Bre-xistential crises in segment marketing

Dec 22, 2019 |3 min read
segment marketing

Segment marketing has failed in the post Brexit landscape, so why should we bother with segmentations at all?

I'm a geek for electoral maths, so I've been spoilt rotten this last five years. But this time, it's a particularly juicy one. Traditional political segments aren't enough anymore and it's harder to call than ever. But I can't help wondering - if segments  are struggling to help solve the biggest questions of our time, what hope is there for us researchers?  

Confession: I love elections. I'm a political geek at heart and I thoroughly enjoy tracking polls of polls, reading post-debate analysis, tracking if John Curtice is on TV, ministers squirming under a Paxman grilling, doing my best arm chair punditry, and adding to my private collection of politicians looking uncomfortable ( hereherehere, and of course, here)

Sadly, we've had no bacon sarnies this time round. But I'm particularly enjoying this election because, being an avid Byron Sharp reader, it's a perfect example of the difficulties of segmentation.

Manifestos are a great demonstration of segment marketing. Voters are categorised according to specific characteristics, and policies are designed to woo each type of voter.

What do OAPs want? Protection over pensions!

What do students want? Free education!

What do renters want? To buy a home!

Whether these assumptions are true or not, it's an easy way of thinking about people. Neatly box them up and come up with a way of benefitting people according to this label. In the past, this way of thinking was somewhat borne out. The pledges to abolish tuition fees appealed to students who propelled the Lib Dems to success in 2015. On the other side, May's 2017 'dementia tax' collapsed the 65+ vote, who turned to Labour.

But this election, Brexit has completely changed the way parties target voters, and it's made political segment marketing much harder.

So, Brexit. After every debate, manifesto launch, or party announcement we can expect to hear that 'the young' voted remain and 'the old' voted leave. That's somewhat true. 73% of under 24s voted for remain (12% of UK adult population). But only 60% of 65+ (21% of UK adult population) voted leave - a decent majority but hardly indicative of a homogenous group. For voters of any age between 35-64, there's little evidence of either Remain or Leave dominating. And here lies 50% of voters.

Brexit has changed our political landscape because it represents not our party allegiances but our sense of self, our character. Am I liberal, tolerant, a global citizen? Or am I powerful, independent, proud of my heritage? The challenge for both Labour and the Conservatives is how to attract people who agree with the party's position on Brexit but disagree with everything else the party stands for. This messy middle are more varied in their beliefs than any other segment. This makes them harder to target with specific promises. I'm not sure what tomorrow holds, but it's this middle group I'm going to be watching closest.

If traditional voter segments are failing to deliver insight at this election, what hope is there for us in research? At 2CV, we still believe in segmentations because it's not just about segment marketing.

Quant is often in the business of generalisations - to measure, track, test. Really understanding people tends to be reserved for the quallies. But a great segmentation goes beyond these averages and tells you the who, not just the what. It's finding that most elusive of things - the character of an audience.  Brexit has taught us that it's all too easy to let character turn into caricature: racist gammon, millennial remoaners. It's been nearly 3 years and we're no closer to understanding, really understanding the other side.

Our clients' customers are a diverse bunch: they're remainers and leavers and isitoveryet-ers. They vote for the Brexit Party, they for the Greens. Byron Sharp tells brands to grow through more customers. More customers mean more diversity, more characters, and more challenges with really understanding. I'm proud of our rules for a great segmentation: segments must be big enough to be meaningful, small enough to target; difference between segments and similarity within them is maximised. Any segmentation must provide segments that are intuitive, recognisable, and actually identifiable. These rules mean our segmentations must work hard if our clients are to grow and know.

The polls predict we might wake up blue on Friday, but the political landscape is far from certain. Parties and media alike will have to reconcile that traditional party identities just don't cut it anymore. As researchers, we too have a lot to learn. Segmentations have to work harder than ever to deliver real understanding. This understanding means going beyond demographics, beyond easy names. It means finding the character of our client's customers - in all their complex, messy, contradictory glory.