Marketers know that older buyers frequently behave differently than younger ones. They tend to experiment less with new products, and often exhibit strong loyalty to the brands they have used in the past. Conventional wisdom would say these individuals are “set in their ways.” That may be the case, but a new study by Karen Faith Berman and researchers from the National Institute of Mental Health may provide a clue as to why it occurs. This shift in behavior may well be linked to a change in their brains’ reward system:

The researchers found, perhaps not surprisingly, that fMRI scans show that activation of dopamine-triggered brain regions differs between older and younger adults. They measured the effects on the brain of anticipation and the receiving of a reward through a video slot machine, rather than the receiving of a wrapped gift, the team explains. They found the effect was stronger in younger subjects with an average age of 25 years, compared to their older counterparts, with an average age of 65 years. [From MRI Spectroscopy - Anticipating Excitation by David Bradley.]

In simple terms, it seems that the brain’s reward system, which drives a variety of behaviors and may affect things like trying new brands, is dialed down as our brains age.

Long before this neuromarketing insight, those marketers who target seniors have no doubt understood the behavioral difference and adjusted their approach accordingly. Perhaps too much so… Seth Godin is critical of current marketing to seniors and points out that the conventional wisdom may not apply to the graying boomer generation: “Open people are seeking out things that they believe will make their lives better. Experiences and products and styles that will open doors, cause growth, save time and money and increase status… Closed people are trying to maintain the status quo.” Godin believes that boomers will stay “open” long into their senior years.

Are boomer brains different? Probably not – it’s important to realize that the brain’s reward system doesn’t shut down with age, it’s just toned down a bit. It’s equally important to realize that many other factors affect senior marketing, and, of course, individual seniors are no more alike than individuals in other age demographics. With more than two thirds of the disposable income in the U.S. controlled by seniors, it’s worth taking the time to understand their similarities to and differences with the rest of your customer base.

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