(This article is adapted from the new book, Getting Better With Age: Improving Marketing in the Age of Aging by Peter Hubbell published by LID Publishing.)
Memories get better with age.
By memories, I’m talking about long-term memory or LTM, not short-term memory such as basic information like phone numbers and where you left your glasses. Aging people have a lot on their minds and it’s not really their fault that they’re occasionally forgetful.
Long-term memory is relatively permanent and has significant storage capacity, way more than we actually use in a lifetime. The memories stored in our LTM are the memories that we remembered to process when they were in our short-term memory. These memories made a successful passage to safekeeping either because we have attached some significance to them or we have repeated them sufficiently enough to be remembered. Most of our recollections of life events and experiences — and how they made us think and feel — are permanently part of our LTM.
The only version of the memories that we are capable of conjuring up sure has us believing that the “good old days” were actually great.
This is intriguing science, especially if you’re a marketer like me.
When talking about long-term memories getting better with age, these are the memories of things that occurred in the past that influence how aging consumers think and behave today. Since an aging consumer has lived a longer life than a younger one, there is more memory at work influencing things like preference and choice.
Memories Get Rewritten
One of the more intriguing ways memories improve with age is that they get “rewritten.”
Have you ever heard the phrase: “The older you get, the better you used to be?” Indeed, we all have a knack for embellishing the past and adding accomplishments out our personal “highlight reel” that may not have happened exactly as we describe them.
No harm, no foul, right? We’re simply romancing the story a little bit to make it more interesting.
According to recent research conducted by Northwestern Medicine and published in the Journal of Neuroscience, the very act of recalling a memory changes it. Think of the old game of telephone. A memory from your child that’s been recalled often gets progressively less accurate as a different version of it gets filed back in storage after each recollection.
Since the tendency of a sane mind is to be positive, it seems as though we are prone to adding glossy layers to our memories as we age. We may not actually be better than we used to be, but the only version of the memories that we are capable of conjuring up sure has us believing that the “good old days” were actually great.
The takeaway here is that a generation of consumers who grew up in an era of unprecedented optimism (the boomers), and is already prone to being positive, is subconsciously bolstering their positive outlook on life every time they recall the most potent memories of their lives. These are the same people who put a positive spin on aging to help make their current reality feel more pleasing.
The Nostalgia Effect
Memories also get better with age because of the nostalgia effect.
Nostalgia is a sentimental longing or wistful affection for happy associations with the past. Reminiscing about positive memories of the past gives us a boost of positive feeling in the present.
In some instances, sentimental recall helps us cope with something unpleasant in our current life — arthritis may have slowed you down, but boy were you fast in that marathon you ran in college.
Imagine what happens when nostalgic marketing is directed to an aging consumer who’s getting more nostalgic by the year. Done well, it’s priceless and something I call “nowstalgia” — the art of making positive memories of the past relevant in the here and now.
A brand that executes “nowstalgia” consistently well is Budweiser, by way of its enduring Clydesdale equity. They have featured the Clydesdales in timeless storylines, including the Super Bowl XLIX ad that won “best in show.” It tugged at our hearts with a simple but timelessly potent storyline that featured the Clydesdales as heroes, fearlessly rescuing a wayward Dalmation from wild wolves.
Period music is enormously appealing to boomers, but contemporary advertisers have been slow to use it. Used the right way, music from the boomers’ younger years elicits memories of the days when their lives were simpler and more carefree, which in turn creates more joy in the moment.
Now is the time for a little more “nowstalgia” in marketing. Taking aging consumers back in time may create timeless loyalty from them for a lifetime.
Life Stories and Legacies
The final way memories get better with age has to do with life stories and legacies. Studies in personality psychology reveal that we translate the events, experiences and relationships of our lives (preserved as memories) into on-going life stories that provide a narrative by which we understand our identity and role in society.
These memory-inspired stories usually reflect one’s morals and help to answer basic questions like, “Am I a good person? Have I led a good life?” At their best, they are a window into understanding our essence and true purpose in life.
Our stories are a sort of moral compass that guide us through life, and as we grow older, we age into stages that have us looking at life differently.
In the reevaluation stage that many boomers find themselves in — having just experienced a major life change like an empty nest, divorce or leaving the traditional workplace — they are in a period of transition. By necessity, that has them thinking about how best to answer the question of “What’s next?”
As one’s memories get woven into the fabric of life stories, the memories get better because they are being put into the broader perspective of life, which gives them deeper meaning and purpose.
Our legacy is the title of our life story that’s made up of chapters of memories. If a legacy is all about leaving something positive behind, we are going to reinterpret our memories as positively as we can.
Boomer consumers have lived longer lives than younger consumers, with more time to shape a clearer sense of who they are and what’s important to them. For marketers, it’s not about understanding their benefits and needs; it’s about aligning with the aging consumer’s memories.
Because, after all, if it’s memories that define who we are and that give our life meaning, the things we are trying to sell are going to seem trivial if they are not aligned with how aging consumers see their own lives, which in turn is about lifetimes of memories.