Age demographics

Why age demographics are next to useless for predicting customers’ preferences


The danger with overreliance on demographics is that we’re basing “insight” and actions on things that aren’t true, and consumers are demanding a much more sophisticated approach to digital experiences.

24th Nov 2022

Consumer preferences have chopped and changed over the years. A round-robin marketing email or a generic flyer through a letter box might have been sufficient to gain the business of consumers in the past. Now, people are demanding that their favourite brands understand and interact with them on a more personal level.

To do this, we, as marketers and CX professionals, need to re-evaluate and update our processes to improve our understanding of customers, and use that understanding to deliver highly personalised campaigns, tailored messaging, and unique experiences. 

Identifying where we can improve is the easy part. Establishing what we’re doing wrong and changing that, is harder. 

We know that generational demographics are an integral part of understanding people from a social and cultural perspective; however, they can also cause problems when they are taken too far, specifically when labels like millennial or Gen Z, blur into stereotyping. 

Our recent research at Adobe discovered that fewer than a third of people believe that age-based demographic groupings are helpful or relevant today, and that consumers are demanding a much more sophisticated approach to digital experiences. Indeed, seven out of ten expected brands to demonstrate empathy by seeing things from their perspective and understanding what’s important to them.

The demise of the demographic label

Terms like Millennial and Gen Z have been the cornerstone of many a customer strategy, and “how to engage with…” report, but their days may well be numbered. It’s true that there are differences between the young and the old; and that the cultural touchpoints we share with contemporaries growing up shape our outlook on things in the broadest sense. But despite being a useful indicator of how society as a whole is evolving and developing, it has also reached a point where it encourages careless assumptions and embeds lazy cliches and stereotypes aimed at the individual people within those groups. 

The danger with overreliance on demographics is that we’re basing “insight” and actions on things that aren’t true. In fact, our research revealed that over three quarters (76%) of people want to be seen as individuals, and a quarter (24%) say they either don’t fit many, or any, of the stereotypes associated with their age groups. So, marketing to them on that basis risks irritating or alienating them entirely.

The ever-evolving nature of human beings 

By and large, these labels are reductive. As people, we are inherently multidimensional and there’s a multitude of forces at play that make us who we are and feel what we feel. While it’s important to target marketing for products or services to those who are most likely to want to buy them, marketers need to be more granular and data-driven instead of using arbitrary age groups if they want to improve the effectiveness of campaigns and build trust with their customers. In short, people change over time, and what is true today might not be true tomorrow. 

Unsurprisingly, over half of the people we surveyed said they’re not the same person they were pre-pandemic. But we also found that consumer habits and interests evolve much faster than that, even outside of any major global event. Three quarters of the people we surveyed (76%) said their tastes change every few months, and 40% said they see themselves as very different to how they were 12 months ago. 

As consumer expectations continue to evolve, brands and retailers are struggling to keep up. The research also revealed that the majority of customers (89%) believe brands are out of touch with their personal preferences and it’s time for them to break free of the safety and comfort provided by age demographics.

To meet these changing demands, brands need to build and continuously update a bank of first-party data that allows them to gain a complete understanding of who their customers are in each moment. 

So where can brands improve? 

Brands are clearly facing a number of challenges in their efforts to try and meet their customers’ expectations for consistent, personalised, real-time experiences that reflect their individual interests. The message from consumers is clear: 50% said they now expect businesses to understand them as individuals and only contact them with relevant, personalised information, and 70% said that brands were not doing enough to meet that expectation consistently.  This raises the question: how can brands improve? 

The answer is twofold, intent and technology.

There is a clear need for change of mindset, moving away from the techniques and approaches that worked well enough in the past, and towards the data-driven real-time personalisation that today’s consumers crave.  

Of course, technology is essential in delivering these experiences at scale and consistently. Investing in tools that capture the most meaningful contextual information about what consumers are most interested in right now, matches that data to the historic data that brands have in each customer’s profile, and enables immediate actions that are relevant, timely and in-line with user consent, must be the centrepiece of every brand’s customer experience strategy.

It's not about using technology for technology’s sake, but about meeting and striving to exceed the expectations of each and every customer in-the-moment and setting up for long-term success.



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