The death of demographics

Marketers have moved way beyond age and gender, so why is research still gathered using the traditional demos?

So what does a woman aged 25 to 54 look like?

We know she’s more likely to want to buy lipstick than a man aged 18 to 34. We know she’s more likely to go on an expensive cruise than a woman aged 18 to 34. And at one time, in a simpler world with fewer media options, that was enough.

Today, however, we need to know whether she’s more into Thai cuisine or Italian. Whether she’s conservative or liberal. Whether she’s more likely to watch Showcase Diva or Bravo.

In short, just knowing that she’s a woman aged 25 to 54 is all but useless. And that’s why many in the media business are declaring that traditional demographics, as we’ve known and loved them, have officially shuffled off this mortal coil.

Steve Meraska, SVP, director of business development at Starcom Worldwide in Toronto, says the company’s ongoing consumer research project, called Surveillance, proves it.

In fact, Meraska says a mnemonic that could well illustrate the findings of Surveillance would be a gravestone etched with ‘Women 25 to 54 RIP.’

‘We firmly believe the notion of that as a demographic is probably dead. There are so many subgroups in there. Eighteen to 54 is just not a demographic.’

David Shiffman, VP and director of the company’s research division, SMG Insights, which developed the Surveillance survey, adds that media can’t be innovative and really connect with consumers unless planners and buyers completely understand the whys behind the whats that syndicated data provides. And Surveillance data, which is finely segmented into small units that have more to do with life stage and attitudes than with age and gender, helps them do that.

‘Ultimately it’s about refocusing and reconnecting – understanding consumers beyond age and gender,’ Shiffman says. ‘Age and gender are really poor indicators of what people are all about. It’s about lifestyle, values, mind-set and the why behind the what. Why are people watching these things? Why are people reading these things? What makes one environment more engaging than another? We’re talking to consumers about what they’re passionate about and trying to segment the work and groups in ways we think makes sense.’

Starcom is by no means the only media company finding that it needs to flesh out traditional demographic-based data with its own research to get the whole picture.

David Chung, president of Maxxmedia in Toronto, says his agency has been using its own proprietary research to look at demos beyond age and gender, as well as pushing deeper into syndicated studies such as PMB. Doing that helps him zero in on where there is a lack of data from a media-research standpoint.

‘We are planning a lot of these campaigns to much tighter niche targets and if we then have to plan on a broader group, it defeats the whole purpose,’ he says.

‘We’re slowly moving forward as an industry in terms of getting that data. I certainly hope to see the day when we’re able to segment markets and look at it so what we’re doing from a planning standpoint we can also fully execute on our buys as well.’

Meanwhile, at Toronto-based MBS/The Media Company, the research department has developed a consumer panel product called Consumer Connections.

Tim Wilson, VP research, says rather than duplicating data that’s available from syndicated studies, the consumer research fills in the gaps or quantifies syndicated findings.

‘We’re learning more about matching attitudes [about] brands and attitudes about media. We try to focus on the issues of the media planner – how much to advertise, when and where to advertise – anything we can get beyond syndicated data.’

For example, Wilson says some of the recent Consumer Connections research concerned Christmas shopping. They were trying to figure out when to start advertising for the holidays, when they found half of women say they start thinking about Christmas shopping around Thanksgiving, while 40% think about it as soon as summer is over.

Similarly, MBS/TMC director of research, Virginia Pino, says they don’t ask consumers when they watch TV, per se, but ask about what they do every day and try to understand what is important to them, to start identifying what media will reach them at what point in their day.

Still, keeping age and gender in mind when segmenting consumers is important, she says, because it helps to later merge their findings with syndicated studies that are still based on the old demos.

Pino says, ‘We try to tie people together through different hooks, like The Squeezed Woman – typically a 40-year-old with young children and aging parents who works outside the home – and is being squeezed by demands on all sides. Whatever we find, we have to make sure it’s actionable. Media unfortunately is still bought on women 25 to 54 for example, but we understand them qualitatively – their typical day, what drives that typical day – [although] we still look at overall age as well.’

But Sarah Ivey, VP strategic planning at Initiative Media in Toronto, says while agencies do conduct their own proprietary research, they shouldn’t discount syndicated studies such as PMB. Initiative Media, she says, has developed tools both in Canada and internationally to help them segment syndicated research more significantly.

‘Something we did lately for a client who markets to busy moms, we were looking at PMB and interestingly enough, when you look at questions like ‘I feel confident going up and talking to strangers,’ and then look at the whole spectrum of life stage demographics, busy moms was the lowest index for feeling confident when talking to strangers. They were shy. That’s an important consumer insight.

‘There’s a lot of information there, it’s just how you take that and turn it into that media intrusion idea.’

But how does all that new consumer knowledge fit into the old demographic boxes when it comes to media buying?

Fred Forster, president and CEO of PHD Canada (formerly HYPN) in Toronto, sees how some people might think there is a disconnect – but he says it’s really not as complicated as it may seem. One of the key components of making it work is to have total integration of the planning and buying department of the media agency.

‘I can determine that my key prospect watches a certain program,’ he notes, ‘but I also know that if this person is watching this show, they’re also watching these 20 other shows. Now I know the 20 shows to reach that core customer, so I’ll look at the show based on cost efficiency against the primary demographic my key prospect represents. In the end I’m coming back to demographics, but I can make that analysis with the information and knowledge I have. You can connect the dots.’