Why demographics matter

Why do demographics matter?

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A study by Catalina Marketing appears to cast significant doubt over a veritable pillar of media marketing. Demographic targeting, it seems, often falls wide of the mark. Catalina researchers looked at 10 brands targeted at households headed by women ages 25 to 54. They found that, on average, just 15 percent of the ads playing in those households reach the people that account for 80 percent of sales.

Wow. On the face of it, that’s some shortfall.

The clear take-out seems to be that demographics may not be an accurate indicator of purchasing behaviours. According to the study, 53% of a brand’s sales volume, on average, came from outside its demographic target, with the remaining 47% of sales volume coming from people that the brand was actively targeting. Of the products studied, yoghurt was split 50:50 between targeted and untargeted; mayonnaise was 60:40 in favour of being bought by those outside the demographic target. The average brand in the study delivered 30 percent of exposures to households that were inactive in the category, meaning they never bought in the category or had bought just one time throughout the 12-month study period.

Thinking and reaching beyond age

So what should we make of this? Well, for a start, no-one should be surprised. After all, it was John Wanamaker who famously pointed out that “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” Here perhaps is the proof that he was surprisingly accurate. And yet, for all its inaccuracies, advertising, particularly TV advertising, has a powerful role to play for brands. Why? If it doesn’t just reach who it’s meant to reach a lot of the time, how can anyone justify the expenditure?

The real answer, I would suggest, is the inverse of what the numbers might suggest. There is no doubt in my mind that TV advertising delivers far more than presence to a specific audience. Done properly, it generates presence in a market, and that presence I would suggest is far more powerful and persuasive precisely because it reaches beyond a specific age-defined group.

(Anyway, the demographics that get bandied about are stupid. How can anyone bracket a 39 year old and a 54 year old in the same group and call it a “target audience”? There’s nothing focused about it.)

Television is a broadcast media for a reason

It works not just because of who it targets, but because of who it reaches. And by that, I mean it achieves awareness (and generates conversation) far beyond who it is purely intended for. The very point that Catalina have identified as a weakness is also TV advertising’s greatest strength. Strong advertising generates talking points beyond its immediate buying audience – and that’s a good thing. That “leakage” gives strong advertising presence, familiarity and, most critically of all, the potential for interactivity. The wish to share is part of how iconic ideas become part of the culture, part of the social exchange. Maybe that’s why TV remains the most effective advertising medium.

A marketer these days, I would suggest, should not even be trying to hit a static buyer at a set time through a set medium with a set message.

Every marketer’s greatest challenge today is not even who they reach – but what they reach people with, and how intensely that motivates viewers to reach out and share what they have seen with others through the plethora of media now available to all consumers. According to Nielsen, TV viewing, measured by number of minutes, remains near historic highs. The difference is that consumers are watching less frequently (i.e. fewer days) and they are watching in different ways as viewing options continue to change.

Sadly, looking at TV breaks today, one would have to ask where have so many of the true marketers gone? Where are the people with the intrinsic understanding of the ideas that buyers want to excitedly share with non-buyers? Bring more of them back please. Give them the budget to do what they do, please. Make them the perfectionists that push their agencies to get the very best out of their advertising please.

Those people are certainly not commissioning most of the advertising I’m seeing. They’ve been largely replaced it seems by sponsors of fairground barking who have transformed media-based advertising for the most part into 15 minutes of unrestrained shouting per hour.

That may take place on TV, but that’s not advertising. That’s narrowcast barracking.

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