Kill demographics and community-led targeting to create new truths

Look at values and attitudes and get voices in

The chomping mouth of advertising discourse has moved its ugly eye onto the outdated and ineffective practice of demographic targeting. A recent swathe of articles have heralded ‘community-based targeting’ as the strategy for 2023, with TikTok being particularly well-placed to capture all manner of communities.

Down with demographic segmentation

First up let’s say, yes, fantastic, sold. There’s nothing more disheartening than being sent a brief targeting ’25-34 year women’, or one asking to ‘supercharge growth from Gen Zs’. Being the same being part of the same demographic doesn’t mean people have things in common. BBH Labs showed us that Gen Z have less in common than Orangina drinkers, people who floss and people who like nuts. Using demographics to create campaign strategies assumes these groups share the values, desires and needs that your brand helps. Abjectly false.

At best, demographic segmentation is a lazy heuristic for the type of people that’ll buy your product. At worst, it’s actively harming your business by arbitrarily excluding people based their age, gender or location.

But the community-based approach often falls into this same trap

When people talk about ‘communities’ being the new demographics, they do so from a firmly digital perspective. It’s about creating content for #tiredmums or #gamergirls. It’s about tapping into #tumblrcore or #regencycore. But much of this community-based targeting falls into the same trap of arbitrary segmentation and stereotyping as the demographic approach. What’s more, it’s often tied to trends and content that’ll pass within days, rather than truths about the people consuming the content.


WHO IS WATCHING BRIDGERTON?! I am on episode five and I am simply ✨obsessed✨ also peep my version of the #strawberrydress 🍓🍓#bridgerton #grwm #gettingdressed #regencycore #regency 🐝

♬ Richter: Spring 1 – 2022 – Max Richter & Elena Urioste & Chineke! Orchestra

Moving away from demographic targeting is not as simple as saying: ‘we used to target Mums under 40, now we’ll tap into Mum trends’. It requires taking a step back to figure out who you’re trying to reach in the first place. People are rich and complex, they buy from many brands and have many interests. Whether we think of mums or #tiredmums, we still have stereotypes about who these people are — a situation that’s ripe for brands to be tone-deaf.

So how should we be thinking about targeting?

(1) Definitely still ditch those demographics
They’re outdated, they’re unhelpful and they exclude potential customers that don’t need to be excluded — so they’re bad for business. Simply remove them from your brief, you’ll be amazed by how little difference it makes. If you’re feeling really wild, try using ‘edge theory’ to find the demographic most likely to be excluded. You might find something interesting.

(2) Look at the values and attitudes that unite people
Okay, so you’re going to target #tiredmums, not 25-34 year old mothers. But is that really moving beyond the superficial and stereotypical? Delve deeper beyond this singular viewpoint of being a mother and being tired. Who are the other caregivers that aren’t being captured by other brands? What are the missed perspectives of mothers that we aren’t seeing online? What are the areas of shared values within the care-giving community?

Remember there are Gen Zers buying from Shein who aren’t interested in the environment, and 70-year-olds getting their first tattoos.

(3) Get the right voices in
People working in advertising remain predominantly white and predominantly male. Creative industries are more inaccessible for people from working class background. 4 in 10 agencies employ no one from an under-represented ethnic group. And where we’ve seen more diversity in the people joining the industry, we’re also seeing people leaving because of a lack of inclusivity. It’s likely this lack of diversity within creative teams is responsible for the new phenomena of diverse but unrepresentative ads, as the reaction to 2022’s Christmas ads has shown.

When targeting a community, and trying to resonate with the huge variety of people and perspectives that make up that community, involve them in your process. Hear their perspective and capture their experience.

To the future…

So yes, 2023 is the year to move away from demographics to something that describes people better: a more insightful, useful way of grouping people based on who they are and what they care about. Not their age or gender. But in doing so, we need to actively kill our stereotypes to create new truths, not just tack onto trends.

Featured image: Polina Tankilevitch / Pexels

Kate Knowles, Freelance Strategist

Kate Knowles is a freelance strategist and former senior strategist at Weirdo. She has over six years experience working in strategy, with extensive experience planning campaigns for FTSE100 brands and disruptive startups alike. Passionate about inclusion and allyship, she participates in volunteering and mentorship.

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