Marketers redouble their efforts to sell to burgeoning singles population


Unfazed by a wretched exchange rate, spiraling prices for airline tickets and the slowing economy, Mary Kowalski dug into her savings account and packed up her bags in September to fly off for two months in Italy and France. "Couples necking on every corner," she sighed in a postcard from Venice. "The perfect place for a second honeymoon -- or third, or fourth, or fifth!"

But at 46, Ms. Kowalski was not on her second honeymoon. Divorced years ago, with no relationship on the horizon, she was traveling with her two best women friends. A high-powered professional, slave to fashion and torch carrier of new trends from zydeco to faux-deco furnishing, she may be the perfect consumer for the 1990s. And a lot of companies are interested in talking to her.

Free of the costs of braces, soccer shoes, Nintendo and college tuition, singles such as Mary Kowalski are an increasingly important market for products from furs and jewelry to real estate, foreign travel, cars -- even Drano.

Their ranks, moreover, are growing to a size marketers cannot afford to ignore. The Census Bureau reports that there were 73 million unmarried adult Americans in 1989, a stunning increase of 35 million from just 20 years ago. The percentage of adult Americans who are not married has leaped from 28 percent in 1970 to 41 percent today.

Added up, it is a watershed. The notion that people must be married to be happy and productive is fading away. Both as individuals and as a society, Americans are making peace with being "forever single." That, inturn, is changing how marketers talk to singles. And with good reason. Research shows singles are different as consumers both in attitudes and behaviors.

The market's clout will only increase as baby boomers -- whose search for self-fulfillment has led the singles surge -- head into their peak earning years. One in four men 30 to 34 years old has never been married. One in six 35 to 39 has never married. Both levels have tripled in 20 years. The numbers of unmarried women, while slightly smaller, have grown just as dramatically. And behind the boomers are the children of the Divorce Years. Disillusioned by the example their parents set, they are putting off marriage as well.

For marketers, the problem with singles has been figuring out how to speak to them. Doing it successfully, according to marketers, researchers and psychologists, means straddling traditional values and the far different emerging reality of a fragmented society. Marketers must be able to teach singles how to venture onto the terrain of the opposite sex -- from buying a car to whipping up dinner -- without talking down.

Still, many times marketers have left singles feeling corporate America is preying on their vulnerability. The most-noted example was Campbell Soup Co.'s Soup for One, a single-serve can of soup. Singles liked the soup. But they hated the name. Brought up to believe meals were a time for socializing, they felt awkward eating alone. "The Lonely Soup," they called it in focus groups. "It was a real downer," a Campbell's executive recalls.

In pitching to singles, Larry Postaer, creative director of the Ruben, Postaer & Associates ad agency cautions that "whatever you do, you're going to buy some kind of resentment." But well-considered positioning pays off. Ruben, Postaer pioneered the market for Honda Motors of America in the 1980s, investing heavily in ads in women's magazines and even in a how-to guide for first-time female buyers. Today women account for more than half of the sales of some Honda models.

That kind of success has convinced a number of companies that the rewards justify the risks. TWA, responding to research showing 35 percent of airline travelers are single, has created a series of commercials targeting the market. One spot follows a "thirtysomething" young man traveling alone in Europe, reflecting his father's advice to take the trip now, while he's still young.

Gifts that once were given by men to women, meanwhile, are being marketed to working women. Research shows that two-thirds of the customers for women's jewelry items are women. Not all are single -- but a significant number are.

Products with much smaller price tags are finding markets among singles as well. Drano is running spots of an obviously single young man bouncing in the tub to the strains of "Splish, Splash," then -- upon discovering the drain is clogged when he gets out -- pouring in a slug of Drano without skipping a beat.

Singles have more needs from brands, says Ross Goldstein, a San Francisco psychologist and head of Generation Insights, a consulting firm to ad agencies. "Without a mate," Mr. Goldstein says, "single people look for products or services to satisfy their psychological needs -- things like companionship, stimulation, security, connectedness."

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