What's Wrong with Target Marketing?

Most marketers will tell you that to sell a product, you need a target market. 

You’ve probably heard it before: choose your audience, get to know their needs and desires, figure out exactly who they are and identify their interests, their fears, their reading lists, what they do with their free time and even the number of their kids.

And then they tell you to narrow this audience down to one, unique (imaginary) ideal customer.

It makes sense when you think about it – people want to do business with other people, not with big, depersonalized corporations. They want to trust that they’re buying products from other humans who care about them, not profits. So, in an effort to personalize products and companies, we use an imaginary ideal customer to inform our decisions – everything from what colors the brand will use on its website to what media outlets that brand will target for media coverage. We hope through this method, we can change business-to-customer into human-to-human. We believe that will get us loyal customers. And more sales.

When I first started using the ideal customer strategy, it made ridiculous sense. I used it with my own company and those of my clients to get them in the zone. One client wanted to reach social entrepreneurs who had product-based businesses in North America and Europe, and we created campaigns, events and media pitches tailored to the imaginary interests and reading lists of her ideal customer. And for the large part, it worked.

But there was one problem with this tactic. And it was huge.

My clients’ ideal customer had no race or ethnicity.

Now you might think that to racialize your ideal customer would be wrong. Maybe it feels racist. Maybe it feels like adding race would make it impossible to reach a wide audience.

But think about it for a moment. When we don’t think about race or ethnicity, we are taking a ‘color-blind’ approach to marketing.

And the fact is, not seeing color in our marketing doesn’t eliminate it. It doesn’t get rid of the trials and tribulations of people of color. It doesn’t get rid of the fact that race and ethnicity does, in fact, impact our lives.

And when we attempt to ignore that fact to reach a ‘wide’ audience, we still end up marketing to a raced/ethnic person – it just so happens that that person is white.

Now, there is a benefit to color-blind marketing. White customers tend to have more purchasing power, have influence on the values and ways of thinking to other groups of people, and tend to have a lot of media-power.

Plus, using race or ethnicity as a marketing tactic can rely on stereotypes (even accidentally).

I see a lot of entrepreneurs make this mistake. Like in the story above, they don’t know how to change their strategy to reach more customers without ignoring or accidentally stereotyping certain groups.

And they lose thousands and potentially hundreds of thousands of customers.

But remember why we use the ideal customer in the first place: to create a human-centered approach to business.

Truth is, the ideal customer profile (as useful as it is) needs some remodeling. First, it needs to become the ideal customer profiles. Second, it needs to ask a few more questions:

What do people not normally get about her/him?

What does she wish people would see about her/him?

What does s/he feel people outside her/his group rarely understand?

What does s/he wish people would just ‘get’?

What irks her/him?

If you really want to reach ‘every’ humanitarian, health-conscious woman, engaged couple, etc. you can.

You just need to find the complexities, the conflicts, the things that normally aren’t seen within your audience but which they desperately want you to see.

Get into their shoes and listen to what’s really plaguing them.

And finally, if your imagination fails you, just ask them!

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