Why demographic targeting is not the answer

How much do two people have in common just because they fit the broad description of baby boomers? Ozzy Osbourne and Prince Charles may share certain demographics but it’s unlikely that they exhibit the same shopping behaviours!

Why demographic marketing sucks: a tale of two princes
Why demographic marketing sucks: a tale of two princes
Written By
Emel Rizwani
Published On
March 2, 2022

Why demographic targeting doesn’t work: a tale of two princes

Once upon a time, there were two princes: Charles, the Prince of Wales and Ozzy, the Prince of Darkness.

Both men were born in 1948 and grew up in the UK. They each married twice, finding lasting love with their second spouse. And, as we might expect with princes, they both lived in grand houses, enjoying a life of fame and fortune.

If we used demographic marketing techniques to describe two princes, we might say that there was no way to tell them apart, except perhaps geography.

But demographics fail to tell us the whole story.

They skip the passions and pursuits that have shaped two very different people. They stop us from connecting with the princes on any meaningful level.

Using demographics alone, we wouldn’t know that the princes’ lives have walked very different paths or that they do, in fact, share interests in painting, music and small dog breeds.

The point is that if you’ve been relying on demographic segmentation to market your business, the chances are that you’re missing core members of your audience. And probably annoying a fair few people outside of it with clumsy targeting.

The Dangers of segmenting customers just by demographics

You don’t have to spend much time online before you come across someone talking about Boomers, GenX, Gen Y/Millennials or Gen Z.

Some marketers love to talk about generational segments, sending out briefings that frustratingly identity the target audiences as just ‘Millennials’.

The problem is that this approach is simplistic to the point of being seriously flawed, as our tale of the Princes of Wales and Darkness shows us.

How much do people have in common just because they fall into the category of ‘Baby Boomers’?

Ozzy Osborne and Prince Charles may share certain demographics but it’s unlikely that they exhibit the same shopping behaviours.

A 41-year-old millennial could easily be the parent of a 21-year-old millennial but would the parent and ‘child’ have the same priorities? It’s doubtful. So, is it helpful to group them as a millennial audience?

As an article from Campaign Live points out, imagine the perils of building a launch strategy around a broad audience of over-55s. This group includes parents with children still living at home, menopausal women, busy working people, retirees, people caring for elderly parents and people in need of care themselves.

It makes no sense to group everyone by age. The marketing message would have to be horribly generic. It could perhaps be specific enough to resonate with some of the audience, but could completely alienate others.

This is a sure-fire way to damage any brand’s reputation. 

It’s like waving a flag that says ‘We didn’t care enough to find out more about you!’ or ‘We made assumptions about you based on a lazy stereotype.’

Life today is less predictable

It used to be that, in terms of age, living in the Western world charted a fairly predictable course. People would complete their education, find a job, get married, have children, and then enjoy a fruitful retirement.

Grouping people by age in marketing terms was a short-hand for the life stage that the target group was likely to be in. People in each phase would share common concerns and priorities.

Today things are different.

People marry and divorce multiple times, change careers, return to education later in life, raise children at the same time as caring for elderly parents, take sabbaticals to travel, set up businesses or move countries for work.

Their age doesn’t tell us much about their life stage at all.

The same goes for demographics such as race or location.

Where a person lives doesn’t necessarily dictate where they buy, especially now we have 24/7 global connectivity.

And, while yes, someone’s race or cultural background can have a huge influence on their buying decisions, it only tells part of the story. What about the other influences in their life? Their hobbies, their passions, their favourite TV shows or music, their relationships?

So how should we segment an audience if we’re not going to use traditional demographics?

Attitude before age

The best marketers have always known that the attitudes and behaviours of customers (including customers who represent businesses) can tell us more than broad demographics or socioeconomic status alone.

As freelance writer Malcolm McDonald expressed in an article for Research Live, “Boy George and the Pope are both ‘A’s in terms of socioeconomic status, but they don’t behave the same.”

It’s hard to imagine many scenarios where these men would fall into the same target group.

It is customer behaviour that we need to understand at every important decision-making junction in the buying journey. Why do people do what they do when they do it? What’s on their mind? What do they care about? What’s their motivation? How do they behave at work, compared to how they behave in their spare time?

Behaviour is a fluid thing. Any target group is in a constant state of flux, depending on what people are doing, who they’re with, when they’re doing something and why.

Successful marketing needs to target mindset and motivation, not fixed demographics.

How would you describe your customers without the demographic tags?

For many companies, especially those doing their marketing without an in-house team or the support of a marketing agency, this question is challenging.

Demographic and socioeconomic data is easier to obtain, measure and monitor than information about passions, habits or temperament. This is probably why businesses cling to demographic tags like they’re the last lifeboat in a storm.

And yet it’s an understanding of these latter groupings that is far more likely to help us predict a customer’s future behaviour. Plus, understanding how a customer has behaved in the past is the best predictor of what they’ll do next!  

This is where input from a good digital marketing company can pay dividends because they’ll understand how to find and understand data about behaviour, interests and attitudes and use it to their clients’ advantage.

Experienced digital marketers can turn an audience into flesh and blood people instead of a cookie-cutter template of a customer.

If you are going to go it alone (or even before briefing a marketing agency), think about how you would describe your customers without grouping them by demographics or socioeconomic status. 

It’s time to get up close and personal with your target consumer and find out what drives them.

Demographic marketing will always be part of the bigger picture.

Demographic marketing has never worked well in isolation. Savvy marketers know this; they also know that demographics have an important role to play as part of a bigger picture.

Factors such as age, gender, location, job or ethnicity can be relevant to segmenting an audience. It’s just that, without understanding what makes an audience tick, they will never tell the full story.

In my experience, it’s more productive to segment audiences into behavioural/attitudinal clusters first, at every point in the buying cycle, and then apply demographics to the segment.

This can help you to pinpoint whether your assumptions about your audience are true or just stereotypes.

There are times when demographics should have priority in shaping marketing decisions. Television and print marketing, in particular, still rely heavily on traditional segmentation. This is unlikely to change any time soon.

Yes, streaming companies like Netflix are eschewing traditional demographics but then they’re broadcasting to a global market, not a local TV region. They understand that people want to see recommendations based on what they love to watch, not where they live, what they earn or how old they are.

Has your business been relying on demographic targeting?

In terms of marketing decisions, have you been winging it with broad-based assumptions about your target audience based on their age, gender, salary, job title or location?

If you’re struggling to connect with new customers or attracting some negativity on social media, it could be because your marketing messages aren’t landing with the right audience.

How much do you really know about your customers?

A fresh analysis of your target market – one that looks to behaviours, not demographics – will transform your digital marketing for the better.

Do you need digital marketing support to understand your target audience and connect with them? can help!