Why marketers need to pivot away from demographic targeting and focus on understanding people

Insider Inc.

State Farm/Flickr

State Farm/Flickr

As an industry, we are fixated on reaching the next generation of consumers. We study their likes, dislikes, desires, and needs in the hopes of understanding these cohorts at a deeper level so that we can effectively market to them.

Recently, Millennials have borne the brunt of this obsession.

Captivated by their massive size, we have spent years at this point breathlessly researching and analyzing their every move. We’ve declared that they’re breaking the fast-casual restaurant industry (hello, Applebee’s). And we’ve assumed that their retirement savings are being frittered away on avocado toast. We’ve generalized that they’re Instagram-happy selfie-takers. But most importantly, we’re convinced ourselves that every last Millennial is a modern change agent of culture.

But does painting an entire generation with the same brush really make sense?

Why the Millennial obsession?

millennial headlines.jpg

The reason for marketers’ relentless focus on young people is twofold.

  1. There’s an assumption that these consumers are more open to trying new products and brands.

  2. They’re on the cusp of aging into peak earning and buying years, a proxy for influence.

To connect your brand with a young consumer is an opportunity to foster loyalty for years to come.

In the past, age and gender demographics were the only reliable information we had about consumers. Want to drive awareness of the new ‘Spiderman’ movie among young men? ESPN is a good bet. Need to showcase a new product for babies? Ninety percent of Real Simple’s circulation is female. Most media measurement companies built their business around demographic targeting.

Then, when the internet came along, we translated this same technique to digital targeting because it was a shared language of the media community.

But now we’re living in the most intelligent marketing era in history, where we have the ability to collect and analyze thousands of data points on every person we interact with, yet we’ve continued to rely on the same broad-based methodology for identifying and targeting customers. And that methodology is arguably not so effective.

The 15-year “generational” gap

Millennials are a group of men and women between the ages of 22 and 37. At 25% of the US population (or about 80 million strong), they are simply too large and varied a cohort to effectively target as one.

Think about it: at one end of the age spectrum you have young adults who are just entering the workforce. They’re likely focusing on paying off student loans and getting their first job. On the other end are those in their mid-to-late 30s, embedded in their careers and may be buying a house or becoming parents for the first time. Some Millennials don’t remember a time when the iPhone wasn’t a thing; others are old enough to remember the fax machine. Stand-up comedian Iliza Shlesinger even crafted her latest comedy show around the premise.

“So I am a millennial, but I am an elder! Elder Millennial! Wizened. Sage. Yes, gather ’round the Snapchat, children. I’ll tell you the tale…of the landline.”

Though they are both Millennials, the adults in the examples above are at very different life stages, with unique priorities, passions, and ideals. They don’t like it when they’re lumped together or treated like a collection of (often negative) stereotypes. After all, individualism is a big part of their identity. And yet, we persist: Boomers were called “The Me Generation,” Gen X were termed “Slackers,” and Gen Y will be forever associated with being entitled. No wonder Millennials hate being called Millennials!

Age ≠ Influence

Westend61/Getty Images

Westend61/Getty Images

Thinking about people in terms of their age can yield limited insights, and this approach ultimately does more harm than good by obscuring the individual factors that actually shape our attitudes and views of the world.

When marketers pinpoint their focus on Millennials, what they are really trying to do is find influential consumers — people who will not only buy into their message, but will bring their friends and family along for the ride. What does it mean, really, to be influential? What drives someone to be open to change? Look deeper than age—the reason people are how they are is often uncovered in their attitudes about the world, as well as their behaviors.

We asked the question …

what if the change agents of culture are less defined by birth year than by the way they live, think, and use information? We’ve always believed that defining a target based around mindset rather than a demographic ultimately leads to a deeper understanding and more meaningful interaction with customers.

So, in 2018, we conducted a robust research project to prove our point. We used factor analysis methodology to cluster attitudinal statements and uncovered a natural grouping around key factors that helped define a distinct audience of action-oriented influentials.

Meet the “Transformists”

Hero Images/Getty Images

Hero Images/Getty Images

Transformists are a highly motivated, intellectually-interested, and adventurous group that transcends age-defined demographics. Shaped by our rapidly-evolving digital world, this audience is confident and enthusiastic about technology and leverage it as a tool to achieve their goals. They are fueled by a relentless drive in both their careers and personal lives, and this self-motivation propels them to embrace change and influence the world around them.

Transformists represent almost one-third of the digital-forward, information-seeking population. They tend to be younger, higher income, more educated, and more diverse. They live all over the U.S., not just on the coasts. They don’t all look the same — for example, they’re just as likely to be Republican and Democrat — but they are united by a proactive, ambitious, change-for-the-better mindset. Here are eight more key characteristics of Transformists:

Dia Dipasupil/Shutterstock

Dia Dipasupil/Shutterstock

Voracious Learners: An insatiable curiosity drives these lifetime learners. Natural triangulators, verifiers, and fact-checkers, Transformists seek out multiple sources on many topics and use that information to shape their decision-making or to ground their opinions.

“I try to gather as much information as possible in order to formulate my own opinion.”

Deliberate Doers: Transformists are significantly more likely to be active in everything from fitness to civics. But what differentiates them most is the degree to which they act on the content they consume. Transformists are more than twice as likely to leverage information into some sort of achievement, from rebalancing their retirement portfolios to planning a trip to El Capitan.

“I figure out what it is I want to do, I research, and then I put those plans and steps into motion.”



Up for Adventure: Transformists embrace change and welcome “the new.” They have a reputation as adventurous go-getters. Whether it’s vacationing somewhere off the beaten path, tasting a foreign cuisine for the first time, or testing out a new brand, Transformists are game to try it all.

“If I could have one goal, I would experience every culture in the world.”

Unapologetically Ambitious: Driven and self-motivated, Transformists are constantly seeking to seeking ways to improve their career, their personal development, and their understanding of the world. They strive to get ahead and better themselves. They’re constantly innovating, iterating, and improving themselves and the world around them.

“Opening my own firm has turned into a much more calculated plan – we set goals every year.”

All Hands Volunteers

All Hands Volunteers

Pragmatic Optimists: Transformists are generally hopeful, yet realistic, about their lives. Confident that their strong work ethic will pay off, they see their future as bright, and their drive to make the world a better place gives them agency in their own happiness.

“Personally, I’m optimistic that I can meet my goals and things will work out.”

Inspirational Idealists: Transformists don't just want to do well, they want to do good. The opposite of the “Me Generation,” Transformists are focused on betterment of themselves and the world around them. They also demand good citizenship from businesses, and align with brands who demonstrate strong missions and value-driven purposes.

“When I hear about a brand that does good in the community, I’m more likely to support them.”

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Super Influencers: Transformists are well-versed in issues and products, and are well-connected in their communities. Their peers look to them as trusted sources of information on everything from the hottest new restaurants in town to the best connected home devices. Their influential status makes Transformists extra selective about the companies they align with and more likely to write reviews of their own.

“I try to write reviews because it helps small businesses, but it also helps customers.”

As a psychographically-created cohort, we’ve found that Transformists make more sense for brands to target — they’re active, adventurous, and influential. Transformists are doing now what everyone will be doing later. And because their defining qualities are evergreen, they transcend age or generation. These consumers have always existed and will continue to exist as long as technology helps them achieve their goals.

Why psychographic targeting makes sense

Marketers speaking to Millennials as if they are the same because they happen to fall within a subjectively-defined “generation” is madness — one size does not fit all.

In today’s environment, the success of brands — both short- and long-term — hinges on their ability to connect with the right consumers. To connect with influential consumers who drive change, savvy marketers will have to look beyond generational clichés.

Marketers can’t be complacent in their messaging. If individuals don’t feel represented or spoken to directly, they’ll just move on or find a brand that does speak to them. Pivoting toward understanding consumers via mindsets and behaviors will yield insights to create compelling messages tailored to the individual.

Plus, you’re cutting down on waste. Laser focusing on a unique, influential consumer defined more qualitatively, marketers are not directing messaging at people who are not receptive the brand and at the same time they’re finding and growing new audiences where they may not have been looking in the first place.

The goal is to ultimately create a stronger brand connection by targeting a powerful and influential cohort who is more powerful. By understanding what your consumer needs and what drives their behavior, you could earn a customer for life.

For more, download our Transformists infographic.