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POV: The Death of the Demographic

It’s September 23rd 2015 and Hidekichi Miyazaki is warming up for his signature event – the men’s 100m dash. As a former record holder, and crowd favourite, he waves enthusiastically and grins before readying himself for the starting gun. “Bang!” – 42.22 seconds later, Hidekichi crosses the finishing line and, while he’s in no danger of surpassing Usain Bolt as the world’s fastest man, he celebrates his accomplishment with the same trademark pose. Dubbed Japan’s “Golden Bolt”, Hidekichi has snubbed talk of stepping down from competition. “I have to continue for a few more years”, he says, “to show my gratitude to my fans.”

Hidekichi Miyazaki was competing in the over-105 age group at the Masters Athletics championships. Having celebrated his birthday one-day prior, Hidekichi was the youngest such participant in that age bracket, although he was also just the second person to qualify. 

The Economist described Japan as, “The incredible shrinking country”. Some have even tried to predict exactly when Japan’s population will reach zero. Apparently, at the current rate, there will be no Japanese people left by the year 2500. (Though this model doesn’t take into account the possibility that Godzilla robots will finish us off long before then.) Still, the numbers don’t lie. Today, 1 in 4 Japanese people are over the age of 65. Around 10,000,000 are over the age of 80. Yet even by Japan’s extraordinary benchmarks, Hidekichi Miyazaki’s lifestyle is statistically improbable. Instead of being six feet underground, Hidekichi is in the market to buy Nike’s latest running shoes. He took up running when he was 92 years old to fill time that he had gained once his friends had passed away, and he almost certainly spends more time on a running track than every single person in this room. He is, first and foremost, a runner. His age, while astonishing, comes second to this fact. 

Because of his advanced years, Hidekichi Miyazaki’s ‘outlier’ story is an inspiration to all ages. I would argue that rather than being a member of the “Silver Generation”, Hidekichi is representative of demographics turned on their heads, where age is just a number and it’s what you actually do with your life that defines who you are.

Let’s go across the pond for another story. It’s morning in Northern California and a 32-year-old man gets inside his black VW Golf GTI to drive to work. On the radio he hears a story about “American Millennials” – so-called to describe those who reached adulthood around the turn of the millennium. The radio host says that the average net worth of an American Millennial is 75,000 dollars. Surprised, he turns the radio up to hear more. 

The talk show goes on to explain that the ‘geometric average’ net worth masks the median, or most frequently-occurring, which is actually 10,400 dollars. The geometric average is being skewed by one entrepreneur at the very top of the scale who’s worth 45 billion dollars. Slightly embarrassed, he switches stations just as he arrives at 1 Hacker Way which is where his office is. “Good morning, Mr Zuckerberg”, says the parking attendant.

“Millennial” is another example of an egregiously fruitless – if you’ll excuse the pun – demographic term that’s as useful as it is actionable: I would argue ‘not very’. Those who seek to apply order to randomness, and sequence to wild variance, define Millennials using self-fulfilling evidence. Millennials are supposed to be more “work shy” and “have more trouble dealing with financial adversity” than Baby Boomers – but Mark Zuckerberg runs a company worth 300 billion dollars, employing 13,000 people. Is Zuckerberg a Millennial? If not, then where do we draw the line? What use is a demographic profile if it’s so easily refuted?

So what do Hidekichi Miyazaki and Mark Zuckerberg have in common? 

Although he’s a one-hundred-and-five-year-old man, Hidekichi would say that his leading characteristic is that he is a runner. Although he’s a 32-year-old man, Zuckerberg would identify himself as the CEO of Facebook. The demographic models do not apply to them simply because we know more about them. We know their interests. We know what motivates them. Indeed, anyone who defines themselves by measures other than demographics, would say the same. Demographic models, to me, signify an absence of insight rather than insight itself. No one woke up today and said, “I’m a Millennial, let me see what I should be doing with my Tuesday afternoon”. 

Now, before I go any further, I want to draw a division here between controllables and uncontrollables. Neither of these men can control when they were born, and neither can directly control the aging process. What we’re interested in here is the controllables. My point to you today is that human beings should be defined not by such arbitrary uncontrollable metrics as when we were born or to what gender we were born into, but our controllables – the decisions we make that shape our lives. 

Actual behaviour is, I think, the best and only measure of a personality – what makes us unique – vs a demographic generalization. A runner identifies themselves as being a runner, whether in their 90s or in their 20s – man or woman – just as a CEO running a successful company should never be paid according to their age or their gender, but paid according to the output that results from their actions. I believe that we are experiencing the Death of the Demographic and, for me, it cannot come fast enough. 

Anyone who’s been in a relationship has probably heard the complaint that, “You say one thing and you do something else”. Spouses are smart people. I agree with my wife 100% that people, myself included, are defined first and foremost by what they do, not what we say we’ll do, or what people expect us to do. We cannot outsource responsibility for our actions to demographics. 

This shouldn’t, I hope, be a frightening invitation into the abyss where we all get eaten by the Godzilla robots I mentioned earlier. This is, I think, the most exciting time to be alive… especially if your life revolves around marketing as mine does. 

As the individuals that form global human society become more interconnected, the incentives for self-expression, and the tools that enable it, are becoming more pervasive. Whether it’s through the articles or photos we share, the #tags we use, or the live streams we watch – the way that we communicate is “in the moment”. To cite a recent example, millions of people around the world watched the men’s 100m final in the Rio Olympics – featuring Usain Bolt rather than his Golden Japanese centenarian friend – and at the moment of that race, the personality of those watching it… their psychological state of being, would have been the same. Everyone was there with the same purpose, at the same time. Whether man or woman, young or old, rich or poor. What becomes important, then, isn’t so much how we define the viewers but how we define the moment that’s attracted the viewers. Once the 100m moment had passed, people dispersed elsewhere, taking on other identities in the process. All of these actions leave breadcrumbs of information that we’re now able to piece together to get a deeper, richer, understanding of consumer behaviour, especially when we add in behaviour we see on apps and websites and the things people buy when they’re there. No more do we have to rely on annual consumer surveys that people get paid 50 bucks to fill in for our insights. 

Just as the 100m race at the Olympics attracts people of all backgrounds, so too can our products attract different people for different reasons. Consumers can, and do, occupy different states of mind, in different categories, at different times. The only constant is change, and people change their minds a lot. We can’t predict what one person is going to do tomorrow any more than we can predict the weather in Hong Kong. But… we can prepare for it by carrying an umbrella and a t-shirt. 

How do we prepare our marketing for constant change? At my company, Mindshare, our product is Adaptive. We build media plans that can adapt and evolve to keep our messages as relevant as possible. With an Adaptive mind set, we move from a broad demographic audience, such as “women aged 35-54”, to category states of mind that could be occupied by someone young, old, man or woman, regardless of what college they went to, what they do for a living, or what their household income is. These are erroneous details. 

Let’s take the example of the humble banana. 

Now, I’m not much of a fruit guy but I am partial to the odd banana now and then, especially before I go to the gym. My motivations for buying a banana aren’t exactly unique to me, but they do bely a category state of mind, which is that some people are in the market to buy a banana because they need a jolt of fructose and fiber. Let’s call these guys, “Energy Eaters”. 

Then there’s the folks who like to cook using bananas as an ingredient. Let’s call them the “Kitchen Cooks”. I’m just making this up but I can imagine many more banana category states of mind. “Peelers” would be folks who are reconsidering the banana as an important part of their diet, perhaps for health reasons; “Smoothies” would be folks who are using bananas as an ingredient for drinks rather than eating them straight.

That’s 4 already. I’m sure you can think of many more. Each of these groups represents a different consumer journey, which would change market by market across the region based on different platforms, sources of information, celebrity influencers, etc. These audience profiles are different states of mind that our consumers can interchange between from one day to the next. There is no set rule that says, “Only British marketing men with long hair can be the ‘Energy Eaters’”. The banana’s relevance in culture also changes day by day. Perhaps Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams are seen eating bananas as the US Tennis Open – which is happening at the moment – and that causes a spike in search queries for bananas “health benefits”. Smart media planners, of the kind you work with if you work with Mindshare, are able to define these consumer journeys in real-time, based on real-life, actual behavior, and build media investment plans that deliver the right message to the right person at the right moment. 

Of course, nothing that we do in marketing happens in isolation. I’ve already mentioned the Olympics, and over the course of a year there are dozens and dozens of fixed moments in the cultural calendar that capture the imagination. From quadrennial events like the Olympic Games to the release of a new Hollywood film where Spiderman tells Batman and Superman to stop making movies, to national holidays or the finals of Thailand’s Got Talent. Consumers’ lives are packed with these milestones. You’re a consumer too, remember. When someone asks you, “What are you doing this weekend?” you’re unlikely to answer, “Watching ads”. As well as the fixed moments that we can predict, there’s also the fluid moments – things we can imagine happening at some point over the course of the year but we don’t know exactly when they’ll occur. Typhoons are a good example. They happen, and they do affect economic activity and media behavior, but we don’t know when they’ll occur. At the start of every year you should work with your marketing team to plot out these moments in a calendar and ask yourselves, ‘When this happens, what should my brand do about it?’ 

When we don’t set ourselves up to be adaptive, when we aren’t preparing for the unpredictable, we are, in fact, preparing to fail. The idea that there is one consumer insight that results in one set of advertising assets that’s supposed to inspire, inform, and remind everyone equally is – I think – totally preposterous. Think on this: how is it possible that a 60 second TV ad could resonate with every single person across all of your category states of mind and over an entire year of cultural moments? 

Faced with this reality, I think that there is no longer any use to the demographic profile, that the concept of understanding demographics holds no meaning because it doesn’t help us to bridge the gap between a brand and a consumer in the moment, in the state of mind.

My advice to you, the marketers putting fruit on the tables or in the gym bags of every family in this great region, is to throw out the bell curve demographic profile. Be done with age and gender stereotypes. Embrace the fragmentation of consumer behavior and experiment with marketing plans that are built to serve category states of mind and adapt around cultural moments. It’s the brands that can adapt faster than the rest that will thrive.

So, the next time someone tells you that Millennials are work shy or that the older you get the less likely you are to try new things, remind them of Mark Zuckerberg and Hidekichi Miyazaki. Remember that behind these stories is a larger narrative where consumer behavior can now be defined in precise detail – that there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to the consumer journey, and that media and advertising can and must tailor our message to fit the spectrum of consumer behavior. More so than at any other time in our history, it’s what we do – our controllables – that makes us who we are.