The death of demographics

The world of marketing has adopted a fairly morbid tone of late. Open any publication and death lurks around every corner. The death of TV. The death of print. The death of loyalty. Old standards are being hastily consigned to history — some with good supporting evidence (print), but others with precious little to indicate a serious demise (TV, loyalty).

Whilst it’s no surprise to see an industry hooked on digital attempt to bring down the ‘old’ world, it’s rather more surprising that some likely candidates for the marketing graveyard still avoid the block. With that in mind, we should really talk about demographic targeting.

Demographics form the backbone of media targeting, and have done for decades. In a world of big data, real time advertising and hyper-personalisation, it’s amazing how resilient the old trifecta of age, gender and affluence have proven to be. Even with the technology to reach granular, relevant audiences across physical and digital channels, marketers overwhelmingly design campaigns around some combination of these three.

Another glaring issue with demographics is that they’re saturated. Going after women aged 18–34 or affluent empty-nesters? So is everyone else.

It’s easy to see the allure of demographics. They’re simple to understand, and importantly, they’re relatable. The great thing about tired clichés is that everybody knows what they look like. Affluent older women? Sounds like Aunty Linda. Young professional urbanites? Sounds like me, 5 years ago (alright, 10). It’s easy to market to somebody you already know. So far, so good.

There are several small flaws with this approach, however. Firstly, demographics are a dreadful way to segment customers. Nowhere is this more painfully illustrated than in the current fuss around ‘milllennials’. 11 million Britons, all of whom are world-wise but conscientious travellers, each toting 15 separate devices as they quaff low-alcohol craft turmeric lattes with their smiling, diverse group of friends. In the sunshine. We may as well re-brand millennials as Schrodinger’s demographic: a group who simultaneously exist in marketers’ heads and do not exist in reality. As a result, the messaging that results from targeting this demographic is often painful to witness. Putting aside the howlingly clunky attempts to launch millennial airlines or mobile phone networks, an increasing number of ads seek to emphasise the quirky, hip and trendy virtues of their giant corporate entities. One ad doing the rounds uses, incredibly, almost these exact terms: “We’re all very quirky and hire a lot of millenials. Some of them bring dogs. We always say that doing nothing is the wrong thing — if you’re doing something, you’re probably right.”

The horror.

Another glaring issue with demographics is that they’re saturated. Going after women aged 18–34 or affluent empty-nesters? So is everyone else. This can only drive down marketing response and customer satisfaction in the long run, as customers receive a reheated version of the same message from a hundred companies, ad infinitum.

Finally, demographic profiles are sometimes based on heavily modelled and very outdated data. Major providers of demographic solutions base their data spines on census data with surveys modelled over the top — in the UK this data is approaching 7 years old. To put that into context, in 2011 the iPad, Whatsapp and Instagram were all newfangled inventions, and Snapchat was just a glint in Evan Spiegel’s eye. Even those companies with access to direct personal data may struggle to keep providing this; Facebook have been in hot water again in recent weeks over how they commercialise personal data, and with GDPR looming in May, direct identification of consumers by demographic may begin to prove challenging.

Instead of focusing on demographics, marketers should first work to truly understand their customers. There are endless data sources available that can uncover who customers are, what they love, and how they like to be spoken to. It’s hard work to build an accurate customer segmentation with rich and realistic portraits, but the effort is worth it to know and have a real conversation with customers. Demographics does have a place in this mix — but it’s as a descriptor to add colour to customer segments. As a way of targeting and talking to customers, it should be well and truly dead.

This piece was devised and written by Mark Burton, Head of Product Activation at Starcount.

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