FEATURE1 June 2010

Panoramix duo tackle the shrinking and wrinkling of economy and society

Features News

Cautious consumerism and an ageing society present many challenges.


The scenes of euphoria, the ecstatic faces beaming from beneath outstretched arms, raising the iPad to the sky: two million sales to date, and all that in the aftermath of the most punishing recession for decades. Part of what we witnessed on Friday was the relief of consumers happy to be back spending again. Trendspotter Mary Meehan attributes at least some of the success of the iPad to “pent-up demand”. “There is a way to think of it as a release valve for self-imposed austerity,” she says.

Meehan and her colleague Vickie Abrahamson recently experienced their own release of sorts, parting company with Iconoculture, the business they founded almost two decades ago, to launch Panoramix Global, a trends business with a focus on researching consumers in G20 countries.

Both agree it’s an interesting time to be doing so as the recession has reshaped the consumer landscape. “A few countries, like Brazil, didn’t skip a beat, but the majority have felt it,” says Meehan. But within affected countries the impact of the downturn has not been uniform. Commentators have remarked that some people are actually better off now than they were pre-recession, particularly if they have kept their jobs and they hold tracker mortgages, what with interest rates being very low.

“There has been so much written that contradicts the suggestion that consumers have had the wake-up call that they need,” says Meehan. “For those of whom the recession was not as painful, the lesson will not have been learned.”

“The recession has made people aware of the importance of being a smart shopper, and it gives them satisfaction to be so”

Vickie Abrahamson

People are still spending, but most are now making trade-offs, says Abrahamson. In the case of Apple’s iPad, the price tag of around £500 is balanced by the durability and design innovation offered by the product. “The recession has made people aware of the importance of being a smart shopper, and it gives them satisfaction to be so,” says Abrahamson.

But take heed, says Meehan. “Technically we are out of the recession, but we are not out of the woods,” she says. “One of the greatest socio-cultural shifts we’re experiencing is increasing life expectancy and falling birth rates. Each month the world population of people aged 65-plus grows by 800,000,” says Meehan. “We’re ageing, and I would say by mid-century elders are going to outnumber children globally.”

And this trend – dubbed “the global wrinkling” – will prove expensive. According to the Harvard Business Review, “across the developed world, the health care costs for a person over 65 are roughly three times the costs for someone between the ages of 30 and 50”. With the welfare state already under huge pressure in much of Europe, political leaders will have some tough decisions to make – but not only them; companies and marketers too.

“Governments are taking action to boost retirement age to make people work longer,” says Abrahamson, to which Meehan adds: “The workplace has got to find a way to adapt and embrace the older worker in a way that complements the younger workforce. Depending on where you are in the world that’s going to be vital. There has to be a way to embrace the talent of both age groups and meld those together to create a very vibrant workforce.”

Companies will also have to wrestle with the age issue externally. The Grey Pound – shorthand for the 50-plus market – is already a substantial force, but will become more so. And as people get older their expectations and relationships with products change. Take the mobile phone. “For over-65s this is really a tool of safety and security more than communication,” says Meehan.

“Researchers,” says Abrahamson, “need to get in the trenches with these individuals,” to understand the demographics’ core values and how products and services need to change. Meehan adds: “For consumer marketers, every category of industry has an opportunity to understand and leverage this ageing population.”