As I’ve been putting together the slides for my upcoming Content Strategy 101 workshop at Content Marketing World, I’ve had one of those back-of-your-mind annoyances come raging up front.
It drives me insane when people market to demographics.
Soccer moms. Millennials. Even race and ethnic categories. We marketers act like people are monolithic stereotypes, and it’s ridiculous. Demographics are not people.
Pretty sure I’ve already upset half of you, and at least another 45% of you think I’m crazy. Hear me out.
I will allow that we all make plenty of buying decisions to reinforce our self-identities. I can point to many of my own purchases as examples. You’ll laugh (and you should), but I first saw my Rose Point silver pattern in A Southern Belle Primer when that book came out in 1990. I’m not particularly old-fashioned (as the book indicates Rose Point fans are), but at that time in my life, I liked having a silver pattern that was on that sort of list. (Spoiler alert: I no longer really like Rose Point at all. I greatly prefer the simplicity of the Fairfax I have that used to be my great aunt’s, and if I ever win the lottery, I’m buying a lot more place settings in Fairfax. But you see, I really like having a silver pattern still. It’s part of my identity somehow.)
And so from that perspective, you might say it makes a lot of sense to market to the demographic.
And yet. Neither of my sisters has silver. One of them is far more of the modern version of a stereotypical Southern belle than I am. She was in a sorority in college. She has monogrammed things. We both like to entertain. Hospitality is important to us. She could have had silver—mostly the same people who gave it to me would have given it to her. But she didn’t want it.
Still, perhaps she’s an edge case. We know we aren’t going to bat 1.000.
Or is there something else going on here?
Perhaps demographic information is just shorthand — imperfect, imprecise shorthand — for what we really need to understand about our customer. If I’m marketing silver flatware today, I want to talk to the people who are most interested in buying silver flatware. That’s who I really care about, and I don’t care if they’re men or women. Young or old. Southern, Northern, Western, or from another country entirely (and therefore could REALLY care less about my personal, cultural stereotypes).
But that’s me. And as I ponder that, I think the difference between brands choosing to specialize in their product and brands choosing to specialize in an identity is really interesting. I think there’s a real danger in marketing to a demographic or even in selling to an identity (which I’d argue is slightly different), not the least of which because you run the risk of alienating people likely to buy but who don’t want to be associated with the demographic or identity you are aiming for.
If I want to buy flatware today, I’m probably choosing between a mass retailer like Macy’s or Target, or Amazon, or Replacements. Frankly, my first instinct is to go to Replacements, because I know they specialize in the product I’m buying, and they have thousands and thousands of choices. I know I can find what I want there, and I know they’re experts in it.
Think about the difference between how Replacements markets themselves (it’s almost all about the size of the inventory and their expertise) and how Nike does. Nike is selling a lifestyle and an identity. Nike is selling determination. I love Nike’s brand identity, and I think their messaging is fantastic, but I don’t think I own one single Nike product personally. When I buy shoes, I want the kind that fit my feet exactly right. I have the feet that Saucony shoes were made for. Nike is selling a message I like, but their products don’t work for me. So it turns out, I’m not really in Nike’s audience. I’m not going to buy their shoes because I like their message.
I think the biggest problem with demographic-based marketing is that it papers over a whole lot of individuality that really does factor in to purchase decisions. Those individual facets mean that your demographic marketing will never be right on, and in fact, you might accidentally exclude people who’d otherwise be prone to buy. And: Is it worth developing positive brand sentiment among people who cannot or will not buy your products? Maybe Nike has the budget to do that. Do you?
What do you think? Do you think that some of our decisions are so rooted in demographic information and self-identity that we’d be fools not to market with those factors in mind? Or is it enough to focus on our product? Can we do better at identifying our real audiences when we go beyond demographics to look at people who actually buy? I think we can.