Boomer marketing still testing new ground in youth-worshiping Japan

Posted: Friday, August 09, 2002

TOKYO (AP) -- Gray haired or balding, the men show signs of age. But there's no doubt they're young at heart: They're exchanging e-mail on cell phones about their rock band's upcoming concert.

The image is from TV advertising for the ''raku-raku'' or ''cinch-to-use'' cell phone, which features larger easier-to-read letters for e-mail and a simplified system of three buttons for automatic dialing.

The phone is a rare baby boomer hit in Japan, a nation dominated by teenyboppers setting trends as quickly as they forget them.

That doesn't make much sense statistically.

The equivalent of America's boomers -- those turning 38 to 56 this year -- make up about 30 million Japanese, or about a quarter of the population.

Like their U.S. counterparts, boomer Japanese have far more spending power than the teen-agers and 20-somethings that much of this country's advertising tries to woo with pop idols and faddish gimmicks.


Suzue Sasaki, a 54-year-old housewife, walks on an exercise machine at Central Sports Co.'s wellness club sports gym in Asaka, north of Tokyo, Tuesday, July 2, 2002. Sasaki was delighted she trimmed down with the workouts on the exercise machines and hula-dancing lessons. "My body feels lighter," she said. "I love music and dance."Central Sports renamed its exercise facilities "wellness clubs," rather than "fitness clubs," to attract an older gym-shy crowd through beginners' aerobics classes, herbal baths and golfing lessons.

AP Photo/Tsugufumi Matsumoto

Marketing experts here are finally starting to take a serious look at the massive potential of the boomer business and face up to the reality that Japan is growing older, largely because it has one of the lowest birth rates in the world.

''Boomer marketing is about to show great potential in Japan,'' said Eiichi Someya, chief planning director at Tokyo marketing company Asatsu-DK.

Someya and other Japanese marketing professionals warn that the older crowd is hard to gauge and harder to please -- one of the reasons why boomer marketing has had such a difficult time getting off the ground.

''Rather than mass marketing for youngsters that relies on quick fads, we need to develop marketing for products and services for mature adults that speaks more intimately to individual tastes,'' Someya said.

Ichiro Kudome, president of Tokyo marketing research company ThirdAgeStyle Corp., believes the past attempts were all wrong -- catering to stereotypes about boomers as an out-of-it decrepit bunch. Boomers, he said, are actually energetic, curious, even youthful.

''They are physically very active, romantically involved and eager to take part in the community,'' he said. ''They are also dissatisfied that companies are designing products with only young people in mind. They want to be treated as equals.''

Kudome's company offers lessons in motorboat driving, gourmet cooking and vanity publishing, as well as a wine-tasting tour of France and a driving trek in the American Rockies in an effort to test the nascent boomer market.

Travel seems to be one area the boomer business is already scoring some success.

While most tours compete solely on price and head to resorts in places like Hawaii, the boomer tours organized by the Tokyo travel agency Eurasia have an academic slant, such as learning about the history of Egypt or tracing the Silk Road.

Another success story is Central Sports Co., which renamed its exercise facilities ''wellness clubs,'' rather than ''fitness clubs,'' to attract an older gym-shy crowd through beginners' aerobics classes, herbal baths and golfing lessons.

Central Sports, which runs 155 health clubs nationwide, posted $8 million in sales last year.

Suzue Sasaki, a 54-year-old housewife, was delighted she trimmed down with the workouts on the exercise machines and hula-dancing lessons.

''My body feels lighter,'' she said. ''I love music and dance.''

An important lesson to be learned from boomer hits is never to let on that the product is targeting them, says Yukinobu Arikawa, marketing manager of NTT DoCoMo, who developed the mobile phone that caters to the older set.

''If you push it as a grandpa and granny phone, it won't work,'' he said. ''Its concept is a cell phone for beginners.''

Despite difficulties, Japan has one unabashedly boomer megahit -- Glico, a box of caramels with a toy inside, much like Cracker Jacks.

Starting late last year, Ezaki Glico Co. began putting in miniature toys that evoke the good old days of the 50s and 60s instead of the usual animal figures and trinkets. The toys include tiny versions of classic Toyota models and black-and-white TV sets.

The response was explosive, tripling sales to $17 million in just a few months.

Shigehiro Kawase of Glico's planning division says the idea worked only because the candy was relatively cheap at $1.70 and made the little thrill inside worth it.

''People are feeling nostalgia toward what's been lost from those days,'' Kawase said. ''They buy the candy and think back on their childhood when they were full of energy and life.''

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