Quit “targeting Millennials” and start “talking to people”

Everyone in marketing is aware of the importance of market segmentation. This fact was drummed into me early on in business school. I remember my “Consumer Behavior” professor’s remarks on the very first day being something along the lines of “Market segmentation is marketing’s most valuable contribution to business.” For a practice that is the “most valuable” contribution marketing can make to a business’s success a lot of us are doing it wrong.

For example, how many of you have recently heard, or said, something like “we’re launching a funky new product line to target Millenials,” or “the style of our new brand is more traditional so we’re targeting Baby Boomers”? Descriptions like these have become the foundation of how we segment markets and speak about our customers. We develop a product, feature or benefit and “target” it to a generational cohort, like Millennials.

And while this approach sounds like it should be an effective way to connect customers with our brands, it’s actually building walls between us. Here’s why:

Reason #1:

Nobody wants to be a target

A target is defined as “a person, object, or place selected as the aim of an attack.” And I don’t think that we want to “attack” our potential customers. “It’s just a metaphor” you might say. You’re right. And metaphors are little stories that we tell ourselves to help understand concepts. So if the metaphor marketers use is one of “target” and “attack” we end up dehumanizing the person on the receiving end of our communication. Think about it, if we replaced “target” with its definition, “attack,” and I told your that you had to “attack” your audience you’d probably feel a bit awkward, like I was asking you to do something that you shouldn’t ever do to another person. It’s uncomfortable to have another person’s humanity degraded in that way. But we see this in action regularly. Think about how many times you’ve heard a client or a coworker describe their audience in derogatory terms: “they’re not smart enough to understand this campaign,” or “they don’t have the most sophisticated taste,” and worse. I actually once heard a client refer to their customers as “Euro Trash.” And the dehumanization isn’t just talk:

Dehumanization is why we feel justified using creepy targeting techniques.

Dehumanization is why we’re okay bombarding people with ads.

Dehumanization is why trust in advertising is at an all time low.

And dehumanization is one of the reasons why advertising is the least effective it’s ever been.

If we want to be effective we need to be as human as possible. We need to be able to empathize with our customers. David Ogilvy knew this a long time ago:

“The consumer isn’t a moron; she is your wife. You insult her intelligence if you assume that a mere slogan and a few vapid adjectives will persuade her to buy anything. She wants all the information you can give her.”

— Confessions of an Advertising Man

I can’t remember where I heard this, but a great piece of advice I’ve always tried to follow: talk about your audience as though you like them.

Reason #2:

Generational Cohorts, like Millennial, are meaningless

We love to describe people by their generational cohort. It seems to make sense. Culture and technology are always changing so people of a certain age have shared experiences that help to define their lives. Millennials witnessed the PC revolution and the growth of the internet. Gen Z are the first digital natives. And Generation Alpha was born with an iPhone in their crib. Using this approach you end up with insights like:

“[Because of social media] Millennials are loyal to the end.”

“Gen Zers value individual expression and avoid labels.”

“[Alphas] are going to expect the same interactive, responsive experiences from every brand

But when you dig deeper these “insights” aren’t really insights. What group of people doesn’t value individual expression or have high expectations for interactive brand experiences?

The cohort approach leads us to try to reverse engineer shared lifestyle traits solely based on the year you were born and the cultural and technological environment at the time rather than by other more fundamentally human attributes like values, interests and behavior. Attributes that cross demographic lines.

By focusing on these more fundamental attributes, like values and behavior, we can more authentically connect with what makes people who they are. Smart marketers have already started doing this:


Why “talk to people”?

I propose in place of “targeting [insert generational cohort]” we start using a new metaphor: “talking to people.” “Talking” because it can be a verb: “speak in order to give information or express ideas or feelings; converse or communicate by spoken words” or a noun: “conversation; discussion” and because thinking about “talking” creates a metaphor based on real human interaction, speaking to or with a person or group of people. And “…to people” because “…to people” allows us to define the “people” for who they are: “people who love fashion,” “people that eat organic,” etc.

So marketers, let’s ditch the alienating language and useless categorization and start talking to people.

Director of Brand Strategy — https://seanruberg.work/

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