Brands find a new way to reach many consumers: Older women

Brands find a new way to reach many consumers: Older women

Stephanie Glover, 61, never intended to become a social media influencer.

“I was very dissatisfied by the portrayal of women over 50 because it did not speak to the way I saw myself,” Glover said, explaining why she began posting photos in 2016 of her classic chic Southern lifestyle, first on WordPress and then on Instagram as @hautegreyfox. Brands such as Serena and Lily, J. Crew, and Target noticed her posts, and within a few years Glover had not only earned 11,000 loyal followers but $20,000 a year from her new side hustle.

While the advertising industry remains fixated on the 18-to-35 age group as a prime target, over-50 influencers like Glover have recently garnered thousands and sometimes more than 1 million followers, both within their demographic and far beyond. And brands are beginning to take notice, with more and more companies reaching out to older influencers to form lucrative partnerships. “The content [from older female influencers] is doing really well,” said James Nord, CEO of Fohr, an influencer marketing company. “Not only is the engagement strong, but they’re buying.”

And yet, many older influencers still say brands are experiencing growing pains when it comes to working with them. Glover, who views herself as a fashion and lifestyle influencer, is often pigeonholed by brands hoping she’ll sell “anti-aging” skin care or medicine, just because of her age. “It just mirrors what society thinks about women and aging, and women of color,” she added.

In advertising, history does not repeat

For most of the 20th century, women portrayed in advertisements were a very specific type, according to marketing consultant and researcher Jane Cunningham: “always pleasing, always passive, usually blond, always thin, and of course, always young, never … over the age of about 25.” Women over 50 remained practically invisible, even as this population rapidly increased over the course of the 20th century.

Representation has improved, but it’s far from perfect. A few age-defying older actors pop up in fashion and skin care advertising — Lauren Hutton, Jennifer Lopez and Michelle Yeoh for instance — although far fewer faces that actually look old (Paulina Porizkova and Isabella Rossellini, two women who have insisted on aging in a more or less normal way, are perhaps the most visible exceptions). Notably, most of these women, whether they show their age or not, are thin, White and conventionally gorgeous.

“There’s [still] this sort of squeamishness about presenting older women and a belief that if you show older women engaging with the brand, … that will put off the younger audience,” Cunningham said. However, that view is contradicted by Cunningham’s research, which has shown that younger audiences actually like older women: They’re curious about their lives, they’re looking to learn from them and they don’t find them off-putting.

‘Influencer’ is a dirty word. It shouldn’t be.

Older female consumers also represent a valuable, untapped and rapidly expanding market. (Globally, the number of over-50 women is expected to grow by 70 percent by 2050, according to AARP.) Many female boomers and Gen Xers have independent incomes, having attained higher levels of education than past generations and worked all their lives. Although older women, particularly older women of color, were hit hard by the pandemic, they have also rebounded well, and 1 out of 10 U.S. workers is a woman 55 or older. And those who can afford to spend money on the types of products sold by influencers (primarily fashion and wellness products) may be particularly eager to do so. “[This generation of women] spent decades of their lives looking after other people, looking after children, compromising their own kind of needs and wants,” said Cunningham. “And once their children have left home … they really just feel like, ‘It’s my time now,’ and they have a real carpe diem attitude.”

The role of older influencers

Aware of the lack of older women in advertising, a growing number of over-50 influencers are now speaking directly to consumers through social media such as Instagram and TikTok. Grece Ghanem, a silver-haired personal trainer and fashion icon, has 1.5 million followers on Instagram; Gym Tan, a former fashion exec, of @californiaistoocasual has over 190,000; Wendy Euler, of @goodbyecroptop, has over 226,000. All these women and their counterparts have amassed large followings based on an empowering narrative around what it can mean to be older.

End of carousel

“‘Anti-aging’ are toxic, horrible words that are fed to us from a young age to make us think that aging is awful,” said Euler. “And aging is a privilege. It’s where your power is, it’s where your strength lies.”

Their work resonates with a broad audience. “The younger girls who follow me feel like, ‘Oh, my God, we want to be like you when we’re 60!’” said Tan, whose largest demographic is 25-to-34-year-old women. (Last year Abercrombie & Fitch sold out of an $88 black dress after Tan wore it on TikTok.) “Because there’s that youthfulness and that carefreeness and that positivity that I really want to bring to my page. So younger girls are inspired, and they show my pictures to their mom.”

Younger audiences love confidence

Despite this new energy from older content creators, however, many of them described a landscape where brands still stumble in their outreach. Like Glover, several influencers report that brands assume they’ll want to hawk menopause medication or other old-people products, even if aging isn’t at all their focus. Research on pay equity among influencers conducted in 2022 and 2023 by MSL, a public relations and data agency, found a racial pay gap.

Other companies miss the big picture on what these talented content creators can offer. Lonni Pike, a 59-year-old woman with full-sleeve tattoos and a robust collection of Doc Martens, struggled with addiction until her 30s. Although her sobriety brought a “new zest for life,” “Society was telling me I missed the party, I missed the train,” she said. Her site, @grayhairandtattoos, is an attempt to show that the party doesn’t end when you get sober or turn 50. But she said marketers don’t really know what to make of her. She has more than 1.1 million followers counting Instagram, Facebook and TikTok, and of those, “92 percent are women between the ages of 18 to 35,” she said. “Marketers don’t get that though. … I’m in this weird vortex of having an audience but no one knows I have that audience,” because many brands still assume that the only people interested in older women are other older women, despite growing evidence to the contrary.

“Young people have been selling product to older people since as long as advertising has existed,” said Nord. “So can a 55-year-old sell skin care to a 28-year-old? We probably hadn’t been able to answer that question because no one had thought to try. But increasingly, I think we’re seeing yes.”

For some of these influencers, the struggle of dealing with brands who don’t get older women eventually drives them out of the business entirely. Lyn Slater was one of the earliest over-50 content creators, starting @iconaccidental in 2014. At first, she said, it was pure joy — she had always loved fashion and now she was interacting with it in a creative way, along with a supportive community. Brands caught on, and within a few years she was making “a six-figure income,” she said.

But, having worked as a social worker for most of her career, Slater realized that the version of middle-aged life that she was presenting was not accessible to most people. “Me and the other people that got really big [in the early group of over-50 influencers] — we were White, we were thin, and we looked like we were rich,” Slater said. “I had been championed as, ‘Oh you’re giving all these older women hope.’ But it was a hope that was not inclusive. And that bothered me,” especially after covid hit and many older women went through what Slater calls a “reckoning” around what they wanted their lives to be.

Millions work as content creators. In official records, they barely exist.

About two years ago, Slater became more choosy. “I’m only going to do things that are fun and on my terms,” she said. She wrote a book, “How to Be Old,” and she shifted her account’s focus to a more realizable version of middle age.

“I felt terrible about myself. I felt guilty,” she said about her heyday as an influencer. “I had to work through that and sort of recover who I really am and all of my values.”

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Hood Over Hollywood Mature (the beauty standards from the maturing woman-next-door).

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