OPINION3 March 2021

Demographics are dead. Long live demographics!

Brexit Covid-19 Media Opinion Trends UK

Traditional demographics continue to serve as an important clue to attitudes and behaviours – and remind us that inclusive teams are an imperative, argues Hanna Chalmers.

aerial view of British street

Last month, leading marketer Mark Ritson tweeted in response to a Kantar data release: “Demographic segmentation is balls. If we sliced the data by star sign it would almost be as useful.” 

Putting aside the fact that a survey broken out by age break isn’t a segmentation, one wonders how anyone can have missed that the crises created by the pandemic and Brexit, alongside the impact of Black Lives Matter and the Me Too movement, only served to underline the enduring significance of class, race, gender and age for marketers and researchers. 

They continue to help us to understand and explain everything from our life chances, to where we work, how we vote, to what we want to watch and what we buy. The experiences we have as a consequence of where we are born, what kind of family we are born into and what cohort we grow up in have a huge impact on how we view the world and our place within it.

While the pandemic is likely to further widen inequality, social mobility in the UK had stalled[ 1 ] long before the arrival of Covid-19. So, rather than traditional demographics becoming less meaningful, in fact they are as meaningful as ever. This scenario is not desirable whichever way you cut it, but alongside being undesirable, for us as researchers, it’s incredibly instructive about how the circumstances in which we enter the world shape people’s experiences and outlook for the rest of their lives.

When I started in the media research industry around 2000 it coincided with a moment when lifestyle and attitudinal data was coming to the fore in helping to explain audience habits. There was an acknowledgement of the real limitations of traditional demographics, alone, as a way of explaining or understanding consumer behaviour. This was quite right, and much needed. And with the explosion in user data available to organisations, segmentations have become infinitely more nuanced and sophisticated. 

But what continues to strike me is how incredibly enduring traditional demographics continue to serve as such an important clue to attitudes, and behaviours. ‘Me Too’ and Black Lives Matter have successfully placed the experiences of women and ethnic minorities firmly on the agenda of companies and organisations. It’s been remarkable to witness – and so many of the changes we’ve seen feel much more than just performative, instead really helping to shape content that is more inclusive and diverse, bolder and more outspoken. In fact, this new attention to the shifting demographics is a major business imperative – in the US, by 2045, the white majority will have become a minority. 

Within the research industry itself it’s been so significant, and cheering, to see a long overdue acknowledgement of the lack of diversity, something that’s been incredibly frustrating for me personally over the years.

The social class we are born into continues, alongside our geographies, to shape and influence our life chances in the same ways that gender and race do. We live in a uniquely class riven nation. It’s a bit like our accents – move five miles and the accent has changed – there are layer upon layer of ways in which we construct class difference. This makes the role of class, similarly to culture, hard to define and even harder to agree on, particularly when there is such a self-consciousness and discomfort around discussing it. For example, 60% of Britons describe themselves as ‘working class’ when the reality is closer to 25%; class marks an enduring point of tension across British society.  

As researchers, when exploring difficult questions our clients give us, having the time, methodologically speaking, to explore family histories can help explain attitudes and outlooks that can remain deeply embedded across generations. It is another reason why deeper, longitudinal research can be so valuable. From these kinds of class and geographically coded family histories, we can see how deep identities and outlooks are formed.  

The recent discussion around flag waving and patriotism (which came from a leaked research project undertaken for the Labour party) made me reflect on my own family history as the granddaughter of Irish immigrants to the west coast of Scotland. My mum and her sisters were completely ostracised and looked upon as different, as the only Catholics in their quiet Glasgow suburb – they were ‘othered’. As such, my family never felt any inclination to rally around the union flag – we had been told it was not for us.

Family histories shape the meaning we project onto symbols in complex and enduring ways. Now, as a Londoner, I appreciate that that the union flag doesn’t have to mean exclusion – it can simply mean pride and belonging – but it’s important as researchers to understand, with empathy, these different experiences that shape perceptions.

But the enduring significance of traditional demographics also reminds us why building research teams that are diverse, in all respects, is a business imperative. A recent Covid-19 ad featuring a variety of women doing household chores and a man watching TV, was quickly pulled by the government and served as a reminder that homogeneous teams aren’t a good idea. Build teams that are diverse, in class, race, and gender, that disagree loudly and force you to think differently and question your assumptions. It’s good for business and it’s vital for good research.

Hanna Chalmers is founder of CultureStudio Research


[ 1 ] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/monitoring-social-mobility-2013-to-2020

1 Comment

3 years ago

Isn't the criticism more of commercial cross-sectional market research? Of course response to different social policies will be influenced by a range of socio-demo factors, and I don't think anyone would argue against that, but if you're selling toothpaste, does those factors matter nearly as much as attitudes towards morning rituals and personal hygiene? As an industry, to help support diversity in advertising, don't we want to move clients away from resting on demographic crutches?

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