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Why are marketers attached to outdated demographic profiling?

By Gaby Ferry, Digital insight director



The Drum Network article

This content is produced by The Drum Network, a paid-for membership club for CEOs and their agencies who want to share their expertise and grow their business.

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September 2, 2019 | 6 min read

Designed for a simpler, less sophisticated time of mass communications, demographic profiling is just too much of a blunt tool when faced with the modern consumer. Yet the majority of briefs still contain the standard inclusions of ASL (and a couple of other variables thrown in for good measure). So why are marketers so attached to outdated demographic profiling?

Brass encourage marketers to rethink the way they use demographics to target consumers.

Brass encourage marketers to rethink the way they use demographics to target consumers.

The inconvenient truth

It’s universally accepted that stereotypes are negative, discriminatory and seriously damaging. Stereotypes reduce people down to a narrow set of characteristics, stripping away individuality while simultaneously working to reinforce a whole world of prejudice and misconceptions.

But stereotypes are just sofamiliar and comfortable aren’t they? Nice lazy shortcuts which remove the need for thought. And marketing is awash with them - you know like those entitled, avocado munching, narcissistic Millennials, or the silver surfing, financially secure, brand loyal Baby Boomers. It’s just we marketers have more palatable names for our collective lumping together of members of the public who share some limited resemblance.

So when was the last time you met someone who fit neatly into one of these profiles? When did you ever hear anyone refer to themselves by a marketing defined generational term? Chances are never, because these categories don’t work in the real world.

Malkovich, Malkovich?

No matter how much you try and shoehorn them in there, consumers just don’t fit into convenient, predictable categories. They frustrate your best efforts by refusing to think like a demographic. And as comScore’s white paper demonstrates, stereotyping your audience just makes for really ineffective advertising.

Other than the odd sarcastic reference, consumers don’t recognise your labels and they don’t take kindly to your (frequently judgy) characterisations. See the reaction to the recent MoD recruitment campaign Your Army Needs You as a case in point. The campaign’s play on negative stereotypes around young people initially incited the wrath of its audience, angry at the depictions of themselves as “snowflakes”, “selfie addicts” and “phone zombies”. However it was the same campaign’s reversal of those stereotypes that saw a doubling of applications to the MoD.

While people born into a particular generation may have lived through the same world events, it’s strange to assume that their responses to that stimulus will be identical; to ignore that life experiences, perceptions and motivations will naturally vary from person-to-person. We all know people IRL whose mindset and lifestyle is very different to what you would expect (“he’s an old man in a young man’s body…"). And when there are few products and services which are truly restricted by a customer’s chronological age, why would you segment by such broad categories anyway?

Age is often a clumsy attempt to identify consumers’ lifestage, which is a far more reliable indicator of potential behaviour. Using defined generational cohorts just leads into the weird territory of having to distinguish established groups by other variables e.g. “older Millennials vs. younger Millennials”, which is never going to be a rewarding experience. Fundamentally it’s not so much whether someone is the rightage or generation for our product, but whether our product is relevant to them rightnow.

The thing is, people are never just one thing or one dominant characteristic. We’re messy and complicated. Our personalities, identities, moods and behaviours are nuanced, contradictory and ever evolving. We flex and adopt different modes depending on circumstances, situations and environments. Think about casual you vs. professional you, or Monday you vs. Saturday you – do you think, behave and consume products in the same way across the week? Not to generalise, but you probably don’t.

The problem is that demographics create parameters which aren’t truly human shaped. This means they stutter when faced with difference or cultural shifts. And as consumers increasingly cast off the identities that were once used to define them, and assume different ways of living and being, the standard data conventions used in demographic profiling (non-binary and gender fluid communities and multigenerational living anyone?) are increasingly under pressure and playing catch up.

So what now?

Yet the overreliance on demographics is born from an understandable need – to define the customer. Solely using demographics might give you a rough idea of the ‘who’ but it won’t give you the ‘why’ and it won’t get you any closer to the ‘how’ (which is really what you’re looking for). And demographics certainly won’t give you anything relating to the sentiment or emotional triggers driving your consumers’ decisions which your brand messaging is so dependent on.

So if you don’t want to rely on the comfort zone of ASL++, what can you do?

Best practice requires a more combined approach like the one we use here at Brass. We employ a multidisciplinary approach which looks at some demographic data, but combines this with psychographics, past behaviour, social listening, micro/macro trends and multiple other data sources streams. All of which allows us to build an accurate picture of an audience’s mindsets, attitudes and lifestyles which goes beyond the confines of basic demographic profiles.

In a new world where consumers expect meaningful and want hyper-personal communications, to continue treating them like a homogenous mass just doesn’t cut it. Because when we’re approaching 2020 why would you rely on methodology from 1920?

Gaby Ferry, Digital Insight Director at Brass.


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