Boomers and Beyond: Package Structure Gets a Grip on Aging

January 1, 2006
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Boomers and Beyond: Package Structure Gets a Grip on Aging
By Ken Miller and Jim Warner
Smart marketers know the Baby Boomer population is a demographic tidal wave poised to slam into our societal shores. Clearly, a brand that can simply hold share over the next 15 to 20 years will see strong growth. But the story for marketers may very well be that holding share will be more difficult than it is now, and that marketing to the stereotypical “senior” might be a recipe for brand decline.

Packaging can play a tremendous role in recognizing the truly disparate needs of an aging population. It is strikingly clear that marketers who base package design decisions on the right interpretation of research and demographics will win big. That’s because they will take the time to learn about the physical, emotional and cognitive effects of aging on Boomers and will design packaging that respects, but doesn’t overtly pander to, this mighty demographic.

Changing Perceptions
Another important point is that, currently, about one-third of Boomers live alone. This independent lifestyle has interesting implications for package design since, more and more, there won’t be anyone around to help reach for a package, carry it, open it, dispense it, reseal it and, of course, remember where it is. But let’s resist the urge to paint aging Boomers as increasingly debilitated and incapable.

The fact is that not until people reach their mid-80s do they fit the mold we currently ascribe to those much younger. For our aging Boomers, their 60s are the new 40s.

Affluence, better health and experience will combine to change the way we think about the aging population. The en-masse linear life progression through birth, young adulthood, marriage, wage earning, retirement and death is obsolete. Considering the aging population as one segment is also dangerous. Various physical, social and attitudinal factors splice this demographic into addressable segments that have less to do with age and more to do with the segmentation attributes we typically use to describe their younger cohorts.

This leads us to what is perhaps the key message for marketers: Don’t treat the aging Boomer like an aging Boomer. Don’t look at age and its presumed problems as an “empathy strategy”. Don’t use conspicuous design cues in packaging that scream “easy for the aged”. And never, ever, overestimate Boomers’ brand loyalty or underestimate their willingness to switch brands on you the moment a new product delivers better value, as they define it. Their experience allows them to size up a marketing effort quickly, and see through any attempt to ingratiate inappropriately.

Implicit in these statements is the expectation that the products Boomers buy are easy to handle and passively sympathetic to their needs. But they still must have mainstream appeal in look and functionality. The last thing aging consumers want to be reminded of is that age presents unique challenges, and that the products they use label them as “less capable”. They value the quality of an experience and will award their loyalty to the brand that delivers it beyond any gratuitous hype.

Understanding this Market
Ergonomics has been a common strategy; and as a marketing term, it has become part of consumer vernacular. Retailers like Target and companies like OXO have identified design and ergonomics as a defensible position in the marketplace. This trend, combined with older consumers’ years of experience, makes Boomers attuned to whether a product performs as promised. This experience-based, trial and error decision-making process helps define value through performance rather than price. Aging Boomers are not necessarily drawn in by the deal.

The aging population is leading active, forward-thinking and positive lives. They are interested in acquiring things for the home, and experiential travel. One recent study found that those ages 54 to 65 rank “traveling and seeing new places” as high as “maintaining/improving physical health” when asked about their hierarchy of values. They are dating more, having children (or grandchildren) later and starting new careers. They don’t feel old and don’t consider themselves constrained in any way. They are dramatically redefining the parameters of aging to suit themselves.

The fact is that, as a group, they are seeing physical and cognitive changes, but not as dire as you may think, and not for the same reasons. Certainly, visual and auditory skills deteriorate over time. This may have implications for package structure, as certain design cues in shape and auditory feedback go unrecognized. However, losses in hand and grip strength, muscular flexibility, range of motion and tactile feedback may have more consequences for ergonomics in package structure design. But wait…the evidence should not be taken at face value.

As we age, we lose strength due to a natural decrease in muscle mass and a diminished ability to apply force, or torque. Muscles fatigue faster and are less able to endure stress. So, opening that jar of mayo becomes more difficult because of the grip strength and prolonged exertion required to get the darn thing loose. Turning a handle or lifting a lever is tougher, too, because of lost wrist flexibility.

But, research shows that these effects are not necessarily age-related and vary tremendously from person to person for a range of reasons. One study found that working capacity was affected more by body composition and exercise habits than aging alone. Another study found that more than half of older consumers say that “ease of opening” does not influence their decision to buy.

When we think of ergonomics and packaging, we are quick to think of operations such as opening, dispensing and resealing. But ergonomics is involved in the full range of interactivity a consumer has with a product. Cognitive perception and cues (visual and auditory), along with the more obvious (but still often ignored) handling and operating issues must be considered. Even grasping from a store shelf or from storage at home can be a sensitive matter. But treating all aging consumers with the same kid gloves is sure to alienate many who still see themselves as more than capable. There’s that pesky segmentation issue again.

Clearly, older consumers take longer to complete certain physical tasks related to product usage. But this may be just as much due to their emphasis on greater accuracy and better results. Remember how they leverage a wealth of experience: Trial and error over the years has taught them to take the time to be more precise for a more certain outcome.

In addition, research shows that designs that are conspicuous in their efforts to address disability are not favored, even by the disabled. Use of such products sends a negative message to the world, and perhaps more importantly, to the user about their age and abilities. We would suggest that product and package design that assists those that need it should also serve those that don’t, without any adverse signals. It is clear that many older consumers face physical limits in handling products. Just don’t tell them that.

A Holistic Experience
This article is far from exhaustive in its treatment of ergonomic and usability issues pertaining to package structure design for the aging. However, it is a reminder that the experience consumers have with your product is holistic: It is comprised of the entire usage event, not just the performance of the “juice”.
Aging consumers have seen and done it all. This depth of experience makes them extra demanding of products they expect to work correctly from start to finish. In turn, they truly appreciate a product or package that is respectful of their limitations, but doesn’t shout them to the world. After all, no one wants to be told that they’re too old to use the same products as everyone else. Particularly if they are certain that old age is something only their parents have to worry about. BP

Ice Cream “Slingers”
Packaged ice cream is infamously difficult to handle. Prying off the top requires prolonged exertion of the fingers and is hard to control.  Scooping the ice cream is a real wrist-twisting challenge, demanding extended exertion of the hand and wrist to penetrate the frozen stuff and dig out each scoop.  Both operations are difficult for anyone, but particularly so for those suffering from age-related weakness.

Ice Cream “Slingers” makes storing and serving bulk ice cream a breeze for anyone. The lid is simple to open with a quick flip of the thumb, and closing provides tactile feedback that suggests a secure seal. Inside, the ice cream is pre-portioned, with each “sling” holding three “scoops”.
 
The slings are comprised of multi-chambered film, with channels connecting each chamber for direct filling. Each sling has a hole on each end for fingers to grab and can be separated to release all or some of the scoops. A folding handle on the upper side of the back of the box mimics the slings inside, and provides more secure handling from freezer to counter.  
“Slingers” work better for ice cream lovers of all ages.

Tailoring Your Packaging
So, how can a brand marketer leverage this understanding with package structures that are sensitive to aging consumer needs without the risk of trying too hard?
• Design package structure interactivity to avoid older consumers’ physical weaknesses: grip strength, wrist torque and endurance. Packages that require short bursts of strength are better than those that require prolonged exertion to open and reseal. So, think about the large, heavy, round glass bottles with screw-top lids your product may be packaged in now.
• Leverage container shape and graphic billboard opportunities that are more conspicuous for those with impaired vision. Consider larger, all-over labeling with sharp contrast and contoured, inviting shapes with less finicky detail to generate the strongest shelf impact.
• Understand how consumers define “value” regarding the usability of your product. Reward them with ergonomic benefits they will pay for across the most important (and less obvious) interactivity dimensions. But make sure the features work perceptually and functionally for a cross-section of consumer targets. If the utility is easily identified as “aging assisted”, you run the risk of alienating all camps by turning off those it was designed for and seeming irrelevant to everyone else.
• Design an intuitive package. Make sure that consumers can readily understand how a product is used and why it works better, even before attempting to use it. This message is best sent from the store shelf, where consumers need to have confidence that the product will work as promised. Nothing undermines confidence and the user experience faster than elaborate “mice type” instructions, multiple arrows and complex diagrams.

Facing a Packaging-Related Challenge?
Odds are, you’re mulling over a new package structure or needing more information on a relevant consumer trend. And while you rely on your team for answers, you might want to consider another resource…this column.
We’re inviting you to submit your packaging challenge or a topic for an upcoming “Innovating for Lifestyle Trends” column. Submit anonymously, if you like. Or with full disclosure, if that works. Be as specific or as general as you’d like. Either way, we’re standing at the ready to offer you insight, inspiration and maybe even a “thought starter” consumer-focused package concept.
Our columnists speak both marketing and design languages. That means they can serve as a resource for both brand managers and R&D folks with ideas that get both sides thinking.

Here’s all we’ll need from you:
For help with a packaging challenge you’re facing, provide us with some background including the product category and audience, and your marketing objective. Or, suggest a trend-related topic for the column that may be of use to you.
We’ll select the most intriguing idea and address it in the next “Innovating for Lifestyle Trends” column, which will appear in our April issue. Send your challenge or topic suggestion to senior editor Pauline Tingas at ptingas@stagnito.com.

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