3 Mistakes Brands Make When Targeting Customers
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Marketing Jul 16, 2021

3 Mistakes Brands Make When Targeting Customers

How to avoid common pitfalls like the “popular kid target” and other advice from the authors of the forthcoming book, The Creative Brief Blueprint.

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Stephen Collins

It’s a marketing truism that brands trying to be everything for everybody run the risk of being nothing for no one.

That’s why a major decision brands face in every marketing campaign centers around which consumers to target with their limited ad dollars. After all, targeting determines how the brand will be positioned, which messages will be crafted, and on which channels the campaign’s ads will ultimately appear. Indeed, the idea of targeting and segmentation is a staple of introductory marketing.

But while the idea of targeting is fairly straightforward, in practice a lot of brands struggle or get it wrong, according to Kevin McTigue and Derek Rucker, both professors in the marketing department at Kellogg. McTigue is a clinical associate professor with extensive experience in brand management and consulting to Fortune 500 companies; Rucker is a tenured professor whose research has appeared in leading marketing and psychology journals.

In a forthcoming book, The Creative Brief Blueprint, McTigue and Rucker offer actionable advice for companies looking to design better ads. In the book excerpt below, they explain three major errors that brands make when it comes to landing on the right advertising target.

To start, perhaps the most common error we see is the “everyone target.” This error takes the form of a brand specifying no target or a target so large and amorphous that it does not help prioritize the message or the media dollars. This error generally stems from a failure to appreciate the basics of segmentation and targeting. For example, this error arises when firms have not done a proper segmentation analysis and, as a result, all the targets look alike.

We were once having a conversation with a business-to-business brand, and we asked them who their target was. They replied, “everyone in the industry.” That’s the entire map of potential targets, but that is not a target! This error also arises because, while a firm has done a segmentation analysis, they are unwilling or unable to prioritize targets. We worked with a global phone company that, when pressed to narrow their target for the launch of a new phone, “acquiesced” to five separate and wholly distinct groups with very little in common. This is not a great outcome for the brand or the agency.

At its core, targeting is fundamentally a means to concentrate resources against the specific group most likely to respond to the communication objective to fulfill the business objective. The best ad feels like it is made just for you. The broader the firms go in describing their target, the broader and more watered down the message and media plan become.

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A second targeting error is the “popular kid target.” After analyzing the segments, firms often uncover “the best” target with respect to the largest group using the category or the group most willing to spend in the category.

For example, a former student of ours was leading the marketing efforts of the popular parking app SpotHero—an app that helps consumers find places to park in crowded areas. Examining the potential customers, the student found that occasional leisure parkers were the largest segment and had the lowest historical cost per acquisition. On the surface, going after the obvious target seems sensible. Why wouldn’t you want to spend on the largest target or the group that spends the most in the category? The problem can be summarized in one word: competition. Usually, the obvious target is also the one being highly advertised to by your competitors or better served by your competitors. Indeed, for SpotHero, the parking-locator-app market was crowded with new entrants who all saw the same thing. While they all competed on price for this target, our student focused his firm on serving the second most attractive and underserved target, the business parker. Fast-forward five years, and they now have a leading market position.

Does this prior discussion mean you always have to forgo the popular target? No, if you are the leader in the category, or the first to acquire a target, you might be the one to own that desired target. Or, if you truly have a unique insight about them, you might be able to win them over relative to the competition. However, in many cases, going after the obvious target overlooks underserved targets where growth could be achieved with greater ease. For example, the Old Spice brand had tried to target young men who wanted to attract women. The proposition was clear: Old Spice helps you smell attractive to women. Young men who want to be attractive to women represent a large target. The problem was this target and position were owned by a larger and more powerful brand, Axe. As such, Old Spice pivoted to target young men who wanted to feel confident. No brand was talking to the group with this need. This pivot in the psychographic need of the target—from attracting women to feeling confident—caused Old Spice to move from no growth to triple-digit growth.

Finally, it’s crucial to keep the target in mind when evaluating the advertisement. The third marketing error is focusing on the “egocentric target.” We use this term to capture the idea that people often think about who will like the ad with respect to themselves. However, in many cases, you are not the target! Indeed, we have had former students marketing to kids or males marketing feminine hygiene products. You need to ask who the target is and then evaluate the ad through her eyes. Think about what else she is watching. What else competes for her attention? Is your message relevant to her? Will this break through the clutter of advertising?

By way of illustration, once we were reviewing an ad for a confections product targeted to teen boys. The attendees in the room included no such young men. Before showing the ads, the agency showed clips of the most popular TV shows, online videos, and other content with which the target was engaging. That was crucial in helping us better evaluate the advertising.

In short, choose a target for your communications that is large enough to accomplish your goals, but as tight as possible in order to provide specificity in your message and media. Be right for the right target. Or as British songsmith Ed Sheeran articulately and aptly notes: “I found a love ... for me.”

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