(Aug. 2) The grapefruit marketing push at the Florida Department of Citrus lately has been targeted at the industry’s most commonly coveted demographic: women, roughly between the ages of 25 and 45.

That group represents the purse strings of middle American families, a huge buying block. But more than that, the Lakeland-based Citrus Department — even with a consumer base slanted heavily toward what might be called the “gray market” — wants to make grapefruit more contemporary, more hip.

Along with its “mind, body and spirit” theme aimed at women, the department earlier this year seized on a recipe for grapefruit martinis, called rubies, popularized on the hit HBO series “Sex and the City.”

Older adults didn’t notice. They’re more concerned about hip replacements than hip culture.

But fresh produce marketers should reconsider their attitudes about the older adult demographic, new research shows. Folks 55 and older are more aware of new eating trends than many would think, and they just might be the healthiest eaters out there.

What’s more, it’s a group that will grow by leaps and bounds as the baby boomer generation heads into retirement in the next two decades. Collectively, the group will represent the wealthiest block of consumers ever.

AGE, NOT INCOME

According to a recent study by Wharf Research, a subsidiary of the San Francisco-based Center for Culinary Development, food marketers should focus on themes of age and gender rather than income or education when targeting the aging adult category.

Based on surveys of 500 adults between 55 and 74, the study found that:

  • Fruit tops the list of favorite healthful snacks, with apples, bananas and oranges among the most popular items.


  • Older adults are almost three times as likely to graze during the day as to eat three full meals.


  • Despite a surprisingly keen awareness of new foods such as quesadillas, sushi and pesto, this group remains brand conscious.


  • Eighty-six percent agree they can manage their health through their diet.



The study found significant differences in the responses of men and women, and for various subgroups within the 55-74 demographic, said Madalyn Friedman, Wharf’s research director. Women, for example, were more aware of new trends and more likely to say they could manage their health through what they eat.

Foods must taste good, whatever their health benefits, the study found.

“They do believe they can affect their health, but taste often wins out,” Friedman said, noting 60% of those surveyed said they choose foods based on taste rather than nutritional value.

The study also showed that portability and convenience are less important to older adults than to younger people juggling the demands of a career and family, Friedman said.

NUTRITION-MINDED

Ruth Lowenberg, a registered dietitian and senior vice president of the New York City public relations firm Lewis & Neale, which counts a number of produce commodity groups among its clientele, said older adults represent a nutrition-minded target audience.

“We’ve found that for almost all of our clients, we have a nutrition and health component,” Lowenberg said.

While advertising dollars can be spent to precisely target certain groups, public relations efforts often have to be aimed at a broader audience, Lowenberg said, noting most in the fresh produce industry don’t have the budgets to spend on consumer advertising.

But John Stanton, a food marketing professor at St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia, said targeting is essential.

“If you have limited funds, how can you afford to waste them?” he said. “The story is targeting. We have to stop talking to everybody (at once). It’s more important that people ask, ‘Who in God’s name do we want to talk to?’ Then it becomes easier to focus on how to reach them.”

A target audience of women aged 18-49 is no target at all, Stanton said. “It’s a cop-out.”

Although Stanton said many food marketers focus too much on health and nutrition and not enough on taste, in the case of maturing adults the health message probably resonates to a higher degree.

“At some point you probably have to start talking about what’s good for you, because they’re so obsessed about it,” he said. “It’s a way to put more meat on the bones of what you want to say. But I wouldn’t overdo it.”