Mark Ritson: Those who bash segmentation and targeting are talking nonsense

There are many debates taking place around one of the most significant sections of marketing strategy – segmentation and targeting. Most are nonsense.

The tactification of marketing has many implications but one of the most annoying is that we appear to be increasingly obsessed with the communication part of our discipline at the expense of meatier strategic questions that were once at the centre of our fair industry. I am as guilty as the next marketer of getting hung up on content marketing (which is bollocks by the wayor the ongoing battle between TV and digital video at the expense of bigger, more important marketing topics.

Last week, we got several reminders that the deeper, more meaningful stuff can occasionally rise to the surface and disturb the ephemeral baubles that increasingly clog the marketing surface. In different corners of our discipline there have been various debates taking place recently around one of the most significant of these subjects – segmentation and targeting.

In these very pages, for example, we encounter Maria Koutsoudakis, who has the unenviable task of being head of brand and marketing for Marks & Spencer’s general merchandise division. You know, the non-food part of the business that is currently in free fall. According to Koutsoudakis, the way forward appears to be to adopt an attitudinal segmentation, reject any demographic indicators and then target everyone.

“Fashion attitudes are ageless,” she tells Marketing Week. “In the past, businesses have gone wrong as they have tried to pigeonhole a 25-year-old woman to look a certain way but the reality is there are some 25-year-olds that want to dress like 50-year-olds as they favour a more sophisticated style. There are also some 50-year-olds who want to dress like 20-somethings. The key is to focus on a fashion attitude that all age groups share.”

READ MORE: M&S targets attitude not age to rebuild fashion business

Far be it from me to suggest that this approach might be nonsense but, well, I think it might be nonsense. For starters, this entire process sounds suspiciously data-free. If there was a giant quant survey of M&S customers showing that 25-year-olds really do have the same attitudes and tastes for fashion as 50-year-olds I would eat my (M&S) underpants.

Although it is terribly trendy to suggest that age or gender no longer play a role in how people think, feel and buy, the unfortunate reality is that when you actually conduct a survey and cluster customers on fashion tastes, some pretty big differences are heavily, though not completely, associated with 20th-century variables such as  age and gender. And even if they do want the same things, good luck convincing the 25-year-old that she should wear what the 58-year-old is modelling over in aisle five.

What is needed for proper segmentation is, of course, a bit of data. Which is why I had some sympathy for Admiral Insurance last week.

Unlike M&S, Admiral was very keen on targeting a specific group, in this instance young but safe motorists. To identify this segment the insurer had planned to analyse younger consumers’ Facebook pages and use an algorithm (or something) to identify which drivers were lower-risk than their peers.

Apparently, writing in “short, concrete sentences” and “using lists” were among the indicators of a safe pair of hands behind the wheel. Presumably pictures of bongs and the use of the  words “on a massive flashing bender” worked in the opposite direction.

This rather innovative approach to behavioural segmentation was stopped short by Facebook, of all companies, which noted that “protecting the privacy of the people on Facebook is of utmost importance to us” and promptly prevented Admiral from running its analyses on the site.

We were left, in the end, with the always outstanding IPA Effectiveness Awards which, once again, provided excellent insights into the challenges of segmentation and targeting. In particular, as AMV BBDO joint chief strategy officer Bridget Angear noted in Campaign, almost half of the shortlisted entries focused on – look away now – targeting a very specific segment of the market.

This unambiguous flouting of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute’s new orthodoxy of “sophisticated mass marketing” (target everyone, but preferably in a cravat and with a glass of Pimm’s at hand) will clearly not be tolerated by the devotees of Byron Sharp’s book ‘How Brands Grow’.

This enormous army of adherents will react very badly, I will wager, to anything getting shortlisted that does not follow precisely Sharp’s scientific principles, as indeed they will to this column and its clear piss-taking of the aforementioned orthodoxy.


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