Don’t judge a book by its cover: Demographics vs sub-cultures

Each month, I will be publishing an article focused on how brands can better connect with diverse consumers through cultural relevancy.

Shortly after I graduated college, I took the biggest risk of my life and signed a commercial lease for my marketing agency, boogie. At the time, I couldn’t afford to hire a construction crew; so, with some direction from YouTube and the help from my wife and best friend, we fixed up and furnished the office. We built a wall, we laid down carpet, we set up Ikea furniture… and five months later, we were open for business!

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Back then, many of our clients were ‘older white men’ who wore full suits to work every day. So, to make the “right” impression and better connect with our clients, we knew we couldn’t play ‘certain types’ of music at the office. That meant: no Biggie, no Jay-Z and definitely no Weezy (Lil’ Wayne if you’re not familiar). Instead, we played more work-appropriate songs like “I’m Your Boogie Man,” by KC & The Sunshine Band and “Blame It On The Boogie,” by the Jackson 5. We even created a Spotify playlist called ‘SFW (Safe For Work) Tunes to Groove to’ that played on repeat throughout the day.

About a year later, I had a meeting with a client and after we wrapped up, I offered to walk him back to his car. We walked across the parking lot then he got in his car and started the ignition. All I heard was “All I want for my birthday is a big booty h*e…” blaring from his car stereo. He lowered the volume, apologized for how loud the music was, and continued talking while the song played in the background.

If you’re not familiar, the song was “Birthday Song by 2 Chains & Kanye West” (warning: this song isn’t safe for work but it’s very catchy).

Needless to say, I was very confused. Dude was in his 40s and he was wearing a suit and tie that day. Why was he jamming to 2 Chains and Kanye? Questions after questions popped into my mind— could we have missed the mark with our assumptions about the music our clients listen to and enjoy?

Without much more time to think on it, a few weeks later, a friend of mine stopped by the office to visit and he was really excited to show me a video that was already loaded on his laptop. He played the video and at first, it seemed like a behind the scenes clip of a music video shoot. Then I looked closer— and there he was… the CEO of [our client] in a video with rapper, Meek Mill. I’m talking drinks, cars, women, etc. Did I mention these were older white men?!!

Then it hit me, I had it all wrong. Just because someone is older and wear suits to work every day doesn’t mean they don’t like hip hop music. The same way that someone being young doesn’t automatically mean they love hip hop music.

As a result, we started playing whatever we wanted at the office. And not only did we realize our clients didn’t have a problem with the music, we noticed them bopping their heads and singing along.

I made a completely wrong assumption about a person’s interests based on their age and ethnicity. I wrongly assumed things based on a job title. I was wrong…

But here’s the thing, I’m not alone.

Marketers get this wrong all the time. We use basic demographics to make assumptions about our customers which leads to us showing the wrong messages to the wrong people at the wrong time.

Back in the day, marketers were able to say things like “my customers are men, ages 21-35, so that must mean they own at least one gaming system,” and that would be the statement they’d use to target their customers. But times have changed and demographically boxing in customers isn’t the way to target your messages and advertising spends. Men 21-35 years old do not all act or think the same, people have different values and interests based on many more factors than simply age and gender. So you’re busy chasing 18-34 yr olds because it’s the cool folks to go after, not knowing that you’re missing more than half the market.

We as people, no longer let our age, gender, job descriptions, or financial status dictate who we can or cannot be. Just look at Jaden and Willow Smith. The way they choose to live their life shatters gender norms. Last year, Jaden (teenage male) was revealed as the new face of Louis Vuitton’s Spring/Summer 2016 Women’s collection.

People all over the U.S. are redefining themselves and stepping outside of the boxes society has created for us and giving new meanings to age-old stereotypes. CEOs are getting younger, startup founders are getting older, and last year, young girls across the United States learned that among all the positions they can eventually pursue in life, running for president is one of them.

As consumers, we don’t make our buying decisions based on the oversimplified stereotypes marketers tend to rely heavily on; instead, we make decisions based on our personal interests and values. We buy from the brands whom we feel truly understand us and we consume content from those who have shown they can relate to us.

We see this with companies that offer discounts to those in the military. Their sensitivity to the military shows veterans and their loved ones that that company fully understands the sacrifices veterans have made for their country. As Beau Taplin says “we’re all so desperate to be understood…”

Personally, I’ve seen this with companies like Ben & Jerry’s with their public message supporting equality and the Black Lives Matter movement by launching their new flavor Empower Mint. My wife and I drove around everywhere looking for that flavor. Not because it was cheat day, but because Ben & Jerry’s’ empathy showed us that they acknowledge what people of color have gone through. And that’s what culture-consciousness looks like… connecting to your customers on a deeper level based on shared values and interests.

So the next time you’re in a marketing meeting— focus less on your customers’ demographics (age, sex, location, etc) and focus more on ways to find out more about their values and interests. Dig deeper into their psychographics.

Now you’re probably thinking… “All right Jacques, I hear you. But, tell me, how do I go about finding out what my customers actually care about? And then, how do I use that to actually be relevant?”

The obvious answer is by listening. However, an even better answer is by aligning your brand with the relevant subcultures or micro-communities. Instead of targeting women in their mid-30s who live in New York City, it may be more beneficial to do research on the types of communities, subcultures, and tribes your current customers belong to.

We all belong to communities.

Some of us are gamers, others are car enthusiasts, and some of us are a part of the Beyhive. We subscribe to these communities and associate ourselves with these subcultures because they represent the layers of who we are and things we care about. Best of all, the communities we belong to have nothing to do with our age or gender but everything to do with our life experiences.

Let’s look at a real life example, me. I’m a 27-year-old, college-educated, black male who wears a blazer every single day. The only time I don’t wear a blazer is when I’m out playing basketball or practicing my parkour moves (here’s proof). But here’s the thing, I don’t watch any sports. No football, no soccer, no hockey… not even basketball. So, if ESPN comes out with a new web series and tries to target me because I’m a Millennial male, then they’d be off the mark. But, if an apparel brand tries to sell me new shoes to improve my parkour jumps, then they’d be onto something. They wouldn’t try to find me based on demographics; however, they would know that I’m subscribed to StuntsAmazing on YouTube, that I browse the #freerunning hashtag on Instagram, and that I watch American Ninja Warrior religiously.

For those who think they don’t assume things about people/customers based on demographics, consider this riddle:

A father and son are in a car accident and both are badly hurt. They are taken to separate hospitals. When the boy goes in for an operation, the surgeon (doctor) says “I can not do the surgery because this is my son.”

How is this possible? (answer is below)

How long did it take you to figure out? Was it instant? Was it longer than 5 minutes? Did you even figure it out? If you’re anxious to know, scroll down to the bottom of this article for the answer… and no, it’s not because the son has two dads.

You’re used to looking at your audience through a demographical lens, but today’s generation is multifaceted, educated, and more diverse than ever before. The world has changed and it’s time for marketing to change with it.

If you’d like to learn more about our approach, checkout our capabilities deck.

Answer: The surgeon (doctor) is his mother

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