Stranger Things – Why shopper age, relationship status and gender are irrelevant in today’s upside-down world.

Everywhere I look, something weird is happening. Teenagers are sipping £4 oat milk lattes at Planet Organic and talking about activism. ‘Grown-ups’ are skateboarding to work and talking about polyamory. 

Something weird is happening, an upside down world (though I hasten to add, a refreshing rather than unpleasant one) where traditional polar divides are being smooshed together into one blurred group that isn’t defined by age, or gender or whatever ‘class’ even means anymore. 

The young are acting old, the old are acting young, married people are polyamorous, gender is blurred and our traditional mode of profiling audiences feels completely out of sync with the zeitgeist. 

Before we explore how we should be targeting audiences more effectively, we must understand if a shift is happening that necessitates a dramatic change in the way we profile. 

I’ve focused on three key areas – gender, relationship status and age – which along with spending power form the basis for much of our audience targeting, and exploration of purchase behaviour. 

For the purpose of this article, I will disregard the benefit of using age, relationship status or gender profiling when segmenting our buyers based on a particular need – e.g a dating app for singles or tampons for people who menstruate. It’s just common sense to acknowledge that some products fulfil a need that only some people might have, we can’t really call this ‘positioning’.

 Our job as brand creators, founders and marketers goes far beyond selling water to the thirsty – it’s our job to market a concept, a way of living and a myth that our target audience wants to welcome into their everyday lives. We must ask the question, ‘of the group of people who need our product, how do we communicate better with those who might believe in our vision, and our our brand’. 

Shift #1 - Don’t call us ‘old’ - the rise of age agnosticism

Euromonitor cites ‘age agnostic’ as one of the biggest consumer trends of 2019. The report pointed to the importance of winning and retaining loyalty and trust in brands amongst an older generation that doesn’t want to be seen as ‘old’. 

The baby boomer generation have more in common with millennials and younger generations than we would expect, so it makes little difference if our audience is 25 or 65. In terms of values, morals, ideals and brand relationship desires – a revolutionary startup is as likely to excite a 55 year old as a 25 year old. Euromonitor details the importance of adopting an inclusive mindset that focuses on values – clean living, connection or physical and mental balance rather than an age cut off that talks to 55 year olds like an advert for Saga Insurance. 

Boundaries are shifting – people are taking care of themselves and living longer than ever. Affluent baby boomers are technology and travel obsessed, living their retirement years like an extended gap year. This ‘Peter Pan’ generation of baby boomers are now moving into their 70’s, they have influence, often affluence, do not see themselves as ‘old’ and don’t want to be labeled ‘senior’. 

“The Age Agnostic trend among older generations is strongly reflected in the desire among 35% of baby boomers currently between 54–74 years old who agree or strongly agree with the statement that they want to enjoy their lives and not worry about the future. This proportion is surprisingly even higher than generation Z and close to millennials (38%).”

Two generations down, gen-Z are rebels with a cause. 

A recent research project we undertook for a reusable menstrual pad revealed that 16-24 year olds are most likely to make purchase decisions that support ‘kind’ brands – brands who are working, or appear to work towards making a positive impact on the environment. 

Meanwhile, older generations base purchase decision on price, and at least in this category hold little brand loyalty. If we were to target ‘millennials’ with the typical startup knee-jerk reaction, assuming that generation Z have little disposable cash, or that baby boomers don’t use menstrual pads for incontinence (when in fact the ageing population makes incontinence wear  a more lucrative market than menstrual wear, and often the two needs are met by the same product) – we would be ruling out the two groups most likely to form a meaningful connection with a new, more relatable brand of reusable underwear protection. 

Rather than a linear scale with young on one end and ‘old’ at the other, the path is circular, with the very young and very old connected and actually having the most in common.

Kampung Admiralty in Singapore launched its first public housing project which actually houses senior centres with childcare facilities. The purpose is to develop a more integrated society and encourage cross-generational bonding. 

Zandi Bremner,  Head of Client Innovation at Euromonitor International explains that:

“To win now, it is less about conceptualising consumers in obvious ways but rather embracing the openness of accepting everyone in creating universal design across generations.”

The closing gap and efforts to minimise polarity between even the widest separated age groups represents  a global desire to bridge generational divide.

What if, instead of breaking down your audience into a group of health loving 25-35 year olds (because, snore, isn’t everyone?) you defined your audience in a more creative way? What if you approached your audience the same way you make friends, not discriminating on grounds of age, but bonding over the things you share?

 

At Idea Dolls, we’ve started using a derivative of the Meyer Briggs profiling system to define our audience personalities based on how they form relationships and friendships. Personality ‘types’ are flexible and may change as a person changes and their priorities shift. We have found this a far more effective way of figuring out what’s important to the group of people we want our brands to connect with.

Shift #2 - Single, and not ready to mingle. Why relationship status is redundant

I want to talk about polyamory, because from a branding point of view (and every point of view really) this subject is insanely interesting. But first, I’ll start with an introduction to this part of my argument – that we need to do away with ‘married, single, divorced, widowed’ as a basis for marketing products or reaching relevant audiences and this is why:

Using marital status to deduce consumer purchase behaviour makes absolutely no sense, even more-so when we consider that single person households will soon overtake any other household (Euromonitor 2019).  

With single living overtaking conjugal relationships, and monogamy, even amongst married couples in increasing decline, it is more important than ever to market to an individual based on individual personality profile. Certain personality types will naturally lend themselves to certain types of relationships, but it is the personality type rather than the relationship that dominates drivers to purchase.

In our new ‘stranger things’ universe, single people are acting as society dictates ‘settled down and happily married people’ would do (staying in, shunning social engagements, feeling complete without the need to, say, experiment with iowaska for a laugh) while married people are becoming increasingly experimental in the bedroom, their relationships – and we can deduce other areas of their lives too. 

Let’s look at singles first and how what we expect from ‘single living’ is being replaced with JOMO –  and instead of a Fear of Missing Out, single-by-choice-or-otherwise people actively relish the opportunity to stay away from the action and switch of.

“The fear of missing out has now given place to the re-appropriation of self-time as people find joy in missing out.” (Euromonitor) 

By re-empowering the time we have for ourselves, this intentional disconnection is symptomatic of the trend to live alone, work alone and travel alone – solo travel trips have increased by 80% in the last two years, especially solo female travel. 

Across the world, the number of single person households overtakes any other type of households with a shift from the high divorce rate of baby boomer generation to an outright rejection of marriage and cohabitation in generation X and Z. 

Consumers are embracing an independent lifestyle, and marketers must listen.

Now let’s talk non-monogamy.

The polyamory scene which first exploded in America among the nouveau-bohemian experimenters, quickly filtered into Tel Aviv’s ‘sex positive’ and ‘polyamorous’ movement. Psychology Today reports that one fifth of the US population has engaged in consensual non-monogamy at some point. This year 4-5% of Americans would class themselves as polyamorous, while Rolling Stone estimates that one in five people have engaged in a consensual non-monogamous relationship. Based on this, choosing a non monogamous lifestyle is more widespread than veganism and almost as commonplace as vegetarianism. 

Where in the past there were those in relationships and marriages, and those either divorced or single, we now have a collision of categories and a growing number of people who exist on a complex spectrum of relationship preferences – the split of ‘single’ or ‘in a relationship’ seems not just simplistic, but pointless.

Would it not be more interesting and effective to consider not whether an individual is cohabiting, married or single, but what motivated their lifestyle choices?

If brands are to communicate meaningfully and create long lasting loyalty, they must understand the flexible nature of the modern consumer, and connect based on values and lifestyle rather than relationship, marital or habitation status.

Shift #3 - adapting to gender fluidity

This is probably the biggest challenge for marketers, and for me – the most challenging to overcome in a hypothesis of under 600 words – but here goes!

I was talking through my theory with a marketer at Lola’s cupcakes recently and they challenged my assertion that gender divides when targeting consumers are becoming increasingly irrelevant.

“Well”, they said – our research shows women aged 25-35 buy our cupcakes. Organic, not targeted reach, so how would you explain that?

This is a question is valid and must be addressed but first we must evaluate the significance of the rise of non-binary gender types.

New Scientist recently reported a rising number of non-binary attendees at the Tavistock Centre, London. The centre saw a rise between mid 2018 and mid 2019. Those who identify as non-binary or queer-gender were not necessarily looking to transition from one gender or another. 

Polly Charmichael, director or Gender identity Development explains the rise of queer-gender and non-binary (who don’t identify as either male or female, and now make up 11% of referrals to the clinic), may be a response to being categorised or boxed into one gender or another and a desire to challenge traditional stereotypes.

The group of people who identify as non-binary (and the many other alternatives to male or female) is growing, this is a fact. But can we really do away with gender differentiation entirely and is this a feasible future for marketers? 

What about the brands who know as a categorical fact that they are suited to women aged 25-35?

I’ll call on the work of Foucault to answer this question. Let’s explore the thought that rather than brands targeting groups, brands or society are in fact creating the idea, or to use foucauldian terms the ‘discipline’ that women aged 25-35 must like this particular product or brand. So if you’re a woman aged 25-35 you’ll see a brand you’ve been told is ‘for you’ and you buy it. 

I use the term ‘discipline’ in the foucauldian sense as the unspoken rules and social expectations which force you to conform to society you’re in – a woman is a woman, a man is a man, an old person is an old person etc. etc.

So rather than a monodirectional targeting, or a force that goes just one way, we have a push and pull in society – a chicken and egg situation where marketers give consumers what they want according to their definition of what that group wants, and at the same time a group adhering to the socialisation they’ve been indoctrinated into which tells them – you’re a girl therefore you will like pink unicorn cupcakes. 

According to foucauldian thought, we apply the technology of discipline on ourselves to fit into a specific category. 

On the note of gender I don’t want to in any way imply that ‘femaleness’ needs to be eroded to make way for a gender fluid category, reattribution of brand identity to certain non-gender-specific profiles should in no way impact those who identify as women. The aim here is to be inclusive, not exclusive, to welcome, not dictate, to market responsibly not reinforce gender stereotypes and polarisation.

There is still, clearly a place for gender polarised categories, just like there is also a place for age differentiation and marital status distinction but we cannot ignore the shift in masculine women, feminine men, non-binary, ‘young at any age’, non-monogamous and everything in between. Gender, just like predisposition to adventure or experimentation  exists on a spectrum that isn’t necessarily defined by your given or self-assigned set or genitalia, your age or whether you wear a wedding band.

So I make the case that in order to adapt and more so, reinforce this social change and the growing number of individuals who do not fit into their assigned ‘box’ we must find a new way of targeting, perhaps based on psychological and personality types. 

Change is happening whether we like it or not, and we must adapt because the ramifications or continuing as we are, targeting ‘women aged 25-35’ with unicorn cupcakes are  worse than simply being ignored, and becoming irrelevant, we may actually be reinforcing harmful divides with a dam of discipline.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on anything and everything I’ve suggested in this article, if you’ve made it to the end – yay congrats, you must be a single, vegan, baby boomer (kidding… kidding).

Thanks so much for reading, if you’d like to hear more of this sort of stuff, send us a hello and we’ll add you to our soon-to-be-created mailing list.

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