Peeling off the Spandex: Towards a New Target Marketing

[July 2, 2010]

At the simplest level, the premise of target marketing is easy to grasp. Instead of wasting effort and brand equity in a scattershot appeal, you can focus your attention on the people most likely to buy your product. In general terms, the people in this group fall into three categories: those already buying, those buying the competitor and those with similar demographic credentials who buy neither.

In many cases, brands try to appeal to all these categories within the target group at once. That each of these subgroups might have very different mindsets seems not to matter. Or rather, the success measurement shifts from “how many people we can sell” to “how many people we can convince to think about buying.”

This Spandex, one-size-fits-all approach, the diametric opposite of targeting, is fairly widespread. Having filtered out a target group from the mass audience, marketing managers proceed to take a mass market approach to what is simply a smaller mass. While the cost/acquisition/retention ratio might be more satisfactory, I doubt this has much more impact on the number of new or retained customers than a standard mass market approach.

Of course, with further segmentation, you can improve your odds, by broadcasting different variations on the current campaign to each segment. In direct mail, this has sometimes amounted to no more than minor swap outs of intro copy, offer and call-to-action. And while this mechanical approach often achieves a minor uptick in results, it’s only slightly less generic than either a mass market or “mass target” campaign.

And all because the underlying message is exactly the same.

The swagger and the confusion.
I only wish I had $1.75 for every time someone told me, “We want a targeted message, but we don’t want to turn off everyone else.” While that POV sorta sounds reasonable at first, you have to realize that adopting it effectively kills all hope of targeting. You can’t fulfill that mandate unless you run a mass campaign, whose only nod to your target is a line or two of bland “intro copy.”

Used to be, I wore myself out looking for the source of this confused thinking. That is, until I found its roots in the macho posturing of our American business model. We want, above all, to be right. We value nothing so much as a quick, shoot-from-the-hip bulls eye solution. “Why dilute our efforts?” goes the gritty, savvier-than-thou refrain.

Yet in the changing market we inhabit today, that song goes flatter every year—and it’s high time we changed our tune. We need to set aside the demands of Spandex Marketing and address, not smooth over, the real differences between people in the same demographic group.

That means finding more open definitions of “brand” and “campaign.” We need new definitions that value these differences—for the handle they give us on the human psyche. In an open campaign, you’d grab each handle with a carefully crafted, unique message stream.

Go on. Peel it off.
Sure, generic work costs less, but you get what you pay for. Contrary to conventional wisdom, greater investment is critical in tough economic times. When the pressure is on to “shop price” and save for an uncertain future, it takes a more compelling message to get people to spend for “the good stuff.”

With all these factors in play, it’s essential to make your message personal, make it resonate with the look and feel of real experience. It’s no use trying to sell a deeply conservative person a campaign full of indie-film references. It’s also no use trying to sell a world-weary hipster a straight up “the price is right” appeal. Yet, strangely, both types of high income/high education/home owner need weed killer, diapers and dog food from time to time.

What’s a marketer to do? Peel off the spandex and let it all hang out. Know that, even among your sweet spot target group, there’s more diversity than meets the eye. But be careful: Running open campaigns won’t be easier than traditional ones. They’ll only be more effective. Why? Well, I don’t know about you, but I only want a product that speaks to me—and not to some statistical mannequin looking way better in Spandex than I could ever, ever hope to.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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