of 45 and 60 (and older).

Roles occupied
In order to place older people in their social context, we must look at them in terms of their changing relationship with society, the positions and roles they occupy at various stages of their lives, the expectations society has of them, and the norms and the modes of behaviour appropriate for them - and of course, their own reactions to this.

Age is less likely to determine life-stage among today's 45- to 60-year-olds than any previous generation of the same age. For example, today's 55-year- old might be married, possibly for the second or third time. They might be working, or retired, or looking forward to early retirement as an opportunity to start another career. They might have children who are at primary school, university, or who have left the family home.

Understanding older consumers in their own terms is essential if manufacturers want to develop a meaningful relationship with them. So many brands overlook the mental image or perception that older individuals hold of themselves. When looking at this generation, advertisers would be well advised to find out how their audience sees itself, as behaviour at any age is usually consistent with self-concept. Finally, manufacturers, brand managers, marketers and retailers need to be aware of where this generation of people has come from.

Behaviour in later life is likely to result from both the ageing process and range of experiences over a person's lifespan and will differ depending on the dynamic historical and cultural contexts in which those experiences are lived.

It is evident that conceptions of older people that were thought to be relevant a few years ago are not now. Today's 45- to 60-year-olds are generally healthier, longer-lived, better educated, better travelled, more youthful in their outlook and more assertive than any other generation of the same age. They are very different to people both younger and older than they are. They are a sub-set of what is popularly known as the Baby Boom, which we call My Generation.

Demographically, economically and culturally, their influence is profound. My Generation accounts for 18% of the UK's population and just over 23% of the adult population. According to some reports, they hold 80% of the population's wealth, 60% of its savings and spend upwards of £191 billion per year - outspending all younger age groups by around 20%. They are yesterday's youth. Used to being the centre of attention, they most certainly do not see themselves as being part of some amorphous 'grey market' and ignore - or increasingly resist - inappropriate messages that are neither appealing nor relevant to their attitudes, outlook, aspirations and experience.

My Generation must be approached as a generation - a cohort group of people born over a particular period of consecutive years - and not as a demographic segment. This generation displays a personality that is unique; different to that of other generations with which it shares its present location in history, and different to that of previous generations of the same age group and life-stage. Don't make the mistake of treating these people like ageing hippies either, just because their coming-of-age experiences most likely resonate with this period of popular history. This is the same group of people that turned their drive for authenticity and self-perfection as hippies into something similar and yet very different as yuppies. Peer personality, the particular personality of a generation, evolves. Institution-challengers in an earlier life phase become institution-defenders in a later one.

Sarah Reed is Managing Director of My Generation Ltd which provides a holistic 360 degree picture of 45 to 60 year-olds by integrating psychological, sociological and physiological perspectives of ageing within a generational context. Through its INSIGHT:OUTLOOK services My Generation Ltd gives authoritative, actionable insight into today's 45 to 60 year-olds, helping companies better understand and communicate with this lucrative and exciting market.  Tel: +44 (0)20 7494 9456