The False Promise of Demographics

Our culture teaches us some assumptions (like money = sign of success) that are often internalized in our brains. We don't even think of them as assumptions. They're disguised as truths that we must all just simply accept. One such assumption relates to the way we, as business professionals, choose to study our customers and prospects.

It's demographics.

Most of us presume that demographics (age, income, location, etc.) is the basic building block of research. We conduct focus groups by studying 18-24-year-olds, we dish out surveys after surveys studying Generation X, and conduct interviews studying 25-34-year-old women in urban centers. Demographics is the assumption in disguise that lurks beneath the walls of our offices.

And it's wrong.

When we study our customers, what we're really trying to unearth isn't one person's isolated behavior or unmet needs. We're trying to understand what makes one customer act, behave and interact in the same way as many others. This is nothing but the study of culture. Where the basic goal of the research is to identify the shared beliefs, rituals, habits and behaviors exhibited by large groups of people that are relevant to a business. What demographics does is that it assumes that a culture is defined by age, not by all the other factors I listed above. And that is inaccurate.

Consider this example. Our team was recently studying trends around alcohol consumption in North America for a large liquor company. One of the first things we noticed during the study was that the consumer driving new trends in the alcohol space belonged to both Generation X and Y. Age had nothing to do with the role alcohol played in the consumer's identity. It was instead, a set of shared beliefs.

In another study we conducted on women's beliefs towards beauty in the United States, we found that consumer purchase patterns weren't governed by income even though the entire industry was structured to cater solutions to various income groups. So much so that two women making drastically different incomes were buying the same products (just that one was sacrificing other things to afford it!). Again, their beliefs towards beauty drove their purchase decisions. Not their demographics.

There's also another problem with using demographics as the basic building block of research.

Most research is still done in the form of surveys and focus groups. And these days, it's hard to find people who'd want to answer a long survey or take a few hours out of their day to attend a focus group. In fact, I ran a quick experiment with my network. I asked my extended circle of friends if any of them had answered a survey or attended a focus group in the last five years. I couldn't find one who had.

I think consumers are over the "chance to win a gift card" or the stale sandwiches and soggy cookies they end up eating at research sessions. And in a world that is increasingly getting fragmented in terms of tastes and values, it is hard to imagine that these kinds of research projects attract the attention of the influencers in a category. The people who create cultural movements and drive disruption in a marketplace.

The problem is that demographics tells us that we've surveyed 2000, 18-24-year-old consumers. The problem is, it doesn't tell us whether we've truly captured the range of beliefs that drive people in the category. More importantly, it doesn't tell us whether we've ensured that the voice of the vocal minority and the silent majority, have both been captured.

I don't have some sort of a vendetta on demographics. Neither do I believe that the information is useless. While it offers great value, the point of this article is to argue that demographics should just not be used as the fundamental building block of research. Neither should it be used to recruit people for a focus group or to find respondents for a survey. Demographics should be what it was always supposed to be - useful information that helps us better understand our customers. Nothing more. Nothing less.