Ever since they burst onto the scene following World War II, the Baby Boomers, that pig in a python generation, have made history. On January 1, 2011, headlines trumpeted another milestone event: for the next 17 years, 10,000 Baby Boomers each day will turn 65, the age traditionally linked with retirement. The manner in which the stories were reported made it seem as if all the Boomers were turning 65 at the same time.
Mechele Flaum, marketer extraordinaire, finds several flaws in such generalizations. The cohort tagged as Baby Boomers actually takes in those from 47 to 65, an age span characterized by vast differences in lifestyle, family composition, and buying patterns. And Baby Boomers turning 65 years old are not ready to retire. “Two-thirds are doing something called mid-flighting,” she said. “They are taking off again at 30,000 feet. They are in a job, or they’re in a career, and they are saying, ‘what else would make me happy?’”
With her newly launched marketing consultant firm, BoomerHead, Flaum is bringing her expertise about the Baby Boomers to corporations. She believes that companies are overlooking a golden marketing opportunity to target this cash-flush consumer group. “A lot of people in companies are between 25 and 45 years old and they don’t really know the Boomers,” she said. “They are saying the Boomers are 65 now. Well, yeah, the oldest Boomers are 65, but there’s a front nine and a back nine.” Some Boomers are 47 to 55, have young kids, are building their careers, and are in their wealth accumulation years. At the same time, many in the older group have seen their kids through college, are pursuing pent-up interests and are opening a new chapter in their lives.
Marketers are notorious for targeting young consumers as the group that drives trends and spends more freely. Yet Boomers represent a $4 trillion market that is not being tapped.“It’s the Boomers who are to blame, “ said Mechele. “ With that sixties mantra—don’t trust anyone over 30—we are responsible for drawing marketers’ attention to young spenders. When we were younger, we created that 18-35 market,” said Mechele. “Now we say, ‘why aren’t you keeping up with us?’ “
“Boomers are trend setters,” she said. “They haven’t changed. They are very demanding and experienced customers. The youngest of them have been buying for at least 30 years.”
That companies are lining up to hear what Mechele Flaum has to say is no surprise. In addition to BoomerHead, she heads up Marketing Fire, a trend-focused marketing consultancy, and also served as president of her sister’s company, Faith Popcorn’s BrainReserve.
“I see the experience of consuming as exciting and kind of a birthright that people have,” Mechele explained. “So your job as a marketer is to maintain excitement and it may mean breaking rules in creating new products or in seeking out a new audience. That’s the one thing that all these years have taught me is that it’s not this clear formula, ‘do this, do this, do this, you’ll win’. You have to almost always do something that’s sort of left and right at the same time. Force your brain to break out of conventional thinking. That’s what great brands do.”
Mechele and her sister, Faith (on right, above), grew up in the East Village. “It was great,” she said, with a laugh. “It was the 50s and the 60s. The bongo drums and the hippies, the tie-dyed T-shirts—which are back. Great music and very interesting cross cultural thinking. It was a really great place to be.”
For two years, Mechele attended NYU, enjoying everything the Village had to offer. “There was a lot of jazz, a lot of clubs in the far West Village,” she said. Both her parents were attorneys. Mechele’s father died when she was only 13. Her mother was one of four women in her 1937 class at NYU Law School, and the only one to go on to practice law. Mechele would often attend events with her mother. “My mom would say, `let’s go here,’ and it was Timothy Leary!” Mechele compared her mother to the flamboyant Congresswoman Bella Abzug, “right down to the hats.”
Even though she enjoyed NYU, she tired of going to school so close to where she lived. She transferred to American University in Washington D.C. Studying with the noted American folklorist Duncan Emrich, Mechele tackled a paper on an unconventional topic—-the popular culture of cruel and sick jokes. “It was so much fun doing that paper,” she said. “I could walk into any party or bar. It was a door opener.”
Mechele decided to pursue a master’s degree in American Folklore at the University of Pennsylvania. Her timing, however, was off. “My mother said that this degree and a token would get me on the subway,” she said. “There were no jobs. All the funding had dried up for teaching and folklore jobs.”
Another avenue soon opened up. “I read The Gospel According to the Harvard Business School and I loved it,” she said. After earning her MBA in marketing at Columbia, Mechele went to work for the Institute of Public Administration, “an entity that helped governments do better government.” In 1976, Mechele worked on a project to determine why companies were leaving New York. “Often little things were the cause, like a CEO’s wife getting mugged in Central Park,” she said. Interviewing so many people brought to light that there was no coordination among the many research projects being undertaken. “We catalogued a few hundred documents that became the base for a lot of future business thinking,” she said.
Mechele’s next job brought her into consumer marketing. She worked for the Joseph E. Seagram Company’s Calvert division, traveling around the U.S. to work with various distributors. Her next move was to Thomas’ English Muffins. “The interesting thing about the bread business is that in four days your product’s stale, so you have to accept returns,” she said. “That was an interesting new way of understanding marketing.”
Next stop: Slim Fast, the diet beverage now owned by Unilever. “As a woman I was frequently dieting so I knew the calorie count of everything,” she said. During her time at Slim Fast, Mechele helped to bring out new products like bars and cookies.
And Mechele discovered that her American folklore degree came in handy. “The only way you’re going to get someone happy with a product is to understand how they interact with it,” she said. “Having as a background folklore, which is the study of communication in so many different forms—folktales, folksongs, jokes—and coupling it with the business degree, you rub them together and you get very good marketing strategy.”
Family obligations soon intervened. “My mother died and there was an estate to figure out,” she said. The estate included the future of three tenement buildings the family owned in the East Village. Mechele took up residence in her sister, Faith’s, office, to handle the transactions. With the estate settled, Mechele thought she would go back to work as a marketer. But Faith said to her: “You’re not going anywhere.” Mechele became chief operating officer and then president for BrainReserve. “I became a seasoned marketing consultant with Faith’s help,” she said. “It was a lot of fun, hard work and travel. She still has a great staff and uses future trends to solve marketing problems.”
In 1999, Mechele launched Marketing Fire. “I wanted to grow in my own garden,” she explained, noting that she and her sister had “separation anxiety” when she left BrainReserve. Despite a seven-year age gap, the sisters have always been close and Mechele affectionately describes Faith as a “very laser beam, dramatic sister to have.” Fittingly, Faith attended the High School of Performing Arts and was fond of telling her younger sister that, yes, the school lunchroom really did resemble that dancing scene in the film, Fame.
Along with BoomerHead, Mechele still operates Marketing Fire. “There are certain clients that want to talk about all the different population cohorts, very young and very old,” she said. But she is adamant that the Baby Boomer market is a crucial one that should not be overlooked. “Baby Boomers are frustrated because they don’t have what they want,” she said. And she sees cross-pollination between the Baby Boomers and the much touted Millenials, the 80 million individuals born between 1980 and 1995.
“I just had a conversation today with an executive from Columbia Records and he said to me, ‘Mechele, when you were young the music was fabulous. The Beatles, the Stones, the Grateful Dead. And then music was not so great. But you know, it’s great again.’ I said, `Oh, my god, is it?’” She leaned forward. “That’s a marketing place. An untapped arena. Boomers back to music. My grandchildren, who are 17 and 14, love the Beatles. They are playing our music and we need to play their music.”
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