Why Current Marketing Discourse is Worse Than Astrology.

A couple of weeks ago, I was having dinner with a senior communications strategist. For some reason or another, we started talking about stand-up comedy.

“A great place to look for insights”, the man across the table from me said. “That’s basically what observational comedians do. We could genuinely learn a lot from them.”

Of course, he was right. Many a comedian have made it their entire show to pick apart human nature to great effect. One of the most successful ones, I’d argue for good reason, is Irish comedian Dara O’Briain. Among his most famous routines is a break-down of the inherent inaccuracy of astrology.

“People are very down on racism”, O’Briain starts. “They will say that racism is one of the worst social evils they can imagine. How dare you do that, they say. How dare you ascribe to me personality traits? You don’t even know me, but you tell me that you know me, and you know these things about me. And you say I share these personality traits with this huge group of people. I don’t even know them. You don’t know them. And yet you say that we somehow have the same character traits, some sort of common history, some sort of common destiny. And you make all of these horrible presumptions on the back of what? On the back of a fluke of birth. How dare you do that?”

He pauses for a brief moment.

“What? Oooh, Capricorn.”

The point hits home.

“Here’s the thing”, O’Brian says. “If you want a clumsy tool to divide the population into distinct groups so that you can make predictions, racism is waaay better than astrology.”

There are twelve Zodiac signs. Twelve groups of people, according to astrologers. For all their knuckle-dragging arse-backwards view of the world, you have to admit racists can indeed muster a lot more arbitrary ways to subdivide and classify humanity than that.

Unfortunately, this also means they’re better at it than modern marketers.

Over the last few years, obsession with generational segmentation has peaked and the grand total of generations used are, at most, five. That’s not even half of what the astrologers can conjure up.

In practice, it’s typically even fewer than that. Millennials and Gen-Z have become the answer to every question in marketing. Even when you’d think the question would preclude them.

A perfect illustration of this is Pernod Ricard. The giant of distilled beverages set up a “Gin Hub” aimed at Gen-Z, the cohort born after Millennials, this past fall. One would have assumed that someone, somewhere, would have pointed out the strategic weaknesses of targeting a group of people not allowed to legally drink with a dedicated gin experience, but alas no.

Focusing on generations makes really intelligent people make really stupid mistakes. BMW, for example, a smart and successful company, is now looking to have its success driven by Millennials. According to Hildegard Wortmann, Senior Vice President of Brand, “Millennials want brands that behave like human beings”. They want the brands they use and buy to communicate with them, resonate with them and ultimately create a relationship with them.

Ignoring the fact that no consumer on the planet actually wants to have a relationship with brands to the extent that marketers do, Wortmann’s stereotypical description of what Millennials want is no more accurate than that of an astrologer talking about Capricorns or a racist talking about a group of people with a skin tone different to his own. Yet similar nonsense is repeated daily. Caroline Fontaine, vice-president of global brand at Air France, recently launched the new Millennial targeted airline Joon together with KLM. Said Fontaine, “We started with our target customer segment, the Millennials, to create this new brand that means something to them. Our brief was simple: to find a name to illustrate a positive state of mind. This generation has inspired us a lot: epicurean and connected, they are opportunistic in a positive sense of the word as they know how to enjoy every moment and are in search of quality experiences that they want to share with others.”

Even institutions such as The World Economic Forum are buying into the generational hogwash. Last summer, they posted research done by The Bank of America Merrill Lynch detailing the spending habits across generations. A “huge” difference between how Millennials and their parents spend their money “revealed”, it claimed. As it turns out, the article might as well have been titled “Young People Revealed to Eat More Often in Restaurants Than Older People with Children at Home, to the Surprise of Nobody”.

If one looks at the (little) proper research that has been done on Millennials, such as the Glocalities Report or Futurecast’s Millennial Mindset Report, the only thing that can be firmly established is that they are broadly the same as everyone else and, as a result, broadly different from one another.

And here we get to the root of the issue with using generational groups as segments.

Generational groups such as Millennials or Gen-Z are, per the very definition of what segments are, simply not segments. As defined by Professor William J Stanton, market segmentation is “the process of dividing the total heterogeneous market for a good or service into several segments. Each of which tends to be homogenous in all significant aspects to each other, and heterogeneous to those in other segments”. In other words, segments are similar within and different without. Precisely like generational groups aren’t.

When it comes to segmentation, demographics are secondary. To segment properly, you identify behavioral patterns and attitudes. Once done you can start looking at gender and age, but neither constitutes a segment on its own. Customer segments exist within generational groups.

The simple fact of the matter is that a kid barely out of school in rural China doesn’t think like, nor want the same things as, a fully-grown adult with a career, children and a mortgage in downtown New York. Even if they both happen to be Millennials.

Yet marketers claim that they do. They say that these clearly different people somehow have the same character traits, some sort of common history, some sort of common destiny. And they make all of these horrible presumptions on the back of what? On the back of a fluke of birth.

How dare they do that?