Jodie Stranger: executive director of global network clients at Starcom MediaVest Group
Jodie Stranger: executive director of global network clients at Starcom MediaVest Group
A view from Jodie Stranger

Death of the demographic

Demographics are at the heart of targeting and yet a reliance on them creates audience definitions that are ultimately outdated, says Jodie Stranger, executive director of global network clients at Starcom MediaVest Group.

Conventional wisdom tells us that demographics continue to be a useful way to describe our customers and bring them to life.

But we know differently. Demographics are flawed. To identify your audience through demographics is to create outdated stereotypes, resulting in work informed by unhelpful and inaccurate characteristics.

Rather than assume what people might be like, we have a clear footprint of where people go, what they talk about and what they care about, what they DO rather than who they ARE, to provide rich and accurate insights.

The addressability inherent in digital media will force the hand of more traditional media channels to adapt or die.

The tail wagging the dog

Demographics have been at the heart of targeting and buying for the past 30 years. In those simpler buying days these proxies were a good estimate for guessing how people might be spending their time, and what they needed.

Demographic profiling allowed the advertising world to build stereotypes of people, which we then sold to the public, cementing those stereotypes into reality – that of the domestic goddess, the happy family, the rebellious youth.

There are two major issues with demographics. Firstly, they crudely lump large numbers of people together and make vast assumptions about them.

The label "Millennials" encourages marketers to believe that 16 years olds will need, buy and be motivated by the same things as a 34 year old, despite differences in wealth, networks, interests and even biology (oh those teenage hormones).

The second problem is that our brains are eager to make emotional short cuts to judge people quickly, generally making life easier.

But as rational marketers in charge of millions of pounds, wielding cultural influence over thousands of people, it is lazy and irresponsible.

Because the associations we overlay on to particularly the three demons of demographics- gender, age and class – are increasingly proven to be untrue…

Gender: A social construct

For thousands of years we have attributed certain attitudes and beliefs to things we deem feminine or masculine.

However, "things" and "behaviours" aren't gendered. Neuroscience claims that the brain is plastic, shaped by a complex tapestry of social context and peer influence rather than hormones alone.

Change the social cues, and men and women demonstrate both supposedly feminine and masculine traits.

Bulmers had for many years targeted the typical "lad" audience for cider. But many women also drink cider, and yet we weren’t listening to their experiences or talking to them.

Bulmers today focuses on passions and interests to ensure they speak to (non-gendered) 18+ adults.

Since this shift in targeting, Bulmers increased penetration to become the number-one modern cider both on and off trade.

Age: Time doesn’t dictate how you feel

There is a wealth of evidence, both anecdotal and in census data that people from different life stages live, work and socialise together.

The adoption of ideas, fashions, behaviours and attitudes are no longer isolated to generational life stages.

A mum giving birth can be both 50 and 15 and are therefore united by behaviour and emotions beyond age.

Pampers recognises that first time mums share many of the same anxieties, hopes and behaviours. We need to think of first time mums, rather than age groups.

Class: Income no longer an entry requirement

The British love the idea of class. The Cleese, Corbett and Barker sketch still amuses with its pithy definitions of the relationship between the classes, "I have breeding but no money." "I have money but I am vulgar."

But wealth and attitudes are not so clear cut in a world in which everything can be discounted and vulgarity simply means ignorance no matter what your accent.

When working with EMI, rather than relying on guess work and assumptions on who might identify with an artist like Professor Green who raps about tough urban experiences – one might assume people who also live in tough urban spaces – we asked for iTunes sales data to identify exactly where the purchase came from.

For Professor Green, over 50% of sales were made from leafy wealthy rural suburban homes. Tightly targeting people into hip hop saw sales of 40,000 in the first week (more than expected) and a position of number three in the charts.

How do you define yourself?

Normal regular folk don't define themselves by demographics. We might judge them as C1C2 male. But they don't.

We asked our UK online community The Street how they define themselves. Their response was mixed yet consistent.

AB Male 25-44: Through my achievements in life – a student, an ambitious businessman and a loved boyfriend.
ABC1 Male 55+: I'm a 21 year old trapped in a 58 year old body.
BC1C2 Female 25-44: A worrier, a loyal friend, a loving family member. I need to be in control.
BC1C2 Female 55+: Pacifist, vegetarian, staunch anti-monarchist and radical Christian. Passionate about politics.
ABC1 Female 25-44: A woman, mum, wife, knitter, blogger and geeky crafter.

They define themselves through their attitudes, interests, and life-stage. In fact they told us "that we are all programmed and defined by our life experiences."

We agree. We also believe that how you define yourself, can change from one mood to the next. Yet the characteristics of a demographic are fixed.

More importantly, people tell us about their life experiences and emotions all the time.

The data on what people do, what they feel and what they care and talk about is all available.

Our industry needs to adapt for this future and the challenges inherent in this. We need progressive approaches that will listen and react rather than guess and assume.  

Jodie Stranger is executive director of global network clients at Starcom MediaVest Group.