James Dean: the Original Viral Marketer

By The Age of Aging Archives
Cover image for  article: James Dean: the Original Viral Marketer

When James Dean donned dungarees in Rebel Without a Cause, he unknowingly triggered one of the most enduring and ubiquitous fashion trends of all time. His iconic coolness and defiance of authority inspired millions of young baby boomers to embrace his denim as their own proletariat uniform of youthful rebellion. With just one piece of long-form content, "One-Speed Dean" had created the most spectacular viral sensation that a then-nascent marketing industry had ever seen. He lived fast and he was ahead of his time.

His secret? Appealing to 80 million baby boomers, a cohort so massive that its size amplified the impact of its choices. By definition, viral marketing is about strength in numbers and the largest generation that business had ever seen suddenly had the power to make brands go viral big time. As the boomers began to flex their muscles as consumers, they embraced those things that appealed to their values and elevated them to iconic status.

The impact of this generation's choices didn't stop with a mere purchase. Blue jeans were more than just another article of clothing. They now had social power (think social media in 1955) as a symbol that signified solidarity with working people and offered up quiet criticism of more formal society. Societal institutions such as schools, clubs, stores and churches that didn't necessarily approve of the informality of jeans had no choice but to loosen their dress codes if they wanted Boomers to show up. As the wave grew, the wearing of jeans was no longer simply the choice of boomer outliers; it had become the decision of all vital groups of society.

To understand how the blue jeans trend started requires understanding the needs that were motivating young baby boomers. They were simultaneously searching for their self-identity while also looking to demonstrate their independence. This manifested itself as rebellion and wearing jeans was the expression of non-conformity they were looking for.

If our goal as marketers is to identify the next trend that's as massive and enduring as denim, then where do we look? We can start by looking at the boomers of today and understanding their contemporary needs. For this cohort, there is no need as rich as the requirements associated with age and aging. Here are some territories to consider:

Aging in Place: No discussion about boomers and age is complete without touching on Aging in Place — i.e., their determination to grow older in the comfort of their own home, assisted by technologically driven care. Within that space, the focus is almost always on aging and less so on the "place," which is still rife with opportunity. Go beyond the physical need orientation of aging at home and think about their desires, such as comfort, pleasure and socialization. Aging in place means that boomers will be more home-centric now than at any other time of their lives, so it will also be a good time to modify their living space to enhance their new lifestyle. As they look to make their house a home that's perfect for their new life stage, look for opportunities to help them furnish their new space with home products and services that help them get better with age.

Mobility: When mobility and aging are mentioned in the same sentence, peoples' minds go to things like scooters, walkers, wheelchairs and ramps — solutions for people who have mobility issues. But as people live better, healthier, longer lives, they're going to expect better versions of their current mobility experiences. An example of this is the rear-view camera available in some cars that eases the task of craning your neck to see what's behind you. Boomers need more of this genius in their lives. Then there's all of the attention being given to a future of driverless cars, but none of that buzz is focused on how autonomous technology can help people of age have easier and safer enhanced driving experiences, particularly at night or on congested streets. And, of course, airport and plane experiences have endless opportunity to improve boomers' mobility experience.

Performance Fashion: As part of their determination to get better with age, boomers are more active than ever in an effort to outperform expectations for their age; personal performance is the new bar by which they're measuring their vitality. While they're feeling great, they also want to look great. That starts with embracing styles that defy the norm for what "old" people are supposed to wear, while also signaling to others that they still have great taste — and always will.  Merge these insights and you've got an interesting space: performance fashion. If millennials can wear Lululemon yoga pants all day long, what's the boomer analog?

Clothes are an essential part of our daily existence and that doesn't change with age. What can change is a commitment to cater to the preferences of people of age by designing fashionable clothes for them. Imagine that?

James Dean's jeans could not have gone viral if it wasn't for the boomers' strength in numbers. They were the 'mass' in mass marketing, and as they searched for the meaning of life, Madison Avenue found meaning in their magnitude.

Now that they're older, there's a false assumption that there's not enough of them to matter anymore or that they don't buy what marketers are selling. Guess what? They still want what they want and there's still 77 million of them who believe that they matter even more today than they did when they watched icons like James Dean wearing blue dungarees on black-and-white TVs. If you're a marketer, it's time to write them back into the script and get ready for the cool things they will do.

Photo courtesy of BoomAgers

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