You’re defining your audience backwards

Camp Jefferson's Guybrush Taylor explains why a demographic-first strategy results in stereotypical work that misses true relevance.
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By Guybrush Taylor

Somewhere there is a PowerPoint deck so powerful, so persuasive, it convinced Bic that females would buy more pens if they just weren’t so damn masculine.

And so, in 2011, Bic for Her was born, doubling down on every gender stereotype in the binder. Pink and purple ink. A‘beautifully’ smooth writing experience. And a soft, contoured grip for (of course) those delicate feminine hands.

Obviously, we don’t choose our pens because of our gender. And yet Bic for Her was made. And similar examples exist from throughout the years: energy drinks Pink and Her. Seagram’s Plume & Petal. Even with the noblest intentions of Jane Walker, all of them were criticized at best or cancelled at worst.

How did so many people at so many companies believe they would succeed? Because all of them were derived from the same highly-problematic, yet industry-standard, foundation: demographic-based audiences.

I realize demographics are quite popular, but hear me out.

Demographic-based audiences define people by their quantitative facts: age, gender, location, website visits, and so on. We do this all the time: females 18-35. White collar professionals. Gen X, Y, Z. Or by their household income: students. HNW, HENRYs and DINKs. Or even by their race: WASPs. “Urban” Youth.

It’s all great detail, but it’s not a great definition. Because demographics are not purchase drivers – they’re only descriptions of purchasers. You and I don’t choose our soap because of our postal codes. Our gender identity doesn’t determine our brand of pen.

If an audience is a group of people whom we want to choose our brand, product, or service, then we need to answer two questions: “who would choose us?” and “Why would they choose us?” We’re asking those questions, but the problem is we’re asking them in the wrong order.

We’re defining our audiences backwards.

Currently, we’re asking who we should target, and then figuring out why we should target them. We’re starting with irrelevance and hunting for relevance. We begin with an assumed answer, and spend our strategic process trying to validate it.

Starting with a demographic-first audience – as we usually do – forces us to generalize. You’ve likely seen a few strategies declaring “we need to use technology to connect with millennials” because, well, young people are good at computers. Bic for Her (and the like) were all forced to be patronizingly general because their audience was “females.” If that’s all there is to go on, you can expect the designers and engineers to turn to brutal stereotypes like glittery pastel pens and vodka that won’t add to your hips, because demographic-first audiences are naturally stereotypical.

But suppose we reverse the order of our questions.

Suppose we start by asking why people would switch to a new pen. The possibilities blossom quickly: dependability, self-expression, ergonomics, style, etc. If this becomes our audience definition — people who write a lot and need a comfortable pen, or people who want visual flair in their writing — we’re in a much stronger position: we have multiple audiences defined by “why they would consider our brand.” That’s the point when we can ask who these people are, and can apply demographics to find out where they live, how they shop and how many of them exist.

Perhaps most importantly of all, defining people by motivations saves us from the Stone Age stereotyping, ageism, and sexism that demographic profiles can allow. It’s the end of 18-year-olds wanting the same things as 35-year-olds. The antidote to mopping moms and drilling dads. The end of casting session comments like “we need more men, women don’t eat steak.”

In short, I’m suggesting we need to define audiences by their motivations first, and then use demographics to dimensionalize them. Defining our audience by why they’re in the market tells us their priorities, the brands we’re up against, and ultimately, how to position ourselves to be their best choice. Demographics give us the details we need to reach them and measure our impact.

I get the allure of demographics. They’re everywhere and they feel objective. And they’re vital in media buying, retargeting, and performance strategies. Behavioural targeting is a step in the right direction, but it’s still about targeting. This is about our audience definitions. It’s asking why someone would choose us, not who has chosen us. Similarly, our research requires a change. This requires qualitative discovery above all, and uses quantitative data only to validate its scale and power.

The rise of tracking, automation, and AI has made demographic-first audiences the default. But who people are is not why they buy, choose, or churn. Why people choose a brand tells us how to become their brand of choice. Motivation-first audiences keep us relevant, powerful, distinct, and open the door to new targets and untapped value. Demographics have their place — but it can’t be at the start.

Guybrush Taylor is executive strategy director at Camp Jefferson.