AARP, you’ve got a brand problem.

This post originally appeared on the Front End of Innovation blog.

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 bright.

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 pile.

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 research.

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.

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? After all, 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 out.

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 Disrupt Aging, which 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 important.

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 of acronym 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.

About The Author

Kitty Hart

I am the HartofCapsule, caring for our clients, friends, colleagues and partners. When I’m not deep in strategy and design thought, I dream of belting out Diana Krall tunes in the blue haze of a nightclub. Until that dream is realized, I help Capsule’s clients understand and rise above business challenges through designed conversations. Within Capsule's blog, I write about general observations and occasional oddities of our designed world.