In a targeted effort to appeal to Gen Y, Pizza Hut offered free pizzas for life to any attendee of last October's presidential debate who dared ask President Obama or Governor Romney, "Sausage or Pepperoni?" Outraged by the mockery to the democratic process, millennials shamed the popular company across national outlets. The backlash against the campaign shocked Pizza Hut and forced it to backpedal.
Pizza Hut's campaign unwittingly shut the door on thousands of customers who were either: 1) people within the target market that the ad alienated (ex: millennials who care about politics more than pizza); or 2) people excluded from the target market altogether (ex: non-Gen Yers).
This is a basic problem with target advertising: it frequently ignores the fact that people who share a common demographic do not necessarily share the same preferences or opinions. By extrapolating consumer behavior from fixed demographic information like gender, age, and ethnicity, companies indiscriminately make conclusions like "African-Americans love fried chicken," "senior citizens only care about incontinence" and "single men aspire to be James Bond." Using unrefined market segmentation to understand the preferences of potential target customers often backfires. Take Diet Pepsi's "Skinny Can" controversy, or Groupon's callous Tibet commercial.
Egregious mistakes like these prompt customers to come out of hiding to complain to companies directly. However, most companies that use target marketing are unaware of when it fails. This keeps their hidden consumers invisible. Consider the case of the five million stay-at-home mothers whom many advertisers treat as something between a professionally-limited reincarnation of Betty Crocker and a disheveled mess. These women are literally not buying the message. There's a huge opportunity for companies that can speak to these dynamic mothers on an intelligent level where they feel understood for who they are. Nike did this successfully for its own target demographic in its 2005 print campaign that empowered women who workout to celebrate their natural curves by reclaiming and redefining phrases like "thunder thighs."
More companies can easily follow in Nike's footsteps by knowing where to look for hidden consumers who feel alienated by other brands. The list below outlines ways to find them:
1) Get Personal: Cohorts with shared demography, like Hispanic consumers, are too large to treat as a monolith. You need to drill down to understand the needs of sub-cohorts. YaSabe, the fastest-growing local search destination for the Hispanic American market, successfully employed this tactic by adding discussion forums for users to list their individual needs. That feedback spurred YaSabe to introduce differentiated features for specific sub-cohorts like a job board for job seekers and a local coupon finder for frugal eaters, which contributed to the company's 800% year-over-year growth.
2) Find the Sidebar Conversations: While families generally welcomed Tide's 2011 "dad-mom" commercial for breaking gender stereotypes, a few stay-at-home men used blogs to discuss their disappointment over the title. Tide found these voices and their 2013 "The Princess Dress" commercial aired to rave reviews. It goes to show that listening to the voices on the fringe can lead you to others who feel the same way.
3) Follow Hyperboles: If a competitor's ad looks like a stereotype, find the people it offends. GoDaddy's provocative 2013 Superbowl ad, "Perfect Match," disgusted many tech-savvy women who subsequently canceled their accounts. Thoughtful competitors who recognize the influence of these tech-savvy women, and find thoughtful ways to speak to them, will find a receptive group of consumers.
4) Look at Whom You're Excluding: If your company focuses on selling consumer electronics to men under 35, for example, pause and consider who feels unfairly excluded from the marketing narrative, such as baby boomer consumers aged 46-64 who spend more on technology than any other demographic. A good example of this marketing reorientation comes from the video gaming industry, which is finally waking up to the fact that their ads were alienating the 47% of "girl gamers" who buy their products.
5) Get it Right: Sometimes hidden customers are the ones that have been mistreated by other companies. They're just waiting for someone to get it right. Macy's hits the nail on the head with its support of the Black Enterprise Women of Power Summit, where it walks the talk about its shared vision of women's empowerment with efforts like a networking garden luncheon, discounts to corporate wear that celebrates women's figures, and yearly sponsorship of the Summit. The emotional connection seals the deal for attendees who willingly promote the company for understanding their influence and preferences.
6) Start with Empathy: If you pay attention to your customers, and treat them with consideration, they'll reward you. If you don't, they won't. Good marketers like Apple remember that spending is emotional. It starts with asking customers who they are, not just what they want.