In a discipline besotted with mass marketing, we’ve forgotten the importance of inequality and division.

Ever since Byron Sharp’s book, How Brands Grow first emerged, squinting into the light of a new marketing dawn, the concept of sophisticated mass marketing has achieved the kind of salience and ubiquity that most brands can only daydream about.

In the crudest of terms, the basic tenet is that in order to grow, it is better for brands to be an acceptable choice for a large group of people, rather than the top choice for a limited group of people. The teachings of Philip Kotler, it suggested, were for the kind of hack marketers who wielded terms like ‘loyalty schemes’ and ‘brand relationships’ like hatchets, without any sense of the long-term damage they could reap. 

Chasing efficiency over scale was a fast-track to nowheresville. Potentially fruitful in the short-term, but it would eventually leave performance-driven marketers kicking up a storm of dry earth behind them as they invariably moved on to less despoiled pastures and brands to scorch. 

The augurs were clear, segmentation was meaningless and targeting was the work of the dinosaurs. 

Why only consume one slice of the cake, when you could lick the icing on the whole thing? As for such outdated notions like differentiation, no need. Brands simply needed to be all the things, to all the people, all of the time. 

Of course this was manna from heaven for the media folk – a tsunami of ‘always-on for everyone’ briefs flooding in and collecting like flotsam around their desks. 

Ditto for the weak-minded, out-of-their-depth marketers who were far more comfortable treading water and clinging to the ‘risk-free option’ raft than they were taking a deep-dive into a sacrificial strategy for which they might actually be held accountable. Not making decisions like ‘who to target’, or ‘what to position on’ wasn’t meekness, it was mandated. 

If you try to appeal to all the tastes of all the people all of the time, you end up with tasteless slurry, a Soylent Green that might not offend any palates, but equally doesn’t set anyone’s tastebuds a-tingling.

At a time when D&I talk is (rightly) rife in marketing, is it not too great a leap to suggest the industry is jumping Birkenstock-clad-feet-first into their woke agendas as just another reason to avoid the tough decisions required for the strategic management of brands? 

Have we forgotten that marketing is, by its very nature, meant to discriminate? Its whole purpose is to tailor goods and services to the needs and preferences of a particular group of people – it is supposed to pick sides for commercial gain.

Sharp is right to take aim at lazy marketing teams who create Stepford Wife style pen-portraits of non-existent people who, when the numbers are crunched, only make up a fraction of a brand’s actual audience. 

When you’re a widely available everyday grocery brand, your audience is arguably anyone with a mouth and a stomach, versus a ‘reflective-thinking dreamer, aged 18-35 who enjoys exercise, fluffy kittens and questioning their own life choices’. 

Worse still are those who over-assume shared characteristics based purely on demographic information. Remember in 2019 when Air France launched the airline ‘JOON’ (a play on the word jeune, meaning young) for millennials. Billed as both a lifestyle brand and a state of mind, vice president of global brand Caroline Fontaine went on the record saying, “This generation has inspired us a lot. Epicurean and connected, they know how to enjoy every moment and are in search of quality experiences to share with others.” 

Say what now? 

Luckily the brand was culled before most people reached the end of the press release. 

In an industry trying hard to be ‘representative’, the furore surrounding the launch of How Brands Grow was surprisingly adept at misrepresenting what Sharp was actually saying. 

Sophisticated mass marketing doesn’t mean targeting everyone. It isn’t about treating everyone the same. It means, in Sharp’s own words, ‘understanding heterogeneity and catering only for the differences that matter’. 

Which isn’t so different to what segmentation and targeting sets out to do. 

The purpose of segmentation is to identify common needs and behaviours and thereafter focus marketing resources more efficiently to create and promote goods that cater to said desires. Note the order. 

As so many people forget, marketing is a business discipline, not an artistic one.

We got so lost on ‘media and the message’ we forgot the primary function of segmentation (and targeting, and positioning) was in service of the creation of relevant products and services, not solely in the creative used to sell them. 

Of the 30,000 new products launched in the US every year, 85% of them fail because of poor market segmentation according to one Harvard Business Review study. Sophisticated mass marketing might work to grow established brands, but it doesn’t help you identify a need and manufacture to fulfill it.  

Segmenting the market is crucial to understanding it. If you don’t have a lay of the land, how can you possibly know how to navigate it? If you don’t understand the meaningful, significant differences that exist, how will you spot those that can be financially capitalised on? 

And equally there is no sense in expending said resources unless the people to whom you are talking have both the inclination and the financial capacity to act. 

Division is necessary. 

Companies trying to be everything to everyone everywhere are the very reason that markets segment in the first place.

A one-size-fits-all approach might work for magic gloves, but when Ford stuck to their ‘any colour so long as it’s black’ guns, GE Motors were ready to swoop in and capitalise on their naivety. 

Creating meaningful barriers for your brand isn’t straightfoward. Every sector, vertical, business, product, and service is different. Lifestage, size, budgets, competitor sets and resources form additional constraints within which you must operate. 

It means finding the Goldilocks zone, a segment that is not so narrow that it lacks commercial appeal, but not so broad that it isn’t practicable to impact upon it.

It means uncovering the differences that are significant to people in helping them choose your product over a competitor’s. 

But, unlike Goldilocks, you don’t get to dabble with all the available options and then fall asleep on the job. You cannot have your porridge and eat it too. Sides must be picked. Decisions must be made. 

In advanced economies, even ones that are wobbling a bit, where supply outstrips demand and heterogeneity abounds, you must pay close attention to your customers’ needs and slice and dice the market accordingly. Or else get comfortable competing on price, because if all you’re doing is offering the same thing as everyone else, you no longer have a brand, what you have is a commodity, and where’s the fun in that? 

Cover image source: Leigh Prather