Life is full of generalizations. Like that one, for instance. And nowhere are generalizations more rife than in the Advertising industry. They appear in our creative briefs, our pitches, our presentations, our conversations and emails. But I am happy to be able to present to you today the last one you will ever need, and it is this: We have entered an age in which all generalizations have outlived their usefulness. Except that one. Let me explain.
There was a time when marketing cut a wide swath across the population. We were building brands on a national, almost hard-to-imagine-at-the-time scale. Consumers were young! Or they were old! Or they were white! Or they were “everybody else”! And brands were built on these wide swaths – “drink this and feel young!” “buy this and be cool!” – ideas that, from our cynical perch today, may seem simple, naïve and obvious, but at the time, had real power. Why? Because no one had ever really talked to us like that. As if we were part of a big national all-one-big-happy-family group before. Not when they were trying to sell us something. Unless you count the president. Which I suppose I should.
But then marketing evolved, and the slicing and dicing of demographics began in earnest. There weren’t just “white people” and “everyone else”. There were dozens of ethnicities! And they all had different dreams and aspirations! And within those ethnicities there were different sexes, who reacted differently still! And within those sexes there were generations and, well, the rabbit hole went on and on.
And yet, throughout all this demographicization, no matter how many different groups we split people into, the group was still the key building block, the atom that you couldn’t get any smaller than. You couldn’t get smaller than a group, because if you did, you couldn’t market efficiently any more, right?
But here’s the problem: now, nobody wants to be thought of as part of a group. To paraphrase Brian of Nazereth, we are all individuals now. The internet, of course, has had a lot to do with this. And the cable tv explosion further allowed people to self-select. And while it’s probably been this way for a long time – it’s not like the internet and cable tv suddenly appeared yesterday - I think the final straw that broke this camel’s back was when white males began to find themselves poked and prodded as a demographic group. When they began to hear their aspirations and expectations sliced and diced by the chattering nabobs on cable political shows – in the way that every other group had been analyzed for a quarter century – the wheels finally came off. It was officially absurd. They – the same white males who had been telling us what every other ethnic group meant when they voted (or purchased or watched or imbibed) – suddenly thought that applying one set of intentions to a widely varying group of people was the height of absurdity.
And it was, or rather, is, too. But if that’s all it was, it wouldn’t be worth writing about. It wouldn’t be why the end of generalizations heralds perhaps the most intellectually exciting time for marketing in the past fifty years.
Why? Because we have brands that need to communicate to those old broad swaths of public. That were built to speak to an audience of millions. Like Coca Cola. Like AT&T. Like GM. Like hundreds of others. How do these brands engage their customers in a “post-generalization world”? Do they keep on doing it anyway, knowing that it’s inefficient, a losing game, and that they’re literally, intentionally even, wasting their money? And worse, that they’re offending their customers and leaving all kinds of doors open for smaller, more precise competitors to run through?
Or do they go in the opposite direction, and try to act like smaller brands, breaking their messaging down endlessly into literally thousands of pieces. Do they try to speak to each niche, each person, individually, using their vast wealth to outspend in the literally tens of thousands of markets that develop, all the while preparing for those inevitable conflicts where one carefully crafted message to one person inadvertently overlaps with another carefully crafted message to another – and another and another, ad infiniteum?
Or, do they throw up their hands and retreat to the last refuge of nervous marketers – do they talk endlessly about themselves instead of talking about what their customers need, want, and are interested in? And if they do, does it play out any better than it ever has?
So what happens? I dunno. Probably all three, and a couple more besides. A lot of chaos to be sure, and false starts and dead ends. But, at the risk of generalizing, I wouldn’t miss it for the world, would you?