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Sweetly off target

Targeting consumers requires a nuanced understanding of human psychology and the inner world of your consumers
Targeting is not an exact science – probe, learn and adapt
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

The waiter approaches his two middle-aged, female diners with the dessert menu. This waiter knows a thing or two about personal identity, off-target targeting and the psychological “theory of possible selves”.

He knows, for example, that each of these well-groomed women is two people: the “actual self”, which, in this context, craves the indulgent, gooey things on offer, and the “idealised self”, which is a mental concept each woman holds about herself. Right now, this reads: “Health-conscious, yoga-type person who doesn’t threaten her dress size with pudding.”

The waiter understands that there is no point targeting the actual self with layer-by-layer descriptions of the chocolate marquise or the melting-centre caramel crème brûlée: the idealised self will veto it. On the other hand, no sale will be made by playing along with the yoga person inside the craving person and suggesting a move straight to coffee.

So he splits the difference: “Hey, looking’s low-calorie.” This is sufficiently circumspect to evade the idealised self’s radar and at least get the menu in the customer’s hands. From then on it will be a tussle between the selves, and the waiter reckons he has a fighting chance of adding two desserts to the bill. (Reader, I was one of those diners, and he did.)

This may be a simplistic example, but it is enough to illustrate why targeting is one of the subtlest disciplines in marketing.

It doesn’t help that the word “target” is, itself, a misnomer. A real target is represented by a series of concentric circles, and there is only one objective: to hit dead centre. In marketing, if you aim both your offer and your communications at the bullseye of the real person you need to sell to, you will almost always meet resistance.

In virtually every category, success is more likely to come from aiming off – in other words, from mastering the challenges of “off-target targeting”.

The theory of possible selves, put forward by the US academics Hazel Markus and Paula Nurius, is just one reason behind this. In their seminal 1986 paper, they showed that people are strongly cognitively motivated to move from their everyday, warts-and-all self, to an idealised version of their identity – the person they are at their best, the self they want to show to the world. Targeting needs to take heed of that.

A more opportunistic reason to shoot wide is the potential power of influencers. Sometimes you can afford to target so far off your actual consumer, that they don’t appear to come into the reckoning at all.

Red Bull, for example, established its hold in the, now $37bn, energy drinks category by targeting only Austrian snowboarders. Beats by Dre adopted a similar approach, putting its headphones in the hands of cutting-edge musicians and US NBA Olympians. The power of influence did the rest.

A classic example of all the nuances of off-target targeting is Pedigree dog food. Its product offer, brand name and communications message were all focused on a narrow, ostensible target: pedigree dog breeders.

To the wider pet-owning public, the influencer endorsement was both obvious and persuasive. Pedigree is also a fascinating example of the idealised self projected onto an animal: not just the mutt you see before you, but a very special dog.

In my experience, marketers underestimate both the challenges and opportunities of targeting when they gather in their brand sessions. For what it is worth, this is the five-point plan I suggest they try:

  1. Create an accurate pen portrait of your consumer’s actual self. Ethnography is the best methodology.
  2. Gain a close understanding of your consumer’s idealised self, in the context of your category. Social-media analysis can be a big help here (see “The Social Self”, panel).
  3. Explore ways in which your brand can help people, both practically and symbolically, on their journey from actual to idealised self. At the very least, understand the power of veto the idealised self can impose.
  4. Determine who your consumer’s influencers are, and evaluate their potential power.
  5. Allocate resources to an idealised self or influencer strategy, or combination – but remember that this is not an exact science, and aim to probe, learn and adapt.

In short, take a tip from that waiter: forget about aiming for the bullseye, and try to find the sweet spot.

The Social Self

Marketers and agencies are using observation of social media as a window to consumers. Its useful, but we should be cautious: in most cases, some element of the idealised self is being presented, and as platforms fragment and increase, each offers the chance to present a different edited identity.

Facebook The most complete of the social networks, where users are encouraged to present a “whole self” – at the extreme, creating a completely new identity, as dramatised in the MTV show Catfish. Could the recent dramatic decline in core users (US teenage active users fell by 29% last year) indicate that people are happier to present a more edited or temporary self-identity through other social media platforms?

Instagram Pure photo-sharing through Instagram enjoyed double-digit growth last year. This is where the “my life is beautiful” self is presented through carefully enhanced images of food, friends, clothes and holidays.


Snapchat The fast-growing “perishable photos and videos” network allows users to experiment and try out new “selves” without the danger of them hanging around to haunt them later.

LinkedIn The professional self is presented here. All career and educational hiccups are carefully edited out to present the high achiever with a beautifully managed, smooth, upward career trajectory.

Twitter the micro-blogging site has more than 270m users. Its character limit forces editing and is used typically to present the “cleverly off-the-cuff, witty me” (although the tweet might have been agonised over for hours). There are also users who present their “informed, well-read me” through re-tweeting links to content.

YouTube The platform used to present the creative, talented, performer persona, reinforced through lots of community engagement and support.

In addition, there’s Tumblr, Pinterest, Google+, and Myspace… keep on top of all of these platforms and you will build a more complete picture of the person your consumer wants to be inside.