Psychographics in Advertising- The fine art of getting under people's skin

‘For all of the women you are’. Early nineties TV ad for a magazine I think. Don’t know whether it actually sold any more bits of pretty coloured paper or resulted in any more trees being tossed on the altar of Rupert’s financial empire, but nice ad cause I remember it. Could be because I often see myself wavering between male and female, young and old. Don’t we all? Could well be said as ‘for all of the people you are’, but that wouldn’t have worked with either sex, now would it?

We are different people at different times. When you’re playing soccer with your mates for a 40th birthday at 7am, that’s you being ‘Mr sporty/blokey/modern’. When you’re eating breakfast with said mates and a good-looking woman of 30ish walks into the café, instantly you’re ‘Mr Sophisticated businessman who might be a great boyfriend.’ Depending upon the occasion, you can be any of hundreds of possible people who float around inside your head, and only pop up to the surface when required. How many of us males are James Bond one minute, Brad Pitt the next? The various people you live within will often determine how you react to marketers messages. Why will you buy a certain beer? If you’re with that soccer playing crowd, you’d buy Boags. If you’re drinking with their dads, you might get a VB. It’s often to fit in, often to confirm where you see yourself.

This is a real headache for marketers who want to be able to neatly slot punters into easily hit demographics. But humans ain’t like that, and that, in a nutshell, is what makes our career so interesting and so frustrating at the same time.

Psychographics give you more meaningful, powerful brands. They are a move beyond simple, dumb demographics. You segment consumers by lifestyle, attitudes, beliefs, values, personality, buying motives, and pattern of product use. The psychographic characteristics of a market affect not only advertising but also packaging and channels of distribution –anything that is your brand has a definite psychological finger print, whether you want it to or not. Although many decisions are based on assumptions about the psychological make-up of our customers, in OZ it’s very much an under-used marketing discipline.

Segmentation in Oz too shallow

Traditional demographics (age, income, geog, education etc.) means so little in most purchases. Why is it my bookkeeper drives a BMW and my richest friend an old Ford?  Why is it that expensive chocolates sell to bogans and Brighton bimbos at the same rate?

It’s not so much who, it’s why

What a more sophisticated system of segmentation does for us is move the understanding of our markets and customers past the basic ‘who is buying’ to the much more important and frankly more easily influenced area of ‘why are they buying’? Why is it more easily influenced? Because if you know why people do things you can adjust that reasoning with information/branding messages. If you only know who does it, all you can do is change media buys to get different people who do the same thing.

Is it just why?

No, it’s also how they think, how they change behaviours, how they trade things off, how what you as an organization says, that they respond to or ignore.

Where minds meet lifestyles

What’s brilliant about psychographics is the sheer coming together of standard marketing metrics like sales and customer basics with a better understanding of the customer’s real motivations. You get how they buy and why they buy and what will influence them to buy, more than just who the hell they are.

Hard to get hold of

Many of us in marketing roles only get glimpses of this information and we often have to guess about our customers’ motivations from observed behaviour – the punter picks up the butter after having bought the bread – did the bread purchase influence the butter, or was that irrelevant? What if you knew he was baking a cake that arvo, would that have changed how you looked at his behaviour?

If you knew that most people saw your product as the more traditional butter (higher fat content – better to make cakes – I’m talking informed cooks as a customer base – which you’d never find with demographics), then maybe your advertising would be making that baking connection instead of trying to compete against lower fat products by sponsoring the anti-obesity programs at primary schools that your agency has you in now? Yes, makes them feel good about their promotion of ‘Eastern Star’, but does it sell any product?

Psychographics require real research

The big downside of taking on this more complex marketing segmentation approach is that bugger all research companies know how to model it. Don’t get me wrong – they’ll gleefully find bits of information that go towards making up psychological segments – especially attitudinal stuff like ‘The brand I think of when I see gum trees’ or ‘your low-fat milk goes with tennis and red sports cars’, but when they are commissioned to put together customer profiles, they invariably identify the most attractive tip and miss the 80% who don’t fit that exact mould.

Rarity in mid-marketing land

Very few marketers in smaller companies even come across detailed psychographic profiles. Most mid-weight marketing managers are doing it by osmosis – they just inherently know (or get the right agency) what will turn on the customer, and how to say it.

Big guys miss it too

I was being briefed by a big utility only a few days ago and they said ‘our customer is everyone’ – clearly reflecting that they did not know which groups of ‘everyone’ would be better to target before others. They had obviously conducted some demographic analysis but done no psychographic overlays. So they were like a fisherman saying – the big fish are out there in the ocean – not knowing that they might be on the reefs, in the gutters or only around at night if you used a blood-based berley, out-going tide…

Coining psychographic segments

Over the years a raft of people, particularly media groups like Fairfax (or the commonly used ‘Mosiac’, which is essentially ABS stats run over a fairly standard attitudinal) have invented their own versions of ‘proprietary’ psychographic segments.

Relying on these is inherently dangerous. Most brands/markets require specific segments to be coined for them. There is simply no point in trying to fit a series of segments that were developed for a completely different range of decisions to your buying circumstances. It’s like getting someone who’s good at making cakes to cook Asian soups. Occasionally it does work. But I’d rather create my own segments, if I was a Marketing Manager.

Funky Naming

Forget actually knowing what these segments mean, the best thing of all is a sensational name for the segments you invent. I’ve always liked three-barrelled ones. You can sell a name like ‘Angry urban, older struggler’ to any self-respecting board member. But be careful how you treat your own brand – you can’t adopt a name like ‘Party-pooper’ to describe its key customers for example. See how much of yourself you can throw in without getting caught – many is the young product manager who insists the talent/props/outfit has to be so, so, just cause that’s what she wants in real life.

Finding and defining


While many use qualitative (personal interviews, affinity or focus groups etc.) research at the front end, what is critical in psychological segmentation is sheer numbers. If you have a very specific target you may get away with smaller numbers, say 200-300 or so surveys, but when you are going for mathematically valid segments in big markets, like soft drinks, cars, you might need at least 1000 participants.

Assessing research

Most research companies just need to be told you are looking for X, Y or Z and they’ll work out a way to evaluate it. Don’t be conned by the traditional psychologists who think only one of their breed can conduct this survey. It doesn’t hurt to have someone on the team with a psych background, but it’s plain bunkem to leave them in control – they don’t get how marketing works and you’ll end up with important sounding segments you can’t explain to your sales department or buy media in. Make sure the elements they supply are useful, actionable.

Limitations in development

There are many problems we run into with using psychographics without applying the bull-shit detector.

One is cross-over – many people can fall into various segments depending upon their circumstances at the time. This, of course varies due to time of the day or year too.

Too narrow gaps – often there are too many segments created due to a multiplicity of attitudes/motivations. It takes a ballsy marketing manager to just dump one large group because they don’t fit her goals on an ROI basis.

Hopeless oversimplifications (adland is rife with this) ie. ‘Gen Y hates authority’ (insulting to think you can put all of a generation into a definition) –when they worship bands/stars – it’s a different definition of authority, but it’s still authority.

Buying behaviour not fully explored – Often it’s households who buy, not necessarily individuals. For years the car industry thought that men bought more cars because they were the ones who came down to the car yard and test drove the cars, did the negotiations and signed the paperwork. Wrong. They are simply the collector – much as the truck driver who picks up the widgets from your warehouse is not the buyer of your widgets.

How to do it well

Commission your own researchers, be open-minded about subject matter, be very hi-tech – on-line is getting really good now, be demanding about accuracy and measurability. Insist on meaningful strategy as an outcome.

Limit your ‘care zone’, but not at the front

Make sure you keep the reach wide at the front end, but when you’re drilling down, don’t fuck around with too many peripheral segments.

Get involved

Go to the groups/do the pilot yourself.

Trust your gut

The best research findings come when you include what pops into your mind at 3 in the morning.

Best fit vs. some fit

Psychographics are not an exact science. You can’t get perfection unless you pay hundreds of thousands and even then it will be out of date in a few months. But they are brilliant indicators of tone – what to generally say in your communications, to whom.

Aim the ads right at them

Hit em in the face. Then target the next profile group differently. Obviously if a product caters for more than one psychographic group, there needs to be more than one campaign – at least more than one ad.

Global campaigns can’t do this

It’s in psychographics that the inherent weakness of global branding is so blinkingly apparent. As this more complex way of looking at markets is influenced by things like religion, the way the kids are brought up etc, segments typically vary massively in a geographic sense. No matter how hard you try to apply mid-western American values to ads targeting people in other countries, invariably they miss by miles. If someone who weighs 120 kilos can waddle out of their Fundamentalist Church and straight into a Maccas carrying a handgun in a holster and order a bar-b-que beef burger, see an ad on SUV’s, and want to buy that SUV, how do you expect a skinny, non-violent vegetarian Indian mum to relate to the same ad? Amazingly, she doesn’t. She might earn the same, have the same education, be the same age, have the same job, same number of kids. But she ain’t the same person. Doesn’t have the same values or motivations. She’s as turned off by your ads as the guy in Utah is turned on by them.

Create your own pies then segment

Rather than buying into standard psychographic segments some research company (or media group) is trying to sell you on, consider whether this is just a complete waste of time or whether you might be better off to create and name your own segments.

4-6 for most brands is enough

You can’t make more than that in sizes or price points, you can’t put out there more than 4 or 5 ads anyway. You can’t get your sales team to understand more than 4 types of customers and you can’t look too confused to the public about what you stand for.

Media focus

Psychographics become very real when you’re trying to hit difficult groups. Let’s talk about younger males, who are ‘notoriously hard to reach with conventional media’. Which is actually crap, but let me digress. People do what people want to do. In the case of younger males, they are interested in no particular order, in music, sex, computer gaming, sport, sex with a partner, cars and their futures, which means studying or first jobs etc. Each of these interests can be broken down further, depending upon age group, peer group, physical location (hard to get into ice hockey in OZ as there’s hardly any ice). All of these interests can be bought somehow in a media sense. You can get to them. You can sponsor the sports or the key players, you can buy ads in the magazines they associate with them, finance a you-tube show on them.

Why it’s hard for media groups to buy for younger males is simply because media groups are peopled by younger females who are as removed from the lives of younger males as I am from Mars. And those mid-twenties girls don’t have the brains (to ask how), the budgets or the systems to get hold of younger males so they say it’s too hard.

Media buying

Yes, you’ll do ads targeted to different people and head sets etc in the same media, but it’s where you buy and when that is critical. Different people read different magazines, look at different websites, different TV shows, different sections of the newspaper. While the Australian media industry has hardly explored these differences, as a market researcher, they scream out at me like searchlights in the night sky. You know the reader of Belle is different to the reader of Women’s Day, even the same person has a different head set when involved in different media environments.

Buy on the basis of fit with your target groups. I know this is marketing 101, but so many marketers get convinced by a media buying group to go for cost per thousand over fit per reader.  Thinking marketers would rather talk to 2000 fully qualified leads (for a tenth the cost) than 200,000 maybe’s, (regardless of the lower cost per thousand) especially if they can only sell 1000 widgets a week anyway.

Influencing minds

This is the key reason to go down this path of segmentation. You get to understand how your customers think and thus influence it.

I was watching a documentary the other day and the blissfully self-indulgent Simon Reynolds was wafting on about how advertising can’t influence people and it’s just a mirror to society. I understand that may be the political angle taken by the AFA etc. to keep the punters happy in the belief they control their own lives, but it’s a lousy admonition if actually true – what’s the point of paying ad agencies millions if the bastards can’t do anything?

The fact is marketing managers and boards know advertising influences people and that’s why major boards bother to use psychographics to get their message tighter, their returns on ad dollars that much better. The process of better understanding your customer pays huge dividends.

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