Marketing Reverse Mortgages to Seniors: ‘Laugh With, Not At Them’

A study conducted earlier this year north of the border reveals some interesting insights concerning how seniors can be effectively marketed to, and much of it comes down to the idea that seniors don’t want to see a narrative in the media that they’re defined by diminished capacity.

In order to craft advertisements that more effectively connect with the senior demographic in Canada, the nation’s leading reverse mortgage lender HomeEquity Bank enlisted the skills of neuroscience research firm Brainsights to discover possible cross-generational biases of the nation’s consumers, while also discovering what seniors wish to see in advertising that is geared toward them.

The result has been a greater degree of connection with seniors as potential reverse mortgage borrowers, and a noted increase in product awareness that the company has recorded since running with humor-oriented advertising.

Age bias in media

Media coverage of the activities and behaviors of generations in 2018 was far more focused on millennials when directly compared to baby boomers.

“According to Cisions, a press analytics company, there were more than three times as much coverage in the press of Millennials in 2018 as there was of Boomers worldwide,” according to the Brainsights study titled “Exposing the Unconscious Age Bias in Media.” From a marketing perspective, that can lead to an assertion that Boomers might be increasingly forgotten, while also reinforcing that age stereotypes continue to be “stubbornly persuasive,” the study says.

It can also create a lost economic opportunity. As they do in the United States, Boomers in Canada control a sizable amount of wealth, with seniors in that country controlling nearly $1 trillion CAD in home equity alone. The larger American senior population also controls over $7 trillion in home equity, according to a recent tabulation by RiskSpan and the National Reverse Mortgage Lenders Association (NRMLA).

Humor is key

For HomeEquity Bank, the largest provider of reverse mortgage loans in Canada, the company had recently begun deploying an ad campaign that had centered on a tone of humor toward the senior demographic. The key insights derived from the Brainsights study helped the company to further refine its marketing campaign centered on humor and senior empowerment, according to company Chief Marketing Officer Yvonne Ziomecki.

One of the insights that the company wanted to gain by use of the research was in solidifying the developing perspective that humor was the way to go with its future ad campaigns.

“What we wanted to know is, did we get the insights right? And, was the humor the right approach? So we wanted to know, [as] very impatient marketers, right away if the ads were resonating with our demographic along those three dimensions,” Ziomecki tells RMD. “So that was the first question that we had. The second one was, is there anything that’s not working, that [Brainsights] could recommend we change? And the third one was, are there any other learnings that we didn’t ask to get, but that for researchers would be obvious.”

After reading the results of the study, Ziomecki describes being surprised by how well the new focus on humor and senior empowerment was connecting with the targeted demographic. Part of that success comes from taking a more secondary role, allowing the insights to shape the message in connecting with older people.

“When you’re baking a cake, you can still put all the right ingredients into the mix and end up with something that’s not really edible,” she says. “But in this case, because we followed the structure and we followed the process, I really feel like we should have hit it out of the park. And we did. When the research results came back, we saw that our brand ads were scoring well above benchmarks for this demographic, and it was around the insights, around the humor and us just not simply promoting the product.”

The ads

An example of the more humor-driven approach that helped connect with older people is in a TV spot titled “Doris,” where young parents are walking through a neighborhood, seeing a beautiful house that they would love to move into. It’s occupied by Doris, a senior citizen that the parents suspect may have to sell one day.

Just then, Doris arrives to tell the couple that she’s not going anywhere.

Another ad shows a married couple speaking with the wife’s older parents, with the couple attempting to encourage them to downsize and move into a condo. The parents then have a bit of a laugh at the couple’s expense, scaring them with the idea that maybe they’ll just move into the couple’s condo instead of downsizing into their own. They don’t plan on going anywhere, because their reverse mortgage is allowing them to remain in the home they prefer.

“Older Canadians want to feel empowered,” Ziomecki says. “They want to do what they want to do on their own terms. [Seniors] like humor and they like being mischievous because they feel like they’ve earned it.”

That’s not to say that the ads didn’t get some complaints. One of the other spots the company produced earned some criticism from Realtors, but Ziomecki sees that as a sign that the approach is resonating with a lot of different kinds of people.

“As a marketer, I feel like if you’re not getting any complaints, you’re not pushing the boundaries far enough,” she says. “The reality is, we do hear stories all the time about Realtors trying to encourage people to sell their houses and free up inventory for younger people to move in. These people own their homes [because] they enjoy living there, they want to retire in the home that they love, and nobody should [move out] unless it’s their decision, their choice.”

Laughing with them, not at them

In the past, HomeEquity has been understandably reticent to employ humor in its marketing campaigns, but the key in using a lighter tone around a serious and complicated financial product is that the exploitation of humor needs to be driven by key insights, as opposed to simply making silly jokes in the hopes that they land with the right audience, Ziomecki says.

“What we learned from this is that it’s okay to use humor, but you have to laugh with them, not at them,” she says. And it’s hard, because you need to get the right insights to make sure that it’s being received the right way.”

Being guided by the insights helped the HomeEquity ads to successfully leverage humor in a direction that reflected what many seniors feel about their desires to be empowered, particularly in situations where they could feel pressure to leave their home or downsize because of the way people perceive their own vulnerability.

“I think we’ve been afraid to use humor in the past because we thought the category is a serious category, and you don’t want to take [that seriousness] away and just have too much fun with it,” she says. “We learned that it’s okay to use humor, but it needs to be insight-driven. It can’t just be silly jokes, and it has to be something that they’re actually really feeling and they connect with, and that will drive better business results.”

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