Stop putting consumers into birthdate boxes

Kevin Luscombe AM
Written by Kevin Luscombe AM | November 2016
Stop putting consumers into birthdate boxes

Nearly a decade ago we wrote a piece about the potential demographic delusions in targeting markets by a single dimension.


We suggested that business decision makers, and particularly those with marketing responsibilities, should be wary of the trap of segmenting markets by birthdate clusters.


Back then it was the fashion to talk about ‘Baby Boomers’ and the critical difference with the emerging ‘Gen X’ and ‘Gen Y’.


But the evidence indicates that the persistence with these birthdate boxes remains and the traps are still wide open.


Today, too many business writers, marketers, research advisers and even some ‘Chairman’s Reports’ appear to be obsessed with the need to understand the “major” differences in the thinking and choice behaviour of the so-called “millennials”.


Statements like ‘millennials will not buy into… millennials do not want brands… millennials only take holidays in…’ continue the absurd and dangerous assumption that ALL people born between certain dates will behave in an identical manner.


Nothing could be further from the reality.


As we noted in the 2007 posting, and continue to accept, there are always underlying shifts in human behaviour and beliefs that give contrast for observations of generational change.


But as we also note, these macro signs cover over a range of differences in decision behaviour and demand the ever-present need to dig deeper and target segments that really matter.


As tuned-in as it may sound, leave the “millennial” labels and all the other fashionable consumer groupings to the lazy competitors.


April 2007 Article: Generation Z-Z-Z-Z

The role of a marketing executive is increasingly aided by more sophisticated tools for analysis, planning and measurement.


Sadly, there is little evidence to suggest that the effectiveness of marketing decisions is improving with this assistance. In fact, too many experiences suggest the opposite.


Similarly, the channels for reaching relevant audiences are constantly increasing, but the task of cost effective targeting remains challenging. It is over promised by some and a blind spot for others.


There are many reasons for this, including the reality of a highly competitive market place and media spectrum. But with only 20 million hearts, minds and related wallets in our domestic market, you may well identify a segment you can cleverly reach – but can it make a sustainable profit?


Above all this, however, is a problem of seduction among marketing practitioners for the neatly labelled ‘boxes’ of allegedly homogenous consumers. 


In its most illusionary form, it is packaged by research marketers and propagated by lazy journalists who love the simplicity of aligning certain attitudes with a prescribed group e.g. ‘Baby Boomers’, ‘Generation X’s and Y’s’ and other useless collectives. The underlying accepted belief that date of birth is a guide to likely behaviour is at the base of this pointless distraction away from thoughtful market analysis.


Yet pages and books are written around these generational models, feeding on a naive inference of accompanying marketing wisdom.


They are bit unlike the so-called affinity groups that fascinated the financial ‘cards’ market. These marketing initiatives were erroneously based on the belief that a single point of interest (e.g. supporting a certain football club or belonging to a particular sports or arts audience) would lead to broader set of naturally shared interests and consequent customer commitment.


Yes, there are some underlying shifts in human behaviour and beliefs over time (never at the pace that most evangelists of change would suggest). And there can be some useful aggregation of need and interest at different points of human development. But they ought to be obvious to any alert marketer of the time.


To make headline claims of powerful marketing breakthrough thinking out of these packages and labelled groupings of people is at best silly and at worst, misleading.


Successful marketers understand that the chameleon nature of (us) consumers means that our buying behaviour and its role in brand choice comes from a mix of factors driven by circumstances. These may vary between the purchasing environment, the usage intention, or simply the mood of the moment relative to this perceived value in that context.


They are not driven by the date on your birth certificate.


These winning marketers have confidence in their experienced judgement to keep their minds open to observing relevant behaviour. They discipline themselves to the facts of the market to inform their decisions and push their imagination to look for a sustainable point of competitive advantage.


The role of research in marketing is at a high order of importance for effective investment. It comes in both formal and informal streams.


The appreciation of learning from diverse but relevant fields such as ethnography and forensic science has led to more disciplined and informative methodologies, bringing potentially richer insights.


At a less formal level, behaviour observation at the point of purchase and usage, together with retailer sourced shopping data is enlightening many communications, promotional and pricing decisions.


Similarly, we see better use of tracking studies and more attempts to take research closer to the marketplace reality.


In the right hands and brains, this more considered role of research can deliver the insight to single out a brand’s distinctive point of leverage and lead to profitable success.


Research can guide significant business investment decisions, for both market scope and potential market return.


It earns its role in product development, product and brand positioning, communications, channel options, measurement of investment and more.


But like every tool of science or commerce, the quality of the application outweighs the elegance of the instrument and its published method of use.


This is where our concern for simplified, packaged and promoted grouping of consumers is based. It looks sophisticated, it has cute labels, is rationalised with eloquence and comes with that all conquering argument of ‘numbers’.


But it takes a marketing decision nowhere, other than into an unproductive comfort zone.


Unfortunately, there are no recipients of the information who accept the findings and build their arguments around them in the same way a ‘news’ item in the media is supported with an unquestioned statement such as “a survey just released shows that x% of the world are… for or against,” whichever way they want to colour the story.


Maybe we are immune to that use of dubious evidence and lack of serious questioning. But in the daily work role, we can’t ignore the need to stop and challenge simplistic propositions based on a neatly clustered universe of consumers.


In the busy, busy processes of commercial life, not taking the time to think more rigorously and laterally may be part of the problem. It is all too familiar to hear the call for “let’s do a few groups” to make a decision, rather than a demand to be sure we know what is the right question and how best to find the answer.


It is equally common to have a room of nodding heads and shallow argument around the generalisation of “the way things are… because that’s what you find in Generation X or Y.”


Unless some current marketers want to eventually be known as ‘Generation Z-Z-Z-Z’, it’s time to wake up the mind and move on from the contrived consumer labels and push harder for real insights that inform and influence real business decisions.

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