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Richard Shotton 

There's more to life than target audiences

There's more to life than target audiences

Richard Shotton explains why brands would do well to focus less on demographic targeting and more on specific life events.

Most brands, when thinking about their target audiences, focus on demographics. However, demographics aren't always an accurate guide to behaviour. Take Millenials. They're an audience of increasing interest to many brands. Yet how much can we really say about a group that encompasses both company directors and GCSE students?

But if we ignore demographics what do we replace them with? One alternative is to focus on how consumers behave at specific life events. By life events we mean important moments such as starting a new job, retiring, moving home or getting married. These events are of interest as they cause consumers to re-appraise the brands they consume.

At ZenithOptimedia we quantified the opportunity by asking 1,121 consumers two simple questions. Firstly, what life events they had undergone in the last year and secondly, whether they had tried a new brand in any of eight categories. The results were striking.

In every category people were more likely to have tried new brands if they had undergone a life event. The scale of change was remarkable. In all product categories, bar one, the probability of trying new brands increased by at least 75% after a life event. Furthermore, in over half of the cases the difference was more than double.

Our research is backed up by an increasing body of evidence showing that life events are trigger moments. One of the most authoritative experiments comes from a combined piece by the Universities of West England and Essex and the Department of Transport. They monitored more than 40,000 households for a year and cross-referenced life events with car purchasing.

They found that consumers, who in their words, "gained a life partner", or, in English, got married, were four times more likely to change cars than the population as a whole. Moving house and getting a new job also significantly increased the chance of purchasing a car. Other studies have found that areas as diverse as diet, newspaper reading, even weight loss, are strongly impacted by life events.

There are a number of explanations as to why the effect of life events is so stark. The prevailing psychological theory is that life events disrupt our patterns of behaviour. This is important as normally most of our decisions are habitual. It's simply too time consuming to consciously process all our decisions. This automatic behaviour means it's hard for brands to cause re-appraisal.

However, when we undergo a life event it destabilises the environment we make those decisions in thereby disrupting our habits and causing more of our choices to be made consciously. Crucially our behaviour becomes more susceptible to change.

Whilst this psychological theory is compelling there could be a more mundane explanation. Most people are pretty promiscuous when it comes to purchasing. Whilst people have brand preferences, genuine brand loyalty is rare. So if you drink at Café Nero and move to an area without one you're unlikely to get in the car each time you need a caffeine hit.

Therefore undergoing a life event may cause a physical disruption alongside a psychological one. Either way it represents an opportunity for competitors to steal share.

In certain respects which of these theories is most accurate is irrelevant. We don't need to know the underlying reason to take advantage of the link between life events and brand switching.
Marketers focus should be on identifying the most appropriate life event for their target audience.

Luckily, digital data sources mean that serving messages to people around life events is easier than ever. Marketers that target these moments will find receptive customers more open to their messaging than normal.

Richard Shotten is head of insight at ZenithOptimedia

Twitter: @rshotton

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