The Original Brand Managers: How the Baby Boomers Defined Marketing

baby-boomer-consumersAs the Boomers grew older and made more money, marketers made it easier for them to spend money on products and services that seemed essential. These were the wonder years for marketers – unprecedented population growth and prosperity combined with the advent of electronic media and expanded consumer credit. This was the cocktail that created Madison Avenue’s Mad Men.

As said, the Boomers had enjoyed an unusual childhood, a rebellious adolescence and more time than any previous generations living as young, unattached adults. There was a lot of speculation (and hope) that they would settle down when they married and faced the responsibilities of parenthood. While they got married, they didn’t settle down. Despite moving on in life, they still clung to their quintessential Boomer attitudes and values. They didn’t automatically become their parents, as they continued to rewrite the rules or, more often than not, had the rules rewritten for them.

The generation that had won World War II had been, for the most part, frugal and willing to do without luxuries. The soldiers had learned how little they needed to survive when fighting at the front, and when they returned, they found it natural and acceptable to continue to suppress their own wants, needs, and even opinions and ideas. At home, civilians had worked, scrimped and done without to do their part to help. For those of this older generation who had experienced the Great Depression, it was often hard to spend and even harder to borrow.

Born after these two formative events, the Boomers’ orientation to sacrifice and personal indulgence was a product of their own time. Their attitudes toward spending and borrowing could not have been more different than their parents’ attitudes. They were avid consumers who drew the line between necessities and luxuries at a very different spot on the scale from where their parents had.

In terms of economics, marriage didn’t settle the Boomers down; it actually accelerated their buying behaviors. Most couples felt entitled to set up their own households right away rather than live with relatives while they built up a nest egg.

The homes they started with were bigger than the homes their parents had started with, and were equipped with more modern amenities. Those who lived in the suburbs felt they needed a car and soon justified a second one. A television set (yes, that’s what we called them) went from being a luxury to a necessity, and the number of them per household skyrocketed.

Becoming parents didn’t slow the Boomers down either. When they had kids, they insisted on the best and latest equipment. They didn’t want to give their children anything that they, themselves, would not accept as worthy. A new standard for quality was born.

How could they afford to do this? Counterintuitively, all of their spending helped drive economic growth, which in turn drove job growth, and many jobs paid very good salaries. On top of this, whereas many of their parents may have benefited from the government’s post war GI programs, the Boomers often had a very different GI resource: Generous In-laws.

Boomers were distinct from earlier generations in yet another regard – they were more likely to have two-income families. This trend began when many Boomers began to feel, as a matter of principle, that both parents had a right to a career. It was simply incomprehensible to them that parenting responsibility might prevent them from achieving their full adult potential. For a generation that was accustomed to living on their own terms, this was another compromise that they simply weren’t going to accept.

Dual incomes meant nearly twice as much spending, and the banking industry was committed to making spending easier. The Boomers’ spending spree would be fueled by the expansion of credit. Any stigma once attached to owing money would soon disappear. And any stigma attached to borrowing was dwarfed by the Boomers’ determination to have what they wanted, regardless of how they got it. Types of credit proliferated. The sheer size of credit ballooned.

Today, 63% of Baby Boomer households have at least one person working full time.

The year 1966 would prove to be turning point in the widespread dissemination of general-purpose credit cards. Yes, there was indeed to be a future in plastics. Bank of America was first in franchising its BankAmericard to banks across the country, later evolving to become Visa. That same year, a group of banks got together and formed the InterBank Card Association, which led to the creation of MasterCard.

As the ease and availability of credit expanded Boomers’ spending, they also began to develop a different attitude about what they bought, which led to different expectations. In their youth, marketing had taken a huge leap forward as logistical capabilities developed during the war made a more sophisticated distribution of goods possible. With broader distribution came increased competition and a wider spectrum of choice. Control continued to shift to the Boomer consumer.

Proliferation and competition created a new challenge for marketers. In many categories, growth would no longer come from simply increasing sales, and brands needed to do it at the expense of other brands by growing share of market. This was to be the beginning of the New Age of Marketing in which the discipline and art of branding were taken to new heights.

In 2012, Baby Boomers accounted for 49% of all consumer packaged goods sales.

Today the term “branding” is nearly synonymous with the title of Brand Manager. The brand manager is responsible for designing and executing a marketing plan that grows the brand’s reputation and its business. Since brands, and the people who manage them, were created in response to Boomers’ unprecedented clout, we have coined them the Original Brand Managers. They were the original ones who fell in love with these brands and defined them. They felt as though they owned these brands (think Levi’s) and, as such, they were the ones managing the requirements of what those brands needed to be.

Listerine was, for many years, the dominant brand in the mouthwash category. It had virtually created the home mouthwash category back in the 1920s when it was positioned as a cure for halitosis, a fancy word for bad breath. Listerine gave users a strong signal that it was working as it caused an unpleasant burning sensation in the mouth. It left one’s breath smelling somewhat antiseptic and medicine-like, but that was seen as confirmation that it worked.

In response to the new preferences of Boomers, P&G launched Scope mouthwash in 1966. It tasted better, was less harsh in the mouth and left your breath feeling and smelling sweeter than Listerine. Scope also positioned itself in a way that repositioned the competition by referring to the Listerine benefit as “medicine breath.” Scope was speaking Boomers’ hedonistic language and its sales rocketed for years to come. To get in front of consumer demand, companies started hiring more brand managers to design new brands in a way that created and maximized a company’s portfolio of brands, many of which competed with each other in the same category for the same consumer. The discipline of brand marketing was evolving into the higher art of brand management.

Some marketers took this task more seriously than others, as I was to learn firsthand early in my advertising career. Fresh out of college, I started working at the Cunningham and Walsh advertising agency on Folgers Coffee, a brand then owned by P&G. At one point, I received a memo from the Folgers brand manager proposing countermeasures to defend against the introduction of a competitive coffee product from a new brand named Highpoint. As I girded my loins to wage battle against any competitor of my P&G client, and read on, to my great surprise, I learned that Highpoint was not a new entry from General Foods or Nestle, but from P&G itself. Yikes. They were taking brand management seriously, and approaching it with militarylike discipline and zeal.

One of our clients at Cunningham & Walsh was Scheiffelin & Somerset, importers of fine wines, champagne and distilled spirits. One of their most successful brands at the time was Blue Nun wine, the brainchild of Peter Sichel, the German- American wine merchant.

U.S. Adults 50 and over consume more than 40 hours of television per week.

At the time, the typical American consumer had an extremely limited understanding of wine, and most were very intimidated when it came to choosing wine. While it’s hard to believe by today’s standards, if someone was going to drink wine, the hierarchy of choice was essentially red or white. Little attention was given to the wine’s country of origin, and certainly less, if any, to the grape varietals with which it was made.

Sichel knew this, and he also knew that the complex name and nomenclature of his German Liebfraumilch wine would only add to their confusion. Brilliantly, and to the horror of his wine purist peers, he made his wine simpler by naming it in a simple way – Blue Nun. It went on to become the best-selling international wine in the world. Cunningham & Walsh personified the brand by creating a nun who wore a blue habit. We made the point that Blue Nun goes well with all foods by showing the Blue Nun going “anywhere and everywhere.” Boomers loved it.

Contrary to popular conception, Baby Boomers are no more or less brand loyal than their younger counterparts.

Years later, Boomers have made Yellow Tail wine a global success. Is there something to the power of color in a brand’s success? Consider this.

When I was working at N.W. Ayer (America’s first ad agency) I was assigned to the KitchenAid portable appliance business. Recently acquired from Hobart, they were located in a little schoolhouse in St. Joseph, Michigan, down the road and out of sight of Whirlpool’s global headquarters. I’m not sure where the “s” on appliances came from as KitchenAid had only the white stand mixer. In fact, we sold just as many dust covers for the mixer as we did mixers. When you were done using your mixer, you covered it to protect it and hide it.

In change there is opportunity, and we noticed that American homes were undergoing a significant structural change. Kitchens used to be functional workspaces in which the head of the household labored over the meal and then came through swinging doors to the dining room to present the meal to family. In that environment, the appliances on your countertop were tools, and you took care of your tools by covering them to protect them from dust.

Now kitchens were being transformed from functional work places to the heart of the home. People were adding on to them, building “great rooms.” Sofas, bookcases, TVs and, of course, telephones started appearing in kitchens. The kitchen island – the heart of the heart of the home – was becoming a “must have” in fancier kitchens.

When kitchens became the heart of the home, the things on the countertop became home furnishings. And if they were going to be home furnishings, then style and design needed to become equal, if not paramount to function.

We brought this to life in advertising with a truly great theme line: KitchenAid: “For the Way It’s Made.” The line spoke to how well the product was made and how well the consumer could make great things, too.

That’s when we said, “Why don’t we make these things in colors other than white. If they’re being used as home furnishings, shouldn’t they come in different colors?” To make room for new colors on the manufacturing line, we discontinued the production of dust covers.

Without deliberately intending to, we had also solved one of KitchenAid’s business problems. The KitchenAid stand mixer was, and still is, incredibly durable. They don’t break down. Once a consumer buys one, they can keep it forever.

By offering the stand mixer in a variety of new colors, we were creating the obsolescence that hadn’t previously existed. The new colors were so irresistible that Boomers “needed” to have a new mixer even though their current one was built to work for another seventy years. Out with the old, in with the new. This was the beginning of the Boomers’ new definition of “disposable” income.

The mixer color initiative went so well that we soon extended it to a full range of kitchen tools – toasters, blenders, food processors and coffee makers. In the end, we put the “s” in portable appliances.

A sage figure at my first agency defined advertising as the art of getting consumers to buy things they didn’t know they needed. In the KitchenAid example, none of these Boomers needed a new mixer until a new need was created for them. It became absolutely necessary to own the latest home furnishing and culinary statement, just as the Boomers made it essential to own the latest and stylish cars that Detroit knew they “needed.”

During this early era of consumerism, Boomers grew up with the feeling that a new world was being built specifically for them. They were surrounded by a society that was profiting from making them happy, healthy, and prosperous. Since this bred a sense of entitlement and empowerment that they never shed, as they reached adulthood and started families, the marketplace morphed itself around their sheer size and spending power. Indirectly, but unquestionably, their needs directed what everything from houses to soap looked like.

These were the years that Madison Avenue profited from the true meaning of this new generation: its magnitude. If marketers simply kept their sights focused on the eighteen to forty-nine target, the Boomer’s population growth and expanding income alone would drive meaningful year-afteryear growth. Add to this the increased sophistication in marketing and branding, combined with easy access to credit and, in short order, the Boomers had become the ultimate target audience in the history of marketing.

If you worked on Madison Avenue, the two martini lunch had just become the three martini lunch.

This is an excerpt from "The Old Rush: Marketing for Gold in the Age of Aging," available on Amazon.