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Are you marketing to people or stereotypes?

Posted by Toby Knott
Speed Reading Mode

The buyer persona, as we've said before, should be the keystone of your marketing strategy. But there's a fine line between a persona and a stereotype. How can you tell when you’re creeping toward the dark side, marketing to stereotypes rather than real people?

Sexist gender stereotypes advertisement

Putting people in their place

Of course, assumption and market segmentation are necessary in marketing – you don't want campaigns that are all things to all people – but treating such generalisations as gospel is a sure-fire way of creating shoddy campaigns.

Buyer personas are not real individuals, but neither should they be stagnant stereotypes; they are fictional representations of your ideal customers. Breathe life into them by talking to current customers and drawing on the experience of your sales team, and allow your buyer personas to evolve to stay relevant and effective. Don't leave your personas to fossilise.

The video game industry is an example par excellence of the power and persistence of stereotypes. Even though over a quarter of all gamers are over 45-years-old and 52 percent are women, according to, the socially-inept male adolescent cliché continues to linger over gaming.

Such stereotypes lead to a sort of 'marketing myopia', as lecturer at the Harvard Business School Theodore Levitt put it in 1960, causing a business to unnecessarily taper its ambitions and exclude customers.

The big three of marketing stereotypes


Men are not all imbecilic, beer-swilling jocks, and women aren’t all sleb-obsessed, domestic shrews. Sweeping generalisations and persistent stereotypes in marketing are usually a hindrance, not a help.

Just recall the recent furore sparked by Protein World's 'beach body ready' ad, and the ongoing battle to quash the traditional gender division in children's toys.


Easy as it might be to break down your market by age brackets, such segmentation is lazy and misleading.

Not all retirees, for instance, have green fingers and crave cruises. And a range of, say, 18-24 year olds is going to encompass all sorts of buying habits, priorities, interests, relationships, professions and familial situations.

Generation Y

'Generation Y' or 'Millennials' (aged between 18 and 34) are forever on the lips of marketers. And for good reason: they are set to surpass the 'baby boomers' (aged between 51 and 69) as the US's largest living generation. No wonder everyone wants a slice of the action.

However, not only are they misunderstood – they are far from the apathetic narcissists they are often made out to be – but trying to develop a marketing campaign that appeals to an entire generation is a fool's errand.

Marketing to people, not stereotypes

The key to remedying these stereotypes is simple. Treat customers for what they are: individuals.

This doesn't mean targeting people one by one - that would, of course, be hopelessly time-consuming and expensive - but rather it means approaching your market segments more intelligently.

This is particularly important for brands looking to appeal to women, who have had, to put it mildly, a rocky relationship with advertisers and marketers (lest we forget 'Women Laughing Alone with Salad').

Kids say the darndest things

With young women (22-39 year olds) now earning more than men, for example, brands can't afford to ignore the shift in earning power; old stereotypes won’t cut it.

Young women want authentic brands that empower, reassure, and connect emotionally.

Market research agency The Pineapple Lounge's 'Little Miss Understood' study of 1,070 8-14 year old girls found that half want brands to help them have fun, with many also wanting a brand that ‘allows me to be myself’ (44 percent), ‘gives me confidence’ (39 percent) or ‘asks for my opinion’ (38 percent).

While the study dealt exclusively with girls, it resonates with what many look for in brands – a confidence-boosting, personal connection that treats them as an autonomous individual. Kids say the darndest things.

Stats, not stereotypes

This shows the importance of accurate data in breaking down prejudices and stereotypes. While you cannot market to an entire generation, data makes it that little bit easier to identify common traits.

A far cry from their stereotypical indolent image, research has found millennials are savvy, cosmopolitan customers: more educated and politically aware digital natives with a thirst for foreign culture, travel and cuisine. And – music to marketers' ears – they're big spenders. But growing up on the internet, with the world in their pocket, also makes Gen Y-ers expect more and expect it now, wanting instant gratification and rapid responses to questions and complaints.

But even with the help of data to lift the stereotypical vail, maybe marketing to a generation is doomed to fail. One study, titled 'Understanding Millenials – How do Potatoes Fit into Their Lives?', for example, concluded that 'When it comes to potatoes ... Millennials are not significantly different from the rest of the population.'

All the world's a stage

The same holds true for age ranges. Easy as they are to use and plug into quarterly reports, they're not doing your marketing strategy any favours.

The life stage of an individual or particular community that your persona represents, says Evan Burns of Inc., can tell you far more than their age. Your 28-year-old male might be a married, established professional with a mortgage, or a single part-time worker sleeping on his friend's couch. Their priorities, interests and buying habits will vary radically, and your personas need to reflect this.

Past, present and future

While fleshing out the details of the individuals and communities that relate to your brand takes time, doing so helps you escape the above stereotypes and allows you to more effectively tailor your marketing strategy, saving you time, money and effort in the long run.

And the data gathered from your audience – by crafting perfect landing pages, for example – or from reading external market research reports allows you to dig deeper into the priorities, interests and habits of your customers and help you further delight them.

That said, you also need to focus on the customers you want, not just the customers you have.

Companies naturally have much more data on current users than prospective leads, but this means that marketing campaigns are too often preaching to the converted. You need to, says J.P. Eggers on Harvard Business Review, identify the demographics and characteristics of specific potential adopter groups and gain a better understanding of the needs and wants of this next wave of adopters.

Stay relevant

This is particularly true for technology companies, where the intrepid early adopters are often overly pandered to, ignoring the more cautious late adopters. Just think of the trouble Facebook is having in staying relevant to teenagers whose parents are now friending them and indiscriminately liking all of their photos. It's not about giving preference to one over the other, but trying to maintain a balance.

So rather than relying on tired stereotypes, keep your personas real and relevant. Do your research and review them every six months to ensure you're connecting with your ideal customers both now and into the future.

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