Death of the demographic
Defining consumers by demographics is no longer a useful approach for marketers
It’s 23 September 2015 and Hidekichi Miyazaki is warming up for his signature event – the men’s 100m dash. As a former record holder, and crowd favourite, he waves enthusiastically and grins before readying himself for the starting gun. “Bang!” – 42.22 seconds later, Hidekichi crosses the finishing line and, while he’s in no danger of surpassing Usain Bolt as the world’s fastest man, he celebrates his accomplishment with the same trademark pose. Dubbed Japan’s “Golden Bolt”, Hidekichi has snubbed talk of stepping down from competition. “I have to continue for a few more years,” he says, “to show my gratitude to my fans.”
Hidekichi Miyazaki was competing in the over-105 age group at the Masters Athletics championships. Having celebrated his birthday one day prior, Hidekichi was the youngest such participant in that age bracket, although he was also just the second person to qualify.
Today, one in four Japanese people is over the age of 65. Around 10 million are over the age of 80. Yet even by Japan’s extraordinary benchmarks, Hidekichi Miyazaki’s lifestyle is statistically improbable. Instead of being six feet underground, Hidekichi is in the market to buy Nike’s latest running shoes. He is, first and foremost, a runner. His age, while astonishing, comes second to this fact.
Because of his advanced years, Hidekichi Miyazaki’s “outlier” story is an inspiration to all ages. I would argue that rather than being a member of the Silver Generation, Hidekichi is representative of demographics turned on their heads, where age is just a number and it’s what you actually do with your life that defines who you are.
Millennial is another example of an egregiously fruitless demographic term that’s as useful as it is actionable: I would argue “not very”. Those who seek to apply order to randomness, and sequence to wild variance, define millennials using self-fulfilling evidence. Millennials are supposed to be more “work shy” and “have more trouble dealing with financial adversity” than Baby Boomers – but Mark Zuckerberg runs a company worth $300 billion, employing 13,000 people. Is Zuckerberg a millennial? If not, then where do we draw the line? What use is a demographic profile if it’s so easily refuted?
So, what do Hidekichi Miyazaki and Mark Zuckerberg have in common? Although he’s a 105-year-old man, Hidekichi would say that his leading characteristic is that he is a runner. Although he’s a 32-year-old man, Zuckerberg would identify himself as the CEO of Facebook. The demographic models do not apply to them simply because we know more about them. We know their interests. We know what motivates them. Indeed, anyone who defines themselves by measures other than demographics, would say the same. Demographic models, to me, signify an absence of insight rather than insight itself.
I believe that we are experiencing the Death of the Demographic and, for me, it cannot come fast enough.
Millennial is another example of an egregiously fruitless demographic term that’s as useful as it is actionable: I would argue not very
Anyone who’s been in a relationship has probably heard the complaint that, “You say one thing and you do something else.” Spouses are smart people. I agree with my wife 100% that people, myself included, are defined first and foremost by what they do, not what we say we’ll do, or what people expect us to do. We cannot outsource responsibility for our actions to demographics.
As the individuals that form global human society become more interconnected, the incentives for self-expression, and the tools that enable it, are becoming more pervasive. Whether it’s through the articles or photos we share, the hashtags we use, or the live streams we watch – the way that we communicate is “in the moment”.
All of these actions leave breadcrumbs of information that we’re now able to piece together to get a deeper, richer, understanding of consumer behaviour, especially when we add in behaviour we see on apps and websites and the things people buy when they’re there.
How do we prepare our marketing for constant change? At my company, Mindshare, our product is Adaptive. We build media plans that can adapt and evolve to keep our messages as relevant as possible. With an Adaptive mindset, we move from a broad demographic audience, such as “women aged 35- 54”, to category "states of mind" that could be occupied by someone young, old, man or woman, regardless of what college they went to, what they do for a living, or what their household income is. These are erroneous details.
When we don’t set ourselves up to be adaptive, when we aren’t preparing for the unpredictable, we are, in fact, preparing to fail. The idea that there is one consumer insight that results in one set of advertising assets that’s supposed to inspire, inform, and remind everyone equally is totally preposterous.
Faced with this reality, I think that there is no longer any use to the demographic profile, that the concept of understanding demographics holds no meaning because it doesn’t help us to bridge the gap between a brand and a consumer in the moment, in the state of mind.
Remember that behind these stories is a larger narrative where consumer behaviour can now be defined in precise detail – that there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to the consumer journey, and that media and advertising can and must tailor our message to fit the spectrum of consumer behaviour. More so than at any other time in our history, it’s what we do – our controllables – that makes us who we are.