Personas are a pretty well-known tool for marketers. They help focus effort and relevancy, bringing brands one step closer to connecting with their audience. With data-driven personas, the base on which they form comes from data sets with much more information than the usual age, income, or geolocation. This type of methodology helps marketers better understand the nuances of their audience, bringing more clarity to how behavioral insights can be translated into relevant actions for the brand.

Brandingmag sat down and talked with Jay Steere, former Sr. Director at Timberland, about data-driven personas and how they can be used to further improve not just a brand’s marketing but also the decision-making process in multiple other aspects of the business.

Jay has been a part of Brandigmag’s latest masterclass, titled How to Win Pitches and Inspire Projects With Data-Driven Personas (click the link to get free access to it), where, together with Diederik Sjardijn of KesselKramer, Martin Schiere of Glocalities, and guided by our very own Editor-in-Chief, Flavia Anghel, talked about how to build and use data-driven personas, how this method helped create Timberland’s Construct:10061 campaign, and much more.

Brandingmag: What is the difference between a target audience and audience personas?

Jay Steere: In my experience, target audiences are created largely from demographic data (i.e., age, income, vocation, geographies) primarily for advertising use and product placement. It can be quite complex, whereas data-derived audience personas can offer a simplified values-based dimension to create your ideal consumer, which adds greater texture and “realness” for use by designers and marketers.

Bm: Are data-driven personas a good way to hack the constant changes in modern consumer behavior?

JS: Yes, I believe that data-driven personas, when used as a tool, in real-time, can help ensure your efforts remain relevant and are on target in today’s hyper-shifting consumer landscape

Bm: How can personas be used to scale marketing strategies and even the brand itself? What are their must-haves?

JS: The first filter is that the personas must be scalable and not “niche”. Meaning that the personas that are created are backed with insights that prove that there is a “there there” to achieve the objective of the product initiative or communication campaign. From my perspective, personas must be created with attributes and characteristics that further the brand’s ambitions and are actionable. A well-crafted, data-driven persona can provide greater confidence to the brand leaders in their decision-making and investments than perhaps they may have with traditional persona disciplines.

Bm: Classic personas deliver little and generic information. What does it mean for a persona to have “wrinkles” and deliver real, insightful outputs?

JS: Data-derived personas allow you to probe deeper into characteristics and value sets that classic persona creation can’t offer. For instance, how the target consumer may perceive your company’s values may be nuanced in such a way that you may miss the mark of your message simply by using value descriptives that you may have traditionally used as part of your company’s marketing voice. The methodology for data-derived personas allows you to better understand these nuances or “wrinkles” to create best practices for your team.

Bm: Referring to Millennials and Gen Zers: what should brands look out for when tackling self-expression and transparency, especially when building these kinds of personas?

JS: It’s vital that brands understand how their target audience perceives “self-expression” and “transparency” and how they rank in their value set. For instance, I have found that some sub-segments of Gen Z rank their ability to be self-expressive as paramount above all other values as a way of signaling to their peers that they are unique and want to have a voice. Similarly, being “transparent” as part of your brand story resonates strongly with the newer consumer segments and is a way of communicating that your brand is honest and authentic.

Bm: What happens when the supposed target audience does not resonate with the brand’s heritage? How should the brand react (e.g., shift audience, create spin-off brands, rebrand)?

JS: I think that is a great question that many brands are now being faced with. How does a brand remain relevant in a hyper-shifting consumer landscape? Brand decision-makers need to decide how “elastic” their brand values are or how they may even rank with the target audience when weighing their internal priorities and investments. Data-derived persona building can offer up language and attributes that may allow a brand’s initiative to reach the target audience without alienating their core consumer. For instance, I have found it’s common for long-standing brands to lean into their heritage to communicate their values, when in fact the use of the very word “heritage” may be perceived as being out of touch and lacking relevance to certain target sets, especially within Gen Z. However, by simply shifting language and inserting the word “authentic” in place of “heritage”, the perception of the brand’s initiative may rank higher with the target audience as a value that is more in line with their views while not alienating your core audience.

Bm: Can data-driven personas and their quantifiable outputs be used for more than brand marketing – let’s say, to inspire product development or drive innovation? If so, then how?

JS: I believe the future of product development should include the use of data-driven personas as part of the briefing and discovery process. Data-driven persona building can even be a part of the brand’s overall strategy to be disseminated across the functions of product development, marketing, and distribution. Well-crafted, data-driven personas allow for a simple and compelling way to action against your target audience while keeping your teams focused and inspired.

Bm: How do you ensure that data-driven personas do not result in “soulless” strategies or campaigns, which, ultimately, fail to emotionally connect the brand with its customers?

JS: First off, it’s important to understand that the practice of data-driven personas shouldn’t be the only tool for brand managers and creatives as part of their consumer insight tactics. That said, I think that data-driven persona building actually allows you to bring more “soulfulness” and empathy into your strategies by better understanding what language or emotions best resonate with the target audience. Of equal importance, it can serve as a tool to constantly be in tune with your audience in this hyper-driven consumer landscape we are now all navigating in.

Bm: What are the ways in which a brand can track the usefulness and success of its personas? Should it look for increased sales, share of mind, social media vanity metrics, or something else?

JS: The metrics that will define success depend on the objective of the program or campaign. In cases where you may be introducing a new message or even your brand to a new consumer, the metrics may be more skewed towards reach and resonance with the target audience. I know, from my own experience, that return on investment (ROI) is critical when measuring the potential success of a program, especially when there are competing internal priorities for resources.

Bm: What are your top recommendations for brand marketers trying to build personas to better pitch their creative ideas, both internally and externally?

JS: Keep it simple, actionable, inspiring, and, most importantly, make it relevant.

Cover image source: Edoardo Busti