FEATURE1 October 2009

A life beyond segmentation


Segmentation is a tempting way to get a handle on who your consumers are. But Bryan Urbick warns that it is possible to have too much of a good thing.

As researchers, it is important that we keep an open mind about new methods, and stay keen to devour and apply learnings from all types of research. But we must maintain a healthy scepticism about research approaches and reported findings, as there is a real danger of applying good research the wrong way.

This is, sadly, often true of segmentation studies, which seem to be the rage at the moment. More and more of our clients are conducting their own segmentations, and then using them in their marketing and product development or innovation efforts.

It’s fantastic that research is well implemented into the core of clients’ businesses, but there seems to be a worrying trend towards generating new consumer groups and giving them strange, gimmicky names – and turning these segments into the be-all and end-all.

It seems we may be forgetting that, like all research tools, segmentations have limitations. Perhaps we are putting too much resource into developing them and expecting them to cure all brand, product or company problems.

An experience a few years ago taught me one of the important limitations of segmentations – but at the same time it shed light on the way these studies could be taken to the next level. Our client had recently completed and sold in to their organisation a bespoke segmentation model. This had been built and verified quantitatively, and was quite useful in helping to target certain segments for specific brands.

Band of mothers
All research was to be modelled from the segmentation too, and we were tasked with recruiting mums for qualitative and ethnographic work. The idea was to talk to mums of various types – each type together – to be better able to separate the learnings into the segment clusters. Though this seemed rational and could be useful in the right context, we also learned that it can be misleading.

When we re-screened the attitude questions as part of the recruitment procedures, we found that a significant number of the mums changed from one segment to another. This was initially frustrating, because we were concerned that we were somehow creating the erroneous responses. But with further investigation, we realised that we were doing things correctly – it really was the mums changing their answers.

In this particular experience, approximately one third of the mums changed from one segment to another when questioned at a different time. Were the mums lying on the initial or subsequent interview? We don’t think so – in fact we are convinced that they were being truthful and ‘in the moment’.

We explored further and found that, depending on the time of day, mothers answered the attitude questions differently. We began to see that context was key – when we talked to her in the morning as she was trying to get her kids out the door, she was in a pragmatic mindset or mode – and this mode governed her attitudes. When we conducted the interviews in the evening, by which time the kids were in bed, she was in a different mode and had slightly different attitudes. We observed that after bath time she was particularly charmed by her young children. Through the process we learned that there are several key modes, and then we began to explore the triggers that initiated change from mode to mode. Though only on a small scale, we were able to provide our client with an answer as to why certain marketing activities – even though clearly targeted to the specific segments – didn’t work according to plan.

Wrong turnings
We have seen the same type of response in subsequent uses of segmentations in other sectors. One example was based predominantly on socio-economic bands, where there was a distinct lack of understanding of the aspiration of consumers in lower socio-economic segments and the proud frugality of many in the higher segments. As a result the segmentation model was misleading.

“Like all research tools, segmentations have limitations. Perhaps we are putting too much resource into developing them and expecting them to cure all brand, product or company problems”

In another example, we worked on a nutritional segmentation model where approximately a quarter of the respondents changed their answers. This makes sense if we think about it – even a staunchly health-conscious individual might buy a chocolate bar when in a treating mode. If this individual was in a controlling mode, she or he may use a treat as encouragement for a child to exhibit a certain behavior. If in an educational mode, that same individual may be more likely to call an apple or a box of raisins a ‘treat’. The same individual, in different modes, gives different answers to questions.

The same is likely to be true for any segmentation or attitude cluster of consumers. We have more than one mode in which we operate through life, and each of these is likely to modify our attitudes. We need to take our segmentation thinking to the next level – from static attitudes to more fluid modal thinking. Instead of trying to bucket consumers into various segments, we could better learn to find the triggers that move us from mode to mode – and the understanding of these triggers can be very useful as we build our marketing, product development and communication plans.

It is important to understand that any time we question people, we are looking at a snapshot of a specific moment. The context of the individual’s life at that moment will greatly colour their response. We can better evolve our consumer understanding from the snapshot of two-dimensional segmentations to the three-dimensional context of the various mindsets and modes that we all go through.

While it is true that cultures are constantly changing and evolving and so marketers and researchers should too, it is important not to over-analyse and create limiting segmentation thinking. Brand owners are at risk of being led down a false path if they start focusing on new, cool-sounding groups – and likely not to see that the oversimplification has not really provided the answer. Segmentation thinking needs to be pushed further, by refining the model so that it acknowledges the complexity of the consumer’s life, and can adapt as the consumer goes in and out of the various segments.

Who am I anyway?
In reality, all consumers can fall into all (or most) segments, depending on the mode or role they are in. I am one individual, but behave in different ways depending on what is needed at that time. I am a different consumer at each of those times as well. By acknowledging this in segmentation thinking, we can take the insight to new levels.

Rather than simply asking which segment a consumer falls into, researchers and brand managers should be more interested in what triggers them to snap out of one mode and into the mode that represents their product. We can establish what the consumer wants – at some point – but catching them when they are in the right mode, or even triggering a mode shift, is a much bigger opportunity.

The next step
This doesn’t mean that we need to throw away our segmentation models. Quite the contrary – segmentation modelling becomes the foundation for the next step.

First, we must make the assumption that all segments reside in each target. This is a testable hypothesis, and can be conducted using the same base but contacting them at various times, when they would logically be in different roles or modes.

Second, we need to better understand the transition points. Those triggers – whether they be different parts of the day, different sets of needs or even different ways in which we are addressed – need to be understood. In our work with mums we have learned that certain sensory cues can get a mum to switch from controller to teacher and so on. A combination of specific words and imagery can move an office supervisor from manager to mentor. What, we should ask ourselves, are the triggers most relevant to our brand?

This leads to the final step: we need to explore and understand how our brand best plays in the various modes, and test ways in which to trigger the mode shifts. These shift triggers can be a range of different things but, to be most useful, need to be appropriate to the wider brand experience.

This new thinking may add some complexity, but oversimplification of the segmented consumer can lead us down the wrong path. A consumer insight has to be able to stand in the context of consumer lives, and that is more complex than a segmentation model permits. To presuppose that we are two-dimensional creatures is hugely problematic and misleading. By revising the way we think about segments and how we use them, we can take segmentation to the next, more insightful, level. There is life beyond segmentation.

Bryan Urbick is founder and CEO of the Consumer Knowledge Centre. Before setting up the business he worked in marketing and product development in the food industry for over 10 years. He blogs at blog.consumer-knowledge.com