The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Masako Wakamiya, an 81-year-old self-proclaimed evangelist for information and communication technology, has become a celebrity after the release of her iPhone game Hinadan. She learned to use a computer at the age of 60, and at 81 turned to game development.

Wakamiya thought Hinadan would be fun for Japanese seniors who are familiar with traditional costumes. The player must properly stage 12 traditional dolls (hina) on four tiers (dan).

“Most game apps are suitable for young people. They are difficult for elders who cannot move their hands as fast as youth. I asked for games for elders, but no one was interested. So, I decided to make one myself,” explained Wakamiya in an interview with South Korea’s The Electronic Times. She was in Seoul on April 1 to speak at the Connect Foundation’s Software Education Festival 2017.

Wakamiya’s story—an 81-year-old unable to find games for seniors ends up developing one—addresses several conventional beliefs that society and business have about the silver market, a term used in Japan to refer to senior consumers. “Wow” is the most common reaction when we see seniors who know their way around the latest technology. But is this surprise justified?

“It made news because people make the mistake of not associating technology, gaming, and social media with older people,” said Dave McCaughan, marketing thought leader and storyteller at Bibliosexual, a consultancy that helps companies understand the interaction of people and media with brands and stories.

“We are so focused on young people we have lost our understanding that older generations are really the innovators,” he added. “We forget that people over 70 have lived through more technology change and real innovation—adapted to it, helped develop it—than any other generation.”

McCaughan said there are four common misconceptions that companies and markets have concerning seniors: they don’t spend money, try new products, switch brands, or use—cannot use—technology.

It is important to understand that this age group is as diverse as any other. Just because our grandmothers never turn on their computers doesn’t mean all grandmothers don’t—especially the generation retiring today.

“At the early stage of the aging population shift—around 1996—I thought computers would be the best medium to prevent seniors from isolation,” Kayoko Okawa, the 87-year-old president of Computer Grandmas Group, a Tokyo-based online community for seniors, told The Journal.

The group has about 400 members in Japan and abroad, some in their nineties and one-hundreds, and has been connecting Japanese seniors all around the world for 20 years.

“In the 1990s, people thought it was impossible for seniors to use a computer,” said Okawa while recalling the first meeting of the Computer Grandmas Group. On that rainy day in March 1997, she nervously waited, wondering if anyone would turn up.

They did. The room she had reserved only held 40 people, but 150 grandmothers and grandfathers showed up with their umbrellas and walking sticks. She hurriedly got another room, but it was still not enough.

“Twenty-four hours a day, 365 days a year, I chat and share pictures—even during the middle of the night,” explained Okawa. She said many members turn on their computers first thing in the morning, while still in their pajamas. “The older generation likes to talk with people,” and technology helps these seniors, who might otherwise live in isolation, stay connected.

Although the name of the group only mentions grandmas, grandpas are welcome, too. Forty percent of the membership is male.

Okawa continues to bring in new members, prioritizing those who are in the later stages of life, living alone in the mountains or on an island. “There are many things that make us different from the younger generation,” added Okawa. “And when we start living alone, we stop talking as much, which makes us want to talk so much.”

Marketers still do not understand older consumers or how to connect with them.

“A Japanese woman of 66 is treated the same as her 88-year-old mother,” McCaughan explained. Market research has improved compared with a few years ago, when some major research did not include those over 65, but seniors are still evaluated with the same expectations and standards. “Now, most surveys and research includes all ages, but it treats all those over 65 the same.”

McCaughan questioned the effectiveness of a popular research method: online surveys. How senior-friendly are they?

The silver market is diverse. Some seniors are tech-savvy. Some do not have access to technology. Some are physically limited or illiterate. To understand the silver group, marketers need to use different methods.

Each generation can relate best to itself, and those that make up the silver market are no different. McCaughan, recounting what a very senior Japanese company president said to him, pointed out that marketing, research, and advertising agencies must start hiring more people in their sixties, seventies, and eighties to work alongside younger generations to encourage better cross-generation understanding.

Many younger executives find it difficult to understand the needs of senior consumers or feel “uncool” associating themselves with this age group. This is one reason why companies have a slow response to the silver market, according to Kim Walker, the CEO of Silver Group, a strategic marketing consultancy​ that helps companies profit from the power of the 50+ market​.

Walker once suggested to a well-known Chinese sportswear brand that they develop a line of clothing and footwear for Chinese seniors who love going to the park every morning to exercise and socialize.

“The young marketers and their European headquarters scoffed at the idea for fear of the negative impact such an initiative might have on their overall brand image,” Walker told The Journal.

“I pointed out that Apple manages to remain a cool, youthful brand, yet sells most of its computers to people over 50,” he added.

This ageist aspect of marketing is one reason many executives aren’t looking decades into the future. It also explains the reason decisions about marketing to seniors are not seen as immediate opportunities.

However, we are entering an age in which attitudes and behaviors cannot be anticipated simply based on age. The key to success is to become ageless both in mind and message. This is transgenerational marketing.

Walker cited the success of Tangdou Square Dance app, which offers free dancing tutorials and connects local elderly and middle-aged dancers, as an example.

“In a world of so much uncertainty, there is one thing that we can be absolutely sure of,” Walker said. “We are experiencing a growth of aging populations at a rate unprecedented in the history of humanity. [That’s] a sure bet for business.” The truth, however, is that only a small percentage of companies have made an effort to reach out to senior consumers.

“The trigger for companies to act will come from clear signals that their business is suffering due to inattention to the aging consumer, or evidence of [sales] growth attributable to the sector,” Walker predicts.

It is not that marketers are unaware of the silver market’s potential. Often, they agree that there is an opportunity for others, but fail to see it as an opportunity for themselves. This happens when one’s assessment of the potential implications focuses on not one or the other, but both—it could be good and bad. The ambivalence of marketers goes back to one central point: insufficient research into senior consumers.

Returning to Masako Wakamiya, the 81-year-old game developer, societal and market bias or indifference helps us understand her point about the absence of games designed for seniors.

Not all companies have ignored the market entirely. Nintendo paid some attention to senior gamers with the Wii console system. However, as McCaughan noted, bias against seniors is prevalent in the gaming industry, as games are often considered something “for the young.”

But seniors do, in fact, represent an untapped market. While speaking to The Journal, Okawa of the Computer Grandmas Group messaged members to ask if—and why—they played games. Many of the responses referred to the same question asked by Wakamiya: Are the needs of seniors being heard?

“I love games. Every time I open the computer, I finish up with a game,” responded a grandmother in her seventies. She cited “simple games” such as Freecell and Spider Solitaire as her favorites. “Days when nothing bothers me and I can play games are part of my happiness,” she wrote.

As the reason why she does not often play computer games, another grandmother, in her late seventies, said, “It’s simple. My shoulders hurt and I want something that allows me to move my mouse slowly.”

Many companies targeting the silver market assume they know what senior consumers need and want, but fall short. Meeting the exact needs of consumers is more important than ever, and there is no better way to ensure success than directly involving seniors in the development process.

The move to include seniors in market research has begun, and we are seeing developments in the silver market around the world—especially in East Asia and the Pacific, the fastest-aging regions according to the 2015 World Bank report Live Long and Prosper: Aging in East Asia and Pacific.

“We try to understand seniors as consumers and actively involve them from the beginning of research to find a realistic solution,” Jee-In Kim, a professor from the Smart ICT Engineering Department at Konkuk University in South Korea told The Journal.

On March 27, Kim took part in the Living Labs Project, a gathering in Seoul at which South Korean seniors worked with students from both South Korea and the Netherlands to create start-up proposals.

The Living Labs Project is a joint research effort between Konkuk University and four universities in the Netherlands—Windesheim University of Applied Sciences, Hanze University of Applied Sciences, Fontys University of Applied Sciences, and HKU University of the Arts Utrecht—to study Smart Aging as a solution to issues related to aging populations. A symposium held in the Netherlands in November 2016 was co-hosted by Konkuk University and Nuffic, a non-profit organization supported by the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science to promote international education.

Smart Aging is a “revolutionary paradigm shift away” from negative beliefs around aging, according to Hiroyuki Murata, a professor at The Smart Ageing International Research Center at Tohoku University and CEO of the non-profit Center for Studies on Ageing Societies.

It accepts aging as part of life and focuses on making the most of seniors as mature intellectuals with life experience for broader societal benefit.

“In general, aging is considered negatively as the loss of something that people have in their youth, or as a form of regression,” Murata told The Journal. “A false image has been formed that aging is something like an illness or is ugly, and that young people are superior to the elderly in many respects.”

Seniors have knowledge and wisdom that is crucial for younger generations as the future leaders of Japan, according to Murata. However, the trend toward the nuclear family has made it difficult for the two to interact, and this is the gap the center hopes to fill.

The business opportunities in intergenerational exchange are receiving attention after recent research by the Korea Creative Economy Research Network. It announced that 61.8 percent of existing and to-be entrepreneurs have considered co-founding businesses with other generations. Being able to share ideas and techniques was the most popular reason, cited by 76.2 percent of respondents.

As knowledge and experience become the drive of society, age itself won’t be the most defining factor in understanding attitudes and behavior. With a longer average lifespan, more generations will become an active part of society and intergenerational cooperation will be even more important.

“Yes! I got my wings!” said Wakamiya in her 2014 TED Talk, while explaining how technology changed her life. She invited fellow senior citizens to discover the world of technology, and to find their wings.

“And, I have a request for the young folks,” she said at the end of her talk. “Please tell my story to your mother, father, grandmother, and grandfather, and please give them a gentle push forward.”

Dr. Florian Kohlbacher is director of the Economist Corporate Network (ECN), North Asia, and a leading expert on business and consumer trends in Asia. Min Jung Kim is a business associate at the Economist Corporate Network (ECN), Seoul.
The key to success is to become ageless both in mind and message. This is transgenerational marketing.