Dead in the water - why demographic targeting kills brands

Oversimplified targeting has made marketing "a lie" argues Rapp London's planning partner.

It’s the bluntest of blunt instruments. No one I know in real life fits into a box created by marketers to enable selling. Yet we continue to use demographic segmentation in planning and strategy.

The resultant oversimplification has turned much marketing and advertising into a lie. And no one trusts a liar. 

We all know this is going on, yet we continue to endorse it.

I was recently asked to devise a product launch strategy aimed at "over 55s" and was profoundly disturbed by the lumping together of everyone in this age group: by clients, by media agencies, and even researchers. Treating busy working people, even busier retirees, people who care for elderly parents and people who themselves are in need of care, as if they all have exactly the same attitudes, needs and perspectives is patently bonkers.  The available data just isn’t as granular as it is at the other end of the age spectrum. This is a systemic issue, starting with the primary collection of data.

Tools are available to map media consumption and habits by age – and when you do you can see that, for example, the media habits of a 60-year-old are closer to someone of 30 than 70.  For example, early Baby Boomers are the most likely demographic to forward videos to a friend.

The truth of it is that we are all players of different roles every hour of every day, depending on whom we’re with and where we are. I’ve been working recently with the market-facing segmentation of a retailer. During the week I fall into their convenience-seeking segment, displaying a particular set of behaviours (though I don’t fit into the age range they specify). At the weekend I identify with a more passionate segment, keen to cook from scratch and experiment.  No one I know that shops at this retailer fits neatly into one of its segments.

Our identities flex to accommodate our lives, not the other way around. At Rapp, we did some research into personality and how it impacts purchase behaviour. We found that people over-index in certain personality traits when shopping in different categories: in financial services people are 21% more introvert and neurotic; in retail people are 27% more introvert and decisive, and in pay TV and broadband they’re 13% more extrovert.

So if your identity flexes from hour to hour, and activity to activity, why on Earth are we lumping you all into a group of people who just happen to have been born within the same 20-year period? 

It’s because this categorisation of our fellow men and women is seductive. In the offline media world it serves a purpose: the reputable studies still say buying broad demographics is more efficient for TV and print. But media planners and buyers don’t use it intelligently; it’s become a convenient shortcut.  Programmatic is breaking this down, but itself suffers from credibility issues rooted in over-targeting. Just because you have the data doesn’t mean you should use it (as P&G’s Mark Pritchard so eloquently set out in 2017). The two schools of thought in media planning say either "let’s target to the nth degree because we can", or "we are over-targeting and a broad brush approach is a more efficient way to spend". Both are partial answers and neither is a truly effective solution.

Marketers frequently use age as a proxy for life-stage, which is important for identifying household size and priorities, but even here trends are being bucked.  Rapp's research, A life Less Linear, showed that the reality of people’s lives is diverging from the conventional progression of education, job, marriage, children, and retirement. Multiple marriages are the norm. 26% of Baby Boomers are considering Higher Education.  Millennials over-index in pension plan investment. 2nd, 3rd and 4th careers are not uncommon. This is the era of starting over. 

But without the convenient proxy that demographic targeting provides, what will guide our thinking and our creative output?  In a world without TGI as the default insight tool, a world where "Baby Boomers" and "Millennials" are meaningless, how do we approach marketing to many? 

We know that people behave differently in different sectors and media contexts. What if we could predict how they are likely to act and offer the message that makes most sense to them in that moment? The messages that work for the audiences with particular characteristics feed a learning algorithm that keeps flexing as we find out more, building audiences that are true for a given moment rather than true for a group of people, who in reality, are in constant flux. 

This is targeting by mindset not demographic, and it’s the future.

In the meantime, shake off the shortcuts and stereotypes that give marketing a bad name. When you see age on a client brief, challenge it. Don’t include age in your own briefs. Call it out as unacceptable when assumptions based on demographics skew messaging.  Accept that people are rounded, imperfect and glorious in their diversity.

Above all, put attitude before age.

Jen Musgreave is a planning partner at RAPP UK

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