Marketers develop a class consciousness

Targeting the working classes effectively is the challenge facing the marketing fraternity.

SBHD: Targeting the working classes effectively is the challenge facing the marketing fraternity.

Marketing is a game fought in the mind of the prospective purchaser. To play the game well, you have to know the mind, and the heart, of the purchaser. But how often is the microscope lens reversed and the belief systems of the marketers – including the advertising agency, design or PR company – given a similarly rigorous appraisal? Very rarely. Marketers act as if their deeply-held assumptions about “how people behave” have no bearing on how they communicate with their customers.

Nowhere is this more evident than when targeting the working class. For a long time marketers – who are, it appears, predominantly middle class – could breezily ignore C2Ds because they weren’t perceived to have money to spend. This has changed, although the working classes may choose to spend money in areas that conventional marketing finds uninspiring, for example, visits to discount retailers such as Cargo Club and purchases from catalogues.

It is easy – but dangerous – to generalise about “class” because little hard data exists. But class is an immutable fact of British life, regarded as an almost inherited characteristic in a similar way to race and gender.

Evidence for this exists not in marketing textbooks but sociological studies. One piece of research, quoted in British Social Attitudes 1992, is carried out every year asking people which “class” they see themselves as belonging to. Not only do 98 per cent of the sample answer the question (unthinkable in the US or Australia), but each social class group has stayed the same size over the past ten years. Some 46 per cent of the UK population claims to be working class, although their definition of what constitutes “working class” may vary.

There are notable differences in middle and working class aspirations and buying behaviour. Qualitative research is a very different experience with these two groups. To over-simplify, middle class people view the future as an opportunity for personal betterment. They look for products that will enhance their sense of personal success – the bigger car, flatter stomach, better pension. In part, they have been taught to do this by marketers. But it also stems from increased levels of self-belief deriving from high levels of education. Thus middle class aspirations are easy to target by middle class marketers.

The working classes have a different way of looking at the world, based on strong family ties and affiliation to roots. In addition, preserving the divide between “them” and “us” is a full-time occupation, kept in motion by the tabloid press.

Aspirations can still include the accumulation of personal possessions but rarely in a way that threatens the value system of the community. Very few people want to move from one class to another. They may want to change their income bracket, but rarely their class. “Getting lucky” through winning the pools or a luxury cruise is the classic working class fantasy and not a believable reality.

So can marketing respect, and take advantage, of these differences? Some 46 per cent of the population cannot be ignored if their incomes allow for discretionary spending.

Some advertising agencies are distinctly uncomfortable when they talk about the working class. Liverpool Victoria Friendly Society head of marketing Lindsay Firth-McGuckin realised the extent of the problem when looking for an agency to advertise the rebranded working-class organisation.

“Many of the agencies we saw didn’t want to work to the brief because they felt uncomfortable with the target market – working-class men and women. Worse still, some were overtly patronising,” she says.

In qualitative research, a similar problem exists. Even if you, as a marketer, want to talk to C2D consumers, it is quite likely that the recruiter won’t. Maureen Zambuni at Expressions Research says: “Many recruiters don’t want `downmarket’ respondents traipsing through their homes, so it becomes difficult to see real C2Ds in action”.

As a result, the impact of mar-keting spend may be limited be-cause marketers are making assumptions that say more about how they view the world than how consumers do. Do tab-loid TV ads really have to shout at customers? Do financial and skincare products need to have such middle class voice-overs?

Increasingly, as all target groups become more marketing-literate and overwhelmed by choice, these “class” nuances risk irritating the consumer and hence limiting their appeal. A poor approach can also expose the unimaginative beliefs about class which are held by the marketing fraternity.

Marketers must assess how sensitive they are to the needs and feelings of working-class consumers. They must also question whether the people representing them, such as advertising agencies, have got staff with the right attitude. Otherwise, they risk alienating a very large section of the population.

Irene Inskip is director of brand specialist CLK


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