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AARP, you've got a brand problem. Or an opportunity?

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I don't remember Sweet-16 but will never forget Fabulous-50. 
Remember when you couldn't
wait to grow up? When you were 6 and someone asked your age the response was,
'I'll be 7!' The next birthday couldn't come soon enough. 
Then of course, there were
exciting age-related milestones like Sweet16 and the legal voting age of 18.
Even better, turning 19, or 21 depending on your state of residence, and having
your first drink (legally). Now we're talking! Hello, adulthood. The future is
What's next? Purchasing a
first car'marriage'buying a house? Wow, life seems to be humming along just
fine. The career path is fertile and the ability to afford vacation is a
pleasant little development. Huh, 30-something is not too shabby. 
But then'wait, 40? When
did this happen? Oh well, don't panic, it's all good. After all, they say 40 is
the new 30. I'm good. Right? 
Yeah. I'm good until the
AARP card drops itself into my mailbox 30 days before my 50th
birthday. HOLY @#$*&! 
I've never been so
adversely affected, or offended, by the targeting of a brand. As this event
happens, I recall many friends who've 'gone before me' lamenting the receipt of
this dreaded mailing. As they complained, I shrugged it off thinking, it's not
my time yet. Well, 'my time' just slapped me in the face and I am now staring
at the very official direct mail offer to 'turn my goals and dreams into real
possibilities.' Taking my friends' lead, I cursed like a sailor and threw the
mailing in the trash to be burned. 
But those AARP master
marketers are relentless. The mailing arrived again. And again. It was like
that scene from Harry Potter where the letters just keep arriving. Each time
the envelope landed on my kitchen island I swiftly escorted it to the burn
But then one day, I
started feeling sorry for little AARP, the brand that no one seemed to want. I
was quickly pushing it away without even giving it a chance. Why? Because the
stigma that comes with eligibility of this membership is attached to an age
milestone that many people want to deny. Previous milestones brought great
excitement, new privileges that confirmed maturity and independence. But this
one was different. This milestone brought privileges and maturity that shouted
from the mountaintop, aka mailbox, you're old!
Boom. There it is. 
Please know, I am fine
with being 50. 50 is actually the new 30 and I'm feeling good, really. So maybe
it's this 'feeling good' attitude that allows me to open my mind and take a
peek at this brand trying, relentlessly, to earn my trust. I'm not going to
join something just because everyone else is doing it. But I'm also not going
to push something away for the same reason. As an independent woman, I'll make
my own decision, thank you very much. 
So, let's do some
First, I need to know what
the name AARP stands for. I had an idea but needed to confirm, especially if I
was going to make an investment. After digging around on the Google machine I
determined AARP stands for American Association of Retired People. Ouch. You
better believe this name is a contributor to negative brand perceptions. Yes,
I'm 50, but nowhere near retirement. Neither are any of my friends. There are
more people over 50 in the workforce than ever before. So trying to attract
members at the fresh age of 50 with the words 'retired people' in the name
naturally causes a negative reaction. I suspect the organization realized
this name impediment a while back and consciously embraced the acronym AARP, an
effort to let the words 'retired people' fall away. 
Yes, research confirmed
this suspicion. According to a 2013 press release, AARP stated they are
'shifting the focal point of the conversation from aging and advice, to a
deeper level of personal connection and empowerment. People age 50+ don't want
to be defined by age, and they don't want to live in fear that their
possibilities become more limited as they get older.' Further, AARP put a
significant budget toward social and digital media. An ad campaign that
introduced the tagline 'Real Possibilities' was then unleashed on more
lifestyle outlets as opposed to the traditional news outlets they'd used in the
past. So, I see the effort to change the 'RP' from Retired People to Real
Possibilities and shift the conversation, but a new tagline and ad campaign aren't enough to shed the stigma. 
We know brands adopt
acronyms as names for a few reasons. People naturally want to describe with
names and then shorten them because they're too long. But using an acronym as a
name takes away any opportunity to be memorable, interesting and tell a story.
American Association of Retired People is a long name but AARP is a sound made by
a sick seal (aarp, aarp '). The jumble of letters become a word with no meaning
and in this case a clumsy word with an unpleasant sound. Enough said. 
Back to my research. Now
that I know who I'm speaking with, let's review the request. AARP, you're asking
for $16 in exchange for a one year membership in this exclusive club, the club
of retired people. I do see that you are offering a lovely Day Bag as an added
incentive. Okaaaaaaaay. Awkward.
Yours FREE for joining AARP!
I'm still struggling here,
I need more. The bag's not going to do it.

After perusing the
website, I understand the substance of this organization. To my surprise, there
are endless opportunities to save money on dining, entertainment, travel,
insurance, groceries, wireless plans and the list goes on. Interesting. It's
similar to AAA (another acronym brand). At this point I realize they've struck
a chord. I am considering writing the check and realize I've turned the corner
from previous rash judgement. Why would anyone NOT want to save money on
everyday products and services? Afterall, I'm not a Kardashian. I've been
rejecting this brand and missing an opportunity to keep hard earned cash in my
wallet. Damn, my vanity. 

Ok, AARP, checkbook is in
hand. You are teetering on the edge of gaining a new member.  
I started polling anyone
willing to answer a few questions. Are you a member? How long? Why? What
benefits do you enjoy? But sadly, as described at the beginning of this
diatribe, nearly all my friends in the age group of 50-55 have rejected the
brand out of principle. The common response was, 'Nope. I'm not old and I have
no interest in being a member.' I asked if they knew what benefits of
membership included. None of them had even been interested in finding
Of my friends in the 55+
age range, many were members. Most didn't know how much they pay yearly and
said they occasionally use the benefits. A few mentioned reading the
publications cover to cover and appreciate the organization's advocacy. Others
said they pitch the collateral upon delivery and really don't know what the
organization does for them. In all, it has been a pretty mixed bag of responses
with one exception. The newly 'of age' population is rejecting this brand, for
very good brand reason. 
Thanks for hanging in
there with me on this long and winding road to my point. We're on the home
stretch, I promise. I know AARP has put a great deal of effort into shedding
the 'retired people' stigma and creating relevance with a broader demographic.
My research uncovered initiatives including DisruptAging.AARP, a
website that promotes a new conversation about how people want to live and age.
It offers fun and real stories of people doing interesting things. Pretty
entertaining, but still focused on age. How can it not be when the title is
Disrupt Aging. 
AARP has
also done a lot of work to create digital content again showing aging people
living a full life. We are inspired by Skateboard
Mom & Sisters of Shred
We also cringe when we watch millennials show us what old looks like. These
efforts all have the right intention; to change the brand perception. And they
might have a shot at accomplishing the effort if the poor little brand didn't
have a two ton weight around its neck; the name. Yes, the name is that
I'm sure smart people at
AARP have had this conversation. I'm not suggesting a radically new idea but I
suspect the topic of changing the name has been rejected due to fear (or a
cognitive bias). A name change is a bold move. Damn right. It's a move that
signals to every single external audience that something is different. Creating
a new, relevant and memorable name is the missing joint in this chassis. AARP
revised its messaging, changed its media outlets, created an ad campaign but
shied away from the most significant detriment, the name.
Change the name and you
can change the conversation. 
Here's my vision for AARP.
Change the meaning and trust behind this brand to make it a brand people can't
wait to invite into their lives. Instead of dreading the piece of stodgy direct
mail offering membership for the aged, (day bag or no day bag), people will be
excited to finally reach status! Yes, it's scary. But the other side of this
change is bright and shiny with a whole bunch of renewed opportunity for this
brand. If we have to face our fears of aging and work this hard to remind
ourselves that life after 50 is freaking fabulous, shouldn't you be able to
face your fear of change, AARP? 
Oh, and there's one added
benefit to this name change. It means one more acronym is retired from our
lexicon. Hey, @KellerofCapsule, isn't it your mission to rid the world ofacronym names? I'm joining your effort here and I am planning to join AARP,
because the best way to fix something is from the inside out. Stay tuned. I'll
let you know where this conversation goes. 
We will be discussing
these types of brand challenges and more at the Front
End of Innovation
conference. Please reach out if you have a story
to share.
Director of
Client Experience


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