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One of these things is not quite like the other thing

One of the things that has stayed with me since I started my MBA back in ‘ninety and nine is the insistence of the now-retired marketing dept. chair at Cleveland State that marketers should always, always segment markets on category need (using behavioral data, if available). That stayed with me, and I have taken pains to emphasize to my own students to segment markets on benefits sought: in other words, what are customers looking to get out of consumption of a specific offering or a category of offerings? If customers want what we’ve got, we have a chance to target them successfully. We’d also like to know a few other things, such as whether they can afford our asking price, and whether they can be reached readily, and what kind of message content and framing might be appealing. To keep what should be a short story from getting longer: Demographic is not a synonym for segment.

I mention this because the January 2013 issue of Marketing News has a pretty good article (p. 44 of the hard copy edition; the link goes to the summary of the online version) about The Onion’s entry into the content-marketing game. The Onion worked with Microsoft to develop a campaign for the Internet Explorer 9 browser. The article author (who presumably should know better — and if not, an editor working for the American Marketing Association certainly ought to) characterizes The Onion as one of the places frequented by “the marketing sweet spot of 18-to-34-year-olds.” Okay, much of what we see in mass media (and even business media) about marketing talks about the need to reach a key demographic, but consider this brief example: I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to find that most snowboarders (just to pick something out of the air) are between the ages of 18 and 34. So far, so good. But if one stops there, one will spend a great deal of money (So. Very. Very. Much. Money.) delivering a set of benefit claims to 18-to-34-year-olds who neither know nor care about the difference between a snowboard and a salami.

Elsewhere, the author refers to young, “tech-savvy users as an important demographic (emphasis mine) for the brand (meaning Microsoft) to reach.” Young is demographic; tech-savvy can refer to psychology and/or category need (they like technology, are unafraid of technology, prefer to use technology to accomplish certain tasks, etc.). However, giving credit where due, the article also notes that Microsoft wanted to reach consumers who had been making fun of Internet Explorer (a behavior). In fact, the Microsoft executive quoted in the piece emphasizes the targeted nature of the effort, saying people who already liked IE “don’t need this kind of marketing message” (p. 49).

I suppose I shouldn’t make too much of it, but the fact is that demographic characteristics are not always reliable as an indicator of preference (and that’s putting the best face possible on it). Where demographics matter more is in things such as the kind of message that will be most appealing, and the article does spend time making that point. As marketers, we should promote clear thinking and clear communication about the offerings (including brands) in our charge, and for my money that includes stamping out the use of demographic as a synonym for segment. 🙂

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