04/02/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

China's Senior Market: Gray Today, Golden Tomorrow

Within the next several years, China's "gray" (50+) market will be the most potent spending demographic on the planet. By 2025, there will be more than 500 million "mature" Chinese consumers, up from 300 million today, or almost 36% of the Chinese population, up from 21% now. Their per capita spending power will exceed $4,100, up from $1,620 in 2006.

But, to date, this potential bonanza has been ignored by most marketers. According the National Seniors Bureau, only 10 percent of products and services bought by senior citizens are actually targeted to them. Why? First, their current incomes pale in comparison to younger, middle class cohorts, who mostly reside in Eastern coastal cities. Second, mature consumers are assumed, often erroneously, to be ultra-conservative culturally, caring little about brands and the aspirations they embody. As Chen Yimu, a 62-year-old netizen, makes perfectly clear, such apathy will fade: "We want to look pretty. But there are no fashion brands for seniors. When will our turn come?"

Mainland gray can be golden. Marketers, however, must realize that, as incomes rise, the Middle Kingdom will become more modern, more international, but not more Western. Goods must be positioned in accordance with cultural imperatives. Brands must resolve a fundamental and uniquely Chinese conflict -- between fear of an ever-changing modern world and titillation by new-found freedoms and broadened horizons -- at the heart of elderly existence. Those that do will be rewarded with deep loyalty and robust price premiums.

Displacement vs. Optimism

On one hand, the 50+ generation suffers from a sense of displacement. From civil war, World War II and Liberation to the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, they matured during a politically and economically insecure era in which "success" or "acknowledgment" was contingent on sacrifice, on both familial and national levels. They were conditioned to have faith that absolute loyalty to authority -- by son to father, younger to older, ruled to ruler -- was the gravitational force that would pull "New" China out of 150 years of imperial and Republican chaos. Their worldview is characterized by Confucian faith that age is tantamount to wisdom, that obedience by and respect from the younger generation are the fruit of their long, hard struggle through sixty years of nation building. As one senior citizen puts it, "We sacrificed. We deserve a return. We deserve dignity."

The forces unleashed by economic reform and "opening up" -- mandatory retirement; mobility that increases the physical distance between parents and adult children; an epic inter-generational values gap in which traditional collectivism co-exists uncomfortably with new-fangled ego affirmation -- threaten the honor due life-long warriors for the Motherland. The 50+ cohort, anxious and self-protective, questions its own relevance.

That said, hope springs eternal. Driven by rising incomes, the power digital technology and a Middle Kingdom connected with the outside world, sunset days can blossom into rainbow years. The mature market is also beguiled by the promise of new friends, burgeoning fitness and travel options, on-line self-expression and a revolutionary concept that "fun" need not be guilty pleasure. Brands must mitigate an anxiety of displacement by becoming guiding lights into a new world of opportunity. They must pivot from fear-based messaging or, worse, neglect by either unleashing "possibilities of me" or forging new constructs of "we." Beyond a self-evident need to enhance product accessibility - i.e., enlarged mobile phone key pads, anti-shake digital cameras, a Walmart senior "corner, a C-trip gray travel mini-portal - smart marketers can dive deeper by touching the heart of desire. Here's how:

Possibilities of Me

Justify the Treat. We should provide permission to bite into forbidden fruits by positioning old-fashioned values as the source of future happiness or self-indulgence as a reward for enduring deprivation. Older Chinese are ruthless savers so AIA skillfully assets that, after years of hardship, freedom from worry is a worthy financial goal. Burberry's "real quality never goes out of fashion" and Dove's celebration of "real beauty" can be focused into mature-targeted campaign platforms.

Make Olden Golden.
Brands must explicitly acknowledge 50+ wisdom and generate admiration of "elder masters." Shide wine elegantly links the clarity of white alcohol with the "acumen of ancient sages." In a one droll HSBC ad, a silver-haired father wields a credit card to restore family harmony while paying for an expensive meal. Even Nike, during the lead up to the 2008 Olympics, aired a droll TVC featuring a guru to personify an ageless Just Do It spirit. In airing senior-relevant copy, these brands suggest an unusual, if sub-optimally harnessed, insight into the minds of mature Chinese individuals.

Attain "Forever Young."
Brands promoting health benefits should move beyond worry-based protection (e.g., supplementing calcium deficiency to ward against weak bones) to embrace life-enhancing liberation. Furthermore, pounding clichés of lively grandmas and grandpas have passed their sell-by date, as assaulted viewers of relentless Nao Bai Jing commercials will attest. New Balance targets running shoes to elderly who crave "new roads and a new life." New Zealand Tourism Board's "100% Pure" campaign is begging for a senior spin that fuses Daoist celebration of qi with the promise of timeless rejuvenation. Vitality benefits can also be dramatized by beating the whipper-snappers -- i.e., using the young generation as a playful foil. In Japan, Pocari Sweat, a sports drink, fueled the victory of spry old men over SMAP, a local boy band.

Reinforcement of We

Tighten Family Bonding. To strengthen the 50+ market's sense of belonging, brands can bridge the gap between new and traditional ways of life by lubricating inter-generational communication. Historically, non-differentiated "gifting" has been the most prevalent means of encouraging offspring to fulfill Confucian obligation to parents. Recently, however, a few products have begun to address the widening generation gap with a bit more nuance. Ericsson reminds sons that real caring is conveyed through on-going dialog with fathers. China Mobile has gone beyond "connecting people" by opening "lines of love" between daughters and mothers.

Relatedly, in China, a culture in which the extended clan supersedes the nuclear family, every Little Emperor has six parents, not two. Savvy brands acknowledge grandparents' interest in -- indeed, obligation --to contribute to their grandkids' well being. Both joy and responsibilities should be shared. Nestle's Taitaile, a flavor enhancer, explicitly endorses -- and facilitates -- a mother-in-law's dominion over the kitchen and, hence, the entire family's nutritional well-being.

Build New Communities. In an era of sweeping change and social disorientation, brands should be platforms for social bonding. Which property tycoon will break ground by building a luxury village for seniors? When will DeBeers throw Diamond Anniversary Parties for couples whose love lasts forever? Digital technology -- elderly chatrooms, blogs and social networking sites have begun to up everywhere -- already facilitates the fortification of old and new acquaintances. Few marketers, however, have capitalized on this sociological paradigm shift. Who will be the first to sponsor on-line "silver dating?"

"China pride" can also be a vehicle for drawing together like-minded soldiers, heroes who, collectively, molded a great nation. Brands should give legions of patriotic seniors a new age megaphone to help them, together, cheer for China. Anta or Lining, mass market sports brands, could support a "Revolutionary Pep Squad" during upcoming Olympic games. China Mobile, perhaps the most ubiquitous Chinese brand of all, should exploit the spirit of senior citizens in ensuring a successful Shanghai World Expo.

In conclusion, China's mature market will be gigantic but it is being ignored by most marketers. As spending power mushrooms, brands must tap into the tension between "fear of displacement" and "excitement for new beginnings." Those that do will emerge as guiding lights on a vast new commercial horizon. We have listed five ways -- justifying the treat, making olden golden, attaining "forever young," .tightening family bonding and building new communities -- to help manage the first steps on a beautiful journey towards everlasting relevance.

This article first appeared in Advertising Age.