Engage the Market, not Just a Hypothesis
It is Marketing 101 gospel that you must have a customer target to position a brand or its offerings. Target is one of the four pillars of classical positioning alongside frame of reference, benefit and reasons to believe. But I’m not so sure targeting is necessary anymore. If it is, I think it must look very different from what it has looked like in the past.
Brands in the past have been very internally focused. Even when they took a customer-centric approach to identifying insights or needs/wants, good brands have always had a point of view. They are very clearly about something (and not about anything else). And part of how brands have identified themselves is through positioning which includes their target.
Recently I’ve been thinking about how the new world may be changing the need to identify your brand target upfront. Now, of course, if you desire commercial success you need to know if there’s a market for your widgets. But that’s at a very high level. That’s not really what brand targeting is about. Brand targeting is a much more refined definition of the kind of people that the brand exists to serve. And it is this form of targeting that I think may be on its way to obsolescence.
I think the internal focus of a brand, the authoritarian decisions of a small group of people about who should use their products not only fails to connect with our internet inspired zeitgeist, but also ignores the fundamental power shift that is underway in our industry. Authoritarianism is on its way out. As a brand manager you can say anything you want about who your product or brand is intended for, but, in the end, the market will decide. You can build a brand and product intended for women and find out that it is preferred by men. You can design clothing for young urban kids and find that they really appeal to the suburbanites. Or, you can think you make high-end champagne that appeals to snooty elites and find out that it appeals to rappers. The point here is that you do not get to decide who uses your brand. The market will decide.
So what to do about this?
Well, you can try to fight the market. But I have written on my blog that fighting gravity is generally a losing proposition. The other approach is to go with the flow. Listen to the market feedback and work with it.
Now here’s where targeting comes in. In the old world, you needed to define a consumer target because that’s how you bought media. Media buys were primarily a function of demographics and secondarily of psychographics. You had to tell your media agency who you wanted to speak to (or to whom you wanted to speak if you were uptight about grammar). It doesn’t work like that today. At least not as much. Today, consumers can find you. The power has shifted and they are in the driver’s seat. They are no longer programmed to believe what you tell them and they aren’t paying much attention to your traditional one-way messages. Instead, they are out there on the internet searching for information on their own or, increasingly, via their social networks. Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous words “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door” have never been more true. Today, people have terrific tools for finding that path to your door and they are not afraid to knock and introduce themselves.
I believe that in the future, brands should largely eliminate targeting as part of their positioning. Instead, they should decide what they are all about. They should choose a mission, a tangible impact they want to have on the world and let the people decide whether they’re into that or not. Now you might need to have some hypothesis as you begin developing your offering about what sort of person would be attracted to it. That’s on day one. But on day two, none of that matters anymore. What matters on day two is what the market says. Once your product is out there, your initial thinking about who your brand is for becomes irrelevant. At that point, the market gets to decide. You still need to hold onto what your brand is for. But don’t get caught up in your authoritarianism about who your brand is for. Let the consumers who are passionate about you and your mission find you no matter who they are. And most importantly, engage in the conversation with the market – including those people that were not part of your day one target hypothesis.