“once we start talking about older consumers, we revert back to stereotypes”

Florian Kohlbacher

Bridging research and business

Text by Andrew Howitt  /  Photos by Michael Holmes

It’s estimated that by 2050 there will be more than 1.5 billion people over 65 years old on the planet. Today, in Japan — with its ongoing low birth rate — the issue of the ageing society is particularly pronounced. The over-50 segment already accounts for nearly 50% of the entire population, and the 65-plus age group for more than a quarter.

Before taking on his role as director of The Economist Corporate Network for North Asia, Florian Kohlbacher spent much of his career in academia, researching the effects of the ageing society on businesses and, specifically, how to effectively market to this demographic. As co-editor of The Silver Market Phenomenon — a key text in the field — and with a list of publications that runs 17 pages, Kohlbacher is an internationally renowned expert on the intersection of the older market segment and business in Asia.

“I’ve always tried to bridge research and actual business practice,” he states. “As a researcher, I looked for the implications for businesses, and the ways to make strategies work. Business isn’t a theoretical science; it’s an applied science.”

For most of the past decade — first as head of the Business and Economics section at the German Institute for Japanese Studies and later as a business school professor in Suzhou, China — Kohlbacher’s work has uncovered the deficiencies in how companies regard the older demographic.

“We’ve come a long way in marketing over the past decades, but once we start talking about older consumers, we revert back to stereotypes: Older people don’t change brands; they don’t use technology,” he explains. “But it’s not a homogenous market segment, so you should subsegment it into categories such as health, financial wealth, how social they are.”

Companies need to think more trans-generationally, instead of in terms of age, according to Kohlbacher.

“By looking at older people, you might actually learn something from them that helps you target younger people as well,” he says. “They’ve been consuming products for decades, so they know a lot.”

During his days in academia, one of Kohlbacher’s most significant accomplishments was making a live appearance on NHK’s Close-up Gendai, a Japanese news programme with a nationwide audience of 10 million.

“It was a major breakthrough for me to get my research and my views out to the Japanese people,” he states. “It changed my whole reception in Japan.”

At the time, Kohlbacher was frequently giving talks on ageing and business, and his increased notoriety is how The Economist Corporate Network first found out about him.

In addition to publishing The Economist magazine, The Economist Group, headquartered in London, also runs a B2B division called The Economist Intelligence Unit, which includes the Economist Corporate Network. Kohlbacher was asked to become its director for North Asia in 2016.

“The Economist Corporate Network is essentially a membership-based club for senior executives of private companies and senior officials of public institutions, such as embassies, that provides them with business intelligence and helps them make better business decisions,” Kohlbacher explains. “One of the main ways we do this is through a programme of events for members, where we discuss the big business and technology trends, macroeconomic developments, geopolitical issues.”

Every year, the Economist Corporate Network holds around 25 events in Tokyo and 15 in Seoul. Kohlbacher is responsible for planning every aspect of these events, including deciding on topics and arranging for experts to take part in interactive panel discussions.

“My work with The Economist Corporate Network is about helping foreigners at multinational corporations get a better grasp of what’s going on in Japan, as well as helping Japanese executives to see Japan in an international context,” he notes.

Not only is Kohlbacher a bridge between research and business, he has become a bridge between different cultures. Perhaps this was inevitable, given his upbringing.

“I have dual German and Austrian citizenship,” he says. “My mother is from Bavaria, and my father is from Styria.”

He grew up in a small town called Rosenheim, which is between Munich in Germany and Salzburg in Austria.

“Depending on the situation, one day I’m this and the other I’m that.” 

Do you like natto?


Time spent working in Japan: 13 years altogether — on and off over a longer period.

Career regret (if any): It’s not a big regret, but maybe I should have challenged myself more and studied engineering or something in the sciences.

Favourite saying: “Choose and focus”. Recently, I’ve been saying it a lot. I think people need to choose and focus on what they really want to do.

Favourite book: A Philosophical Investigation by Philip Kerr.

Cannot live without: My family.

Lesson learned in Japan: Take the time to think more carefully about how a decision will affect all the stakeholders.

Secret of success in business: It’s really all about people. You need to understand people, engage with people and work with people.

Favourite place to dine: Umenohana.

Do you like natto?: Yes and no. I don’t mind the taste, but I’m not a big fan.