Mark Ritson: Only crap marketers mistake stereotypes for segments

The ASA’s research into harmful gender stereotypes is spot-on, but why do marketers believe lumping millennials together as one makes any more sense?

gender stereotypesThere has always been a very uncomfortable proximity between segments and stereotypes. The only difference is data. If I say that women like pink and men like blue I am a sexist moron. But if I have a survey of a representative sample of the British public that shows a statistically significant skew of female consumers preferring the pink version of my product and a male preference for the blue alternative, I am a marketer armed with insight.

Tricky stuff, eh?

That difference was very much top of mind last week thanks to two very different marketing stories, one enormously encouraging and the other deadly dumb.

On the positive side was the work of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) on gender stereotyping. Its report on the subject confirmed that while multiple factors contribute to gender misrepresentation and inequality, a significant amount of the problem can be traced back to portrayals of women in advertising.

It has been a long-running problem for advertisers. When I was working on my PhD in marketing many moons ago I spent (literally) 14 months in the library at Lancaster University on my literature review. God knows how many monographs and books I ploughed my way through back in 1992 and 1993 in that sunless room, but there is only one book that still sticks in my memory a quarter-century later.

The impact of ad stereotypes

Decoding Advertisements by Judith Williamson was one of the first proper semiotic attempts to show that ads not only promote brands, but also have other far-reaching effects on society. The killer part of Williamson’s book is how she shows the manner in which ads contribute to the prevailing ideology by reaching consumers through the ‘back door’ of their consciousness.

When a consumer sees a TV ad with a mother and daughter using Fairy liquid to do the dishes, she instantly puts up her perceptual defenses to avoid falling for the commercial message that funds the advertising message. But, as Williamson notes, with her defenses fully engaged in rejecting the claim that Fairy is a superior cleaner, she accepts entirely the representation of women at the kitchen sink doing the washing up and the complete absence of any men helping out.

Advertising’s overt commercial message belies its more pernicious gender representations which, thanks to multiple repeated viewings and unquestioned portrayals of everyday life, serve to confirm and reinforce the order of things. It’s not just that advertising is guilty of the misrepresentation of gender roles and body image and all the other shit that continues to dog women in the 21st century – it may well be the prime suspect.

I’m hardly the world’s biggest champion for women’s issues or political correctness. I write columns about my penis and use the word ‘fuck’ far too frequently. But what the ASA has uncovered is fundamentally important, as are the subsequent new standards for gender portrayals in advertising that they will introduce to the UK. Any decent marketer must support the initiative, surely.

We took one big step forward last week thanks to the ASA, and just as big a step backwards with Joon and its ridiculous age-based stereotypes.

But in the same week that advertising, for once, was giving me the warm fuzzies it was also smashing me repeatedly in the balls with the ‘millennial’ hammer once again. Over in Paris, Air France and KLM were busy announcing that they were launching a new airline called Joon specifically aimed at the millennial consumer. Look away, those of you of an intemperate disposition; the paragraph below from Caroline Fontaine, vice-president of global brand at Air France, explains the strategy.

READ MORE: Behaviour versus demographics: Why the term ‘millennial’ is useless

“We started with our target customer segment, the millennials, to create this new brand that means something to them. Our brief was simple: to find a name to illustrate a positive state of mind. This generation has inspired us a lot: epicurean and connected, they are opportunistic in a positive sense of the word as they know how to enjoy every moment and are in search of quality experiences that they want to share with others. Joon is a brand that carries these values.”

You can see where this is all going. The airline is going to be very ‘digital’ and staffed by young, hip and very casually dressed young people who occasionally remember to bring you your beverage while worrying about global warming and posting pictures of their pets on Instagram.

My problem with this whole stupid idea is, of course, that the whole myth of the millennial segment makes a mockery of just about every principle of basic segmentation. Clearly millennials as a generational cohort do exist – they are the two billion people on the planet born between 1981 and 2000. But the idea that this giant army all want similar stuff or think in similar ways is clearly horseshit. Similarly, the idea that they also differ from other older cohorts in significant ways is superficially persuasive but turns out to be equally nonsensical.

Millennials are not a segment

Time after time researchers have set out to show the differences between millennials and other consumers. And in every instance those researchers return with data that says that, aside from the general effects of being younger, hornier and poorer than the old fuckers ahead of them on the demographic motorway of life, they are actually remarkably similar to everyone else.

Martin Schiere is a very good Dutch researcher who recently completed a massive quantitative study of 15,000 millennials in more than 20 different countries. His main finding, summarised in the bar chart below, is all you need to know about the millennial market segment. Schiere compared a very sound attitudinal segmentation across the millennial, generation X and post-war cohorts. As you can see below, the green millennials are spread relatively consistently across the five different attitudinal groups. Some are conservatives, some are challengers. Some are creatives while others are achievers.

millennials segmentation
Charts: Glocalities

Being a millennial, irrespective of what some ropey YouTube video with Simon Sinek might have led you to believe, is not a ticket to a completely different kind of mindset. In fact, there is a significant chance that if you lined up five millennials and asked them an attitudinal question they would each disagree entirely with the others. That’s what that spread of green bars tells you.

And what makes the millennials claptrap all the more confounding is the fact that those little green bars, shown above, are very often about the same size as the blue gen X-ers’ and the orange post-war baby boomers’ bars. In other words, the supposedly different older cohorts are just as likely to agree with a millennial as disagree. Rather than being some kind of drastically different group who share a completely alternative mindset, your average millennial is just as likely to agree with her post-war grandfather as her fellow millennial sister.

If your segment is populated by different people who want different things, it is not a segment. It’s a joke and so are your skills as a marketer.

All of this makes Air France’s new airline Joon a total non-starter from the beginning because if the segment you are designing your offer for does not exist, all subsequent marketing bets are off. As any well-trained marketer (hopefully you) knows, marketing is multiplicative. If the segmentation is wrong, your targeting will always be wrong. That ruins your positioning and all the tactical decisions that follow it in execution. Air France and KLM would be as well served to go after Librans because, unless you believe in astrology, they are just about as uniform and meaningful in their desires as the so-called millennial group.

My point is not just that focusing on millennials is a stupid, stupid approach to segmentation, but also that it is a totally unacceptable and offensive stereotype in an era when such things are meant to be behind us. How is it possible to celebrate the actions of the ASA in challenging the common, sexist assumptions made about women in so much marketing while allowing a significant number of big companies to continue to lump consumers together into a millennial segment based solely on a stupid, inaccurate age-based assumption?

I might just as well decide to launch an airline targeting Scottish people called Jock in which all the crew wear tartan, serve only whisky and deep-fried mars bars and keep the prices down because, as we all know, the Scots like a bargain.

And why stop there? Let’s also create Rasta Airlines for Afro-Caribbean travellers. We will play Bob Marley throughout the flight, paint the planes Rasta colours and make sure there is a reliable source of top quality ganja to get you through the long flight ahead. Don’t worry about jet lag, by the time you get to your destination with Rasta Airlines you won’t even know which century you’re in.

Yes, I know these are offensive ill-founded stereotypes. But they are no more stupid than bundling billions of people together because of their birth year and assuming they all like digital stuff, connections, enjoying quality moments and launching a new brand to offer the aforementioned nonsense in airline form.

We took one big step forward last week thanks to the ASA, and just as big a step backwards with Joon and its ridiculous, offensively simplistic age-based stereotypes. For strategic reasons as much as politically correct ones, if you cannot empirically show any meaningful differences between your target segment and the other segments – or if it is populated by completely different people who want entirely different things – your segment is not a segment. It’s a joke and so are your skills as a marketer.

Now, if you’ll excuse me I will leave it there. I’m booked on Rasta Airlines flight 423 to Jamaica and I like to get on board nice and early so I can get as high as possible – long before take-off commences. Respect!

  • Professor Mark Ritson will be teaching the next class on the Marketing Week Mini MBA in Marketing from September 2017. To find out how it could make you a more confident, more effective and more inspired marketer, and to book your place, click here.
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Comments
  • Chris Crook 26 Jul 2017 at 1:26 pm

    We completely agree that it’s naïve to think of and treat Millennials as one homogeneous group. Along with our colleagues at The Lab, Nature has recently developed a segmentation based on Australian data, which provides clear empirical evidence that the Millennial generation is heterogenous – comprising 4 distinct values and attitudinal segments. Our study also shows that only 2 of these segments bear any resemblance to what is meant when generalisations about Millennials are made (the ones Sinek refers to). Further, segment membership has little relationship with age, meaning young Millennials aren’t any more likely than older ones to be archetypal ones so often referred to or generalised about. If you’re interested in finding out how to identify the type of Millennial you’re trying to talk to, we can help with our killer questions and classification tool. Some more info and contact information can be found here: http://www.natureresearch.com.au/.

    • Steve Brownett-Gale 26 Jul 2017 at 1:53 pm

      But you’re just proving Mark’s point. You have focused in on Millennials as a starting point. Why?

      Surely good segmentation is based on your existing customer base and available data on the customers you want to acquire. Age might be one of the elements of a segment, but so could education, geography, income and so on.

      It is odd that that marketers are still obsessed with age as the only segmentation at the bottom and upper end of adulthood. All those born after 1981 are not the same, just as all those born before 1967 are not the same.

  • Ed Smallman 26 Jul 2017 at 2:38 pm

    As a man born in the late 1970’s I shall vote with both my ego and my wallet and say no to Joon.

    Of course if they turn out to be easier on said wallet than the myriad of other god awful airlines I’ve used, I’ll probably reverse that decision very quickly.

  • Anthony Smith Chaigneau 27 Jul 2017 at 8:19 am

    We won an award for “Making TV more Millennial friendly” … Because we threw away the EPG…The fact is that MarK’s Previous statements on Millennials is also correct – No matter when you were born you go through different life-stages and they have been the same since time immemorial … i.e. get a job, family, dog etc. etc. etc. …. I am fed up with our TV industry and the term Millennials … This was a great article that I have shared internally . I have a Platinum Frequent Flyer Card with Air France and Joon is the name of our Korean Set Top Box Designer … The Koreans are all laughing and can’t wait to fly on it while taking a Millennial Selfie … I sent Joon the Joon story.

  • Ross Furlong 27 Jul 2017 at 8:55 am

    Jock & Rasta airlines – guffaw. Spat out my breakfast coffee, thanks for that!

  • Pete Austin 27 Jul 2017 at 9:33 am

    I love a good rant. Keep it up. Now for the boring facts…

    Re: Martin Schiere’s research, on which this article is based. Let me know when it’s been independently repeated and whether the results were confirmed. Until then it’s as likely to be wrong as right. Not criticising him specifically; this is an issue with all research.
    http://www.nature.com/news/1-500-scientists-lift-the-lid-on-reproducibility-1.19970

    And re: “All of this makes Air France’s new airline Joon a total non-starter from the beginning”. Nope. I agree it sounds a dumb idea, but you’re assuming that assumes Air France stick with their initial targeting assumptions despite the evidence. There is zero chance of that. Whatever their starting point, they will adapt their marketing according to what works, like we all do.

  • Kane Cooke 27 Jul 2017 at 9:33 am

    Could you not make the argument that ‘Joon’ are only really targeting the adventurous Millennial traveller what with them being an airline? A segment group that would care more about the services that ‘Joon’ offer than other Millennial groups?

    P.s. Do not take the above as me agreeing about this shit show of an idea, as a man considered a Millennial, I think it is utterly appealing and it screams of desperation

  • Marcelo Ferrarini 27 Jul 2017 at 1:35 pm

    Some of these numbers showing the distribution of each segment across generations actually looks quite different, no? 27% of Millennials are Challengers vs 19% GenX and 15% Post-War..

    • Mark Ritson 28 Jul 2017 at 3:43 am

      That’s true Marcelo, but if you think about the new airline and their target of Millennials you have to combine all the green bars into one and it becomes clear that inside that group you would encounter 5 entirely different attitudinal sub-groups in relative large amounts. Or to put it another way; this cannot be a segment with 5 different entirely viewpoints.

  • Richard Broadbent 27 Jul 2017 at 4:53 pm

    It’d be fun if the same airlines also launched a sister brand for us older folk. They could call it Terry.

  • Philip Smith 27 Jul 2017 at 7:47 pm

    I’d showed this to my “Millenial’ son – he groaned and asked me a simple question: “Who the F@*k are they talking to, to come up with the S*@T? (the apple…..) His cohorts are all millennial, he’s been a millennial for a while but swears he’s never met a single person that the fits dumb-witted descriptions that marketers seem to enjoy coming up with. How can that be?? Course he now blames his dad, as I’m one of those marketer-types. Oy.

  • Natalija Neimane 28 Jul 2017 at 9:54 am

    Hahaha this is gold!! I’m a 91’er so the really mid of Millennial generation, but I for sure won’t be flying this Joon nonsense.

  • Adam Wilson 28 Jul 2017 at 12:08 pm

    This nonsense grinds our gears so much. So much so, we made a video about it a couple of months ago: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QUZkQNOHhc0&t=2s

    • Marcus Brook 11 Aug 2017 at 10:25 am

      With you totally on the customer understanding piece. Segments are a lazy way of providing narrative to our views on who we want to target. The problem is that this laziness translates into our ad copy and media buying. The multiplicity of “millennials” and their individual demand for a product is a function of a vast array of factors, not what year they were born in. Probabilistic cookie data doesn’t deliver and so we should stop using it and buying at lowest price against it, 0.05% CTR, er no thanks.
      Fortunately the data to determine these factors exists and the post GDPR world will force us to use it appropriately. 0.5% CTR, yes please.

  • Adam Joseph 28 Jul 2017 at 2:35 pm

    A great piece of insight work by Ipsos on Millennial myths and realities … a perfect accompaniment to this article and a glass of wine

  • David Lynn-Overbey 30 Jul 2017 at 5:53 pm

    re: [Martin Schiere’s] main finding… is all you need to know about the millennial market segment.

    Statistics on ATTITUDINAL segmentation are all we need to know about the millennial market segment? Do you really believe that?

    You may want to have a look at behavioural and psychographic profiles of the millennial demographic. You’ll find plenty of valuable, actionable correlations. Better yet, rethink your entire approach to segmentation. Bottom-up, dynamic “Look-alike” segmentation is becoming far more useful than top-down segmentation.

    Old school marketers worked in an environment dominated by mass media and characterized by a lack of data. You had little choice but to start from the top with large easy-to-identify, easy-to-target segments like age demographics and try to identify shared characteristics within the segment. Advances in computing power and the era of big data has given us powerful new tools and made segmentation a hot topic, however too many marketers still think in terms of top-down segmentation.

    There’s a better approach: Collect as much data as possible, evaluate for look-alikes (real-time ad hoc segmentation) and run feedback loops (e.g. dynamic content changes) to maximise segment differentiation and predictability. This approach finds and exploits all meaningful segments, including segments you had no idea existed. These segments are far more effective for digital and 1:1 marketing, and you can always map them to old-school targets like age demographics to buy mass media. The bottom-up approach is new, different and the multi-disciplinary complexities are challenging for many marketing professionals. Nonetheless, the strategy is far too effective to be ignored.

    Millennials ARE an important and useful segment. Just not in the way you appear to be approaching segmentation.

    • Marcus Brook 11 Aug 2017 at 10:15 am

      I kinda agree with what you are saying, segments are useful as a narrative for strategy. However, in digital, we can target based on who is in front of us, (on our site, reading your app, opening a newsletter) as data is becoming that granular, informing us instantly if somebody belongs to a segment or not.
      Of course, cookie based data is utter crap and GDPR is going to kill it off anyway. Fortunately, the new signed in, fully permissioned world will facilitate your views.
      Data, ultimately will save us from ourselves.
      But then again, according to LinkedIn, you’re a doctor in Hawaii, so what do I know?

      • David Lynn-Overbey 13 Aug 2017 at 9:25 pm

        re: “according to LinkedIn, you’re a doctor in Hawaii, so what do I know?”

        For starters LinkedIn doesn’t know who, what or where I am therefore you probably don’t either. Perhaps the new ‘signed in, fully permissioned world’ hasn’t been fully perfected just yet.

        Even when more individuals ARE personally identified or individually profiled it is likely many scenarios will remain where segmentation of anonymised data for predictive purposes will remain a valuable marketing tool. Pharma marketing is a good example. Your targets may be signed in, but a lot of their essential data is protected and the likelihood that MARKETERS will be “fully permissioned” is small. Segments like “millennials’ continue to be useful in some such instances.

        Maybe we can agree that marketing is an increasingly complex ecosystem?

  • Steve Newdell 31 Jul 2017 at 4:15 am

    Well, we all have in common that we want to eat, drink, fuck and get there safely. So we could start a Playboy Airline and fill up the seats. The author is right. You can’t stereo type several billion people or a million and more travelers. What if the travelers are also the ones who have the intelligence and initiative to have jobs or run their own businesses? Does that help segment them into something more about views, desires and morals? We’ll need a double blind study over a cross section of 10,000 spanning 20-years to figure this out. But, you already know the answer.

  • Jonathan McGee 31 Jul 2017 at 10:03 am

    I’d also like to ban the stereotype ‘old c**t’ which I seem to get called a lot.

    • Marcus Brook 11 Aug 2017 at 10:05 am

      I know how that feels!

  • Matthew Gentile 1 Aug 2017 at 10:48 am

    this piece is pretty spot on – at least Mr Ritson is making his point clear. my ONLY problem with the article is that he booked himself on Rasta Airlines flight 423 instead of flight 420.

  • Lauren Davies 1 Aug 2017 at 12:07 pm

    I agree entirely with Mark on this. As a ‘millennial’ I get ads on Facebook stating ‘You don’t still use MySpace so why use Weight Watchers?’, promoting a ‘diet for millennials’. It’s so misguided to assume everyone born after 1981 has the same needs and characteristics. Great article.

  • Al King 2 Aug 2017 at 11:59 am

    Inspiring stuff. Ive conceived of an airline called Hot Air, which targets Trump Voters. The all-female Slovenian crew wear stars and stripes bikinis and serve only American beer and hot dogs. NRA volunteers guarantee a terrorist free flight.

  • Marcus Brook 11 Aug 2017 at 10:04 am

    A lot of our clients use segments to describe what they perceive as the customers they want to win. Hence they target them, which skews the the results in the segments favour, therefore proving them right to perceive the segment as a winner.
    This virtuous circle of favouritism erodes the real opportunity for growth. Working at P&G in the late 80’s, we actively targeted the be jayzus out of the Housewives with Children BARB Segment panel. Moving to the Direct Marketing department, we discovered things called men who redeemed our coupons en masse. Yet above the line we didn’t come up with an ad that would target this new creature (Call it Segment if you will)
    The multiplicity of media, audience segmentation, data and platforms enables us to micro target a single proposition far more accurately. SO we can get the right ad to the right person at the right time.
    I’d call it Above the Line Direct Marketing, but then again, I’m shit at copy.

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