Marketing to “Emotographics”

[May 21, 2010]

Understandably, there’s a lot of attention paid to demographic studies. Our culture has reaped the benefits of scientific analysis and seen major advances in neuroscience and biochemistry. As a result, the temptation to seek quantitative data about human behavior is overwhelming for American marketers. If we comb through the statistics, the logic goes, we ought to find both what motivates consumer behavior and how to stimulate that motivation.

“Ought to” and “can,” however, exist in different dimensions. Even an ocean of data about the “Baby Boom Generation,” for example, has only relative value. How adults live their lives is only partly determined by the social forces at work when they were young. Over time, people change because life itself introduces change.

People who initially oppose legislation like the Brady handgun bill, for instance, might eventually come to support it—the moment they themselves are disabled by a bullet. By the same token, it’s life, not demographics, that made so many “Woodstock Generation” Baby Boomers vote for Ronald Reagan in 1984.

Ultimately, reckoning how to reach a particular group takes more than a labeling system. If you’re talking to someone born in 1950, think twice about harkening back to “Jefferson Airplane.” Rail as their fans did about American foreign policy, I doubt you’ll find many 60-year-old MetLife sales agents ready to storm the barricades in a beaded headband.

Where are they now…
Whether I choose to acknowledge or ignore the voice in the back of the hall that just called out “Tea Party,” the very existence of that phenomenon only reinforces the point. No matter what demographic group you’ve crammed tens of millions of people into, you still have to answer the question “Where are they now?”

For all the same reasons, a lot of the discussion about “marketing to Millennials” makes me uneasy. Sure, people in this age bracket have identifiable traits, but I’m not convinced that, say, the rise of social technologies indicates any new psychological impulse.

A young person’s insatiable need for social affirmation is hard-wired into the human condition. Cite statistics about Facebook-time, and all you’re saying is that Facebook is one critical tool for tapping that impulse. In other words, Millennials are young. But what will the phrase “marketing to Millennials” mean in 15 years? Since we’ll have to take into account inevitable life-changing events, I can’t help wondering if marketing to demographic groups makes any sense at all.

…and what are they feeling?
Even if we assume certain traits stay constant over time, we still have to make a relevant emotional impact. No one ever sold a product to an age group. Products are sold to an emotional state. You can sell a home alarm system to someone who fears burglars. You can sell an iPad to someone who fears being out of date. And you can sell the Like-ing of a Facebook eco-app to people who pride themselves on their commitment to the environment.

These emotional associations, like life-stage events, are what cut across generational lines most effortlessly. So I have to ask if the Millennial label isn’t more flawed than most. How, on any level, can we compare a 15-year-old boy from rural Mississippi with a 27-year-old woman from urban Massachusetts? Even if they both did see Iron Man 2, I can’t help thinking there’s more that separates than unifies them.

So instead of asking “What era were they born in?” ask “What are the best ways to address the emotion your brand evokes?” Seen from that angle, your targets’ birth years are only relevant as a possible indicator of the life-themes you need to address in real time.

Am I calling now for a theory of “emotographics?” Oh, please. Advertising, in all its forms, is a process not a belief system. Instead of another theory, what we need is to develop our powers of observation about what it means to be human.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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