Mention "aging" and "Asia-Pacific" in the same sentence and people normally think of Japan, the "oldest" country on earth. By 2020, around 40 percent of Japan’s adult population will be over 60.
However, it may surprise some to learn that other Asia-Pacific countries are also host to the largest and the fastest-aging populations on earth.
By 2030, China will have 340 million people over 60—47 million more than the entire population of the United States in the same year. China’s rapid rate of aging is matched by Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and Australia.
Apart from providing an intellectual playground for demographers and economists, the age of its population makes Asia-Pacific a perfect laboratory for developing and testing products and services for older people.
There are many differences between the people of Anglo-Saxon cultures and their Asia-Pacific counterparts. The stereotypical American baby boomers grew up in very different circumstances than most of their peers in Asia-Pacific. When America was experiencing rapid economic growth, many Asian nations were struggling to rebuild and to mature economically from the devastation wrought by the Second World War. The dramatic impact of the Cultural Revolution in China totally disrupted the country for a decade starting in 1966—a period when the American boomer psyche was being heavily influenced by the events in Vietnam.
Yet despite behavioral and attitudinal differences, whether Eskimo or Kiwi, Chinese or German, we are globally united by one compelling truth: Our bodies, minds, and senses change with advancing years.
Physiological aging is important to companies that produce products that ameliorate its effects (for example, eyeglasses, hearing aids, anti-aging cream) and the medical products that repair failing bodies (for example, hip and knee replacements). The pioneering development of domestic robots by scientists in Japan is a direct response to the looming collision of an ultra-aging society and a shortage of caregivers.
Until recently, if a company didn’t cater to these specialist sectors, then there appeared few reasons for it to be concerned about the issue of aging. However, eyesight, hearing, and mobility problems start during a person’s 40s and 50s. What we are learning about cognitive aging suggests that the way we think and remember changes even earlier in life. For this reason, developing specific products for "older" people is only one implication resulting from the increase in the number of older consumers.
Adjusting products and services to accommodate the changing physiological needs of the aging consumer is a challenge for virtually every company. The intricacies of physiological aging will affect a company’s distribution infrastructure, retail environments, support services, and communications, as well as product design. The entire customer journey must be adapted to accommodate the changing needs of older consumers. If companies want to succeed in this older world, they need to become age-friendly.
Becoming age-friendly does not mean a brand must relinquish its "cool factor" or its younger customer base. We recently conducted simultaneous audits on the customer purchase journey for an Apple iPad in Singapore and the United Kingdom, using our AF Audit process. Apple achieved a score of 4.2 out of a possible 5, the highest score yet recorded in our system.
One would think that having the oldest, largest, and fastest-aging populations, Asia-Pacific would generate a plethora of products and services for older people. Sadly, with the exception of Japan, innovations in such products from other countries are rare.
Perhaps the most famous product was the Raku Raku phone, which was launched in Japan in 2004. This product resulted from the application of universal design principles to develop a mobile phone for older people. The phone now enjoys sales of roughly 2.5 million units per year and has gained popularity across a wide age range.
The universal nature of physiological aging means that in many cases, Western companies can capitalize on the aging consumer in Asia-Pacific with age-friendly products and services developed for their own markets.
With specific consideration for the health care industry, companies must consider three issues with regard to the markets of Asia-Pacific:
1) Channel is as important as product
Product development and design is important, but one must consider all aspects of the marketing mix, the classic 4 Ps. For example, Omron of Japan markets a range of personal health care products such as blood pressure monitors, digital thermometers, and other devices. But Omron’s distribution strategy is not limited to medical outlets. The products are sold by general retailers and most notably at airport duty-free shops, where older travelers are major customers. Omron appears to understand the power of age-friendliness across the marketing spectrum. The company’s website proclaims that it is "committed to promoting universal design to make products easy to use by a broad range of people."
2) People are the same, but different
Having stated that we are all the same physiologically, medical research alerts us to some nuances that companies should be aware of when planning strategies for the Asian consumer:
Asians tend to be hardier and more tolerant of discomfort and pain. Only recently have hospitals in Singapore started including pain among the vital signs checked upon admission. The significantly lower per capita consumption of strong analgesic painkillers compared to North America or Europe is clear evidence of this.
Some Asian countries are suffering from the Western problem of rising levels of obesity. Many Asian populations have higher proportions of body fat and therefore an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases and diabetes than Caucasians at the same body mass index (BMI). For this reason, several Asian nations have lowered their BMI definitions of "overweight" and "obese."
The rise in obesity across the region is causing a corresponding increase in Type 2 diabetes. Pharmaceutical giant Novo Nordisk has built its Asia-Pacific business largely on the back of insulin pen sales to the China market. The so-called "Flex pen" is an excellent example of universal, age-friendly design.
It could be argued that many Asian cultures are traditionally more health conscious. For example, Chinese medicine has been part of the culture for more than 2,000 years, including various forms of herbal medicine, acupuncture, massage, exercise (qigong), and dietary therapies. These philosophies often still govern Chinese lifestyles and food consumption.
3) Age-friendly care and accommodation
Problems and opportunities abound in the accommodation and medical care of aging populations in the Asia-Pacific region.
The emergence of "five-star" hospitals to accommodate medical tourism and the demands of the rising middle class can be seen in a number of countries. Lower cost structures and aging populations are attracting patients from North America, Europe, and the Middle East, fuelling a 20 to 30 percent annual growth in the medical tourism industry across Asia-Pacific.
Ironically, most of these hospitals and clinics have failed to consider the changing physiology of their aging patients. A more patient-centric, age-friendly delivery model is needed.
One example is in the area of discharge education—the vital communication of patient information. U.S. and other studies have established that fewer than half of patients discharged from the hospital are capable of stating their diagnosis, naming their medications, and explaining what their medication does or its major side effects. The lack of learning and retention at the point of discharge is directly correlated with ensuing noncompliance with taking medication.
With China’s enormous and rapidly aging population, there is an urgent need for solutions that will enable the country to adapt. The Chinese government’s response is known as the Nine-Seven-Three policy: 90 percent of aged individuals will remain in their own home; 7 percent will move to low-cost, government-sponsored care; and 3 percent will reside in expensive private facilities. Clearly, opportunities exist for Western businesses with expertise in building and managing the required health infrastructure and facilities.
Product development and marketing to the aging consumer is still in its infancy across most of the Asia-Pacific region. Given the inevitability of the aging populations and the immediate need in many markets, this presents a massive opportunity for "first-mover" companies that understand and apply the principles of age-friendliness.
A. N. Makaryus and E. A. Friedman, "Patients’ understanding of their treatment plans and diagnosis at discharge," Mayo Clinic Proceedings 80, no. 8 (2005): 991–94.
About the author
Kim Walker is the founder and CEO of Silver, a business consultancy that helps companies leverage the opportunities presented by the aging demographic.
An Australian by birth, Kim spent most of his early career in the advertising industry, holding top management positions with global agencies in Hong Kong, New York, Tokyo, and across the Asia Pacific region from Singapore, where he is based.
In the autumn of 2012 his new book, coauthored with Dick Stroud, will be published by Palgrave Macmillan—Marketing to the Ageing Consumer. Read Dick Stroud's article for AARP International "The Importance of Bieng Age-Friendly."
In conjunction with Dick Stroud, he has created the AF Auditing tool—the world’s first age-friendly auditing process that incorporates Cloud and iPad technology to generate tangible metrics. The process can be used to predict barriers between organizations and their older customers, employees, citizens, patients, and more.