China’s ageing population is an untapped resource for brands, and AI advertising could help attract a growing group of silver-haired customers
- As China’s population ages, fashion labels need to attract women in their 60s and 70s to reflect their spending power
- AI could help target ads at silver fashionistas, who have got used to shopping online and are getting richer
In and among the long-limbed twenty-something models showing off this summer’s various collections, you might find a handful of grey-haired women. This is progress. As is the fact that on Douyin – the Chinese version of TikTok and China’s fastest growing social media site – some of the most-viewed KOLs now include women in their 60s and 70s, modelling dresses with sleeves, skirts that end mid-calf and jeans with the sort of waistlines that a decade ago might have been deemed old-fashioned, but which are now 10 times more fashionable than the skinny styles of the past.
Fashion finally has become kinder to women of all ages and sizes, and that is worth celebrating, but the industry as a whole – from marketing and advertising to styles and cuts – is still largely geared towards youth. We have to ask how much longer this can last when one of the most lucrative markets in the world is becoming a rapidly ageing society.
The Chinese government is clearly trying to combat this trajectory by announcing not only the end to the one-child policy, but by allowing families to have three children. However, none of this will change the fact that for at least two decades, the older side of the Chinese population will have more spending power. Already, people 65 and above account for 13.5 per cent of the population of 1.4 billion – a growth of 5 per cent in 10 years. Now, research companies such as iiMedia Research suggest China’s silver yuan is already worth US$881 million.
The pandemic also seems to have accelerated this trend: under 30s dropped their fashion spending by three percentage points more than the over 60s during the coronavirus. Older people have also saved a lot more over the last year and are now used to shopping online – data suggests that over-60s increased their internet usage by 4 percentage points over the course of the pandemic. The message for brands is clear: ignore this age group at your peril.
Except that ignoring them appears to be exactly what most brands are doing. Many retailers can’t seem to work out how to strike a balance between attracting younger millennial and Gen Z shoppers, while designing collections that appeal to older customers, so they bet on youth; designer brands moving towards an increasingly casual and streetwear aesthetic are doing the same thing. Meanwhile the labels that do target the 60-plus market often play it too safe, releasing clothes that stylish women of all ages find dull and shapeless.
So how do you resonate with that consumer group without constantly reinforcing that they are an older consumer?
“By using AI,” says Anita Balchandani, a partner at McKinsey specialising in fashion. “As fashion platforms increase in size, they increasingly offer huge amounts of choice but often end up promoting the most eye-catching clothes on the homepage. I think the answer to all this might be hyper personalisation, so when the consumer clicks on a website they see pieces most suited to their fashion attitude, style and age. This means retailers can design all sorts of clothes without worrying how it will affect branding, as we’d all be seeing something a bit different.”
Some labels have already shown how successful the right branding can be: last summer, Gucci invited people aged 61 to 87 to participate in its Accidental Influencer launch in China – as a campaign it was very successful on Weibo, driving both older and younger customers to the site.
The clothes are equally important and to truly attract an older market, brands will also need to hire more designers who are themselves past the first flush of youth and who understand an older woman’s body. Fashion’s employment methods are generally geared towards attracting youthful recruits: people with experience will understandably demand a higher salary than those starting out, and often a shorter working week. Many fashion companies are not prepared to make concessions on either front – but perhaps they should.
According to research by McKinsey, China’s current retirees are more focused on putting their money into housing, medical aid and pension plans; however, those born in the 70s largely grew up in a China that was opening up to the world – and in a decade or two, they are far more likely to be investing their savings in luxury goods and fashion than their parents ever were.
It makes sense, and fashion has undoubtedly focused on the young for far too long. It has taken decades, but given the increasing power of the silver yuan and the impact of the pandemic, we might get a more age-diverse industry sooner than we think.