BOOK REVIEW: Why age is just a number - and selling by demographics is pointless

Fin24's ace book reviewer Ian Mann.
Fin24's ace book reviewer Ian Mann.

We are all the same age now: Valuegraphics, the end of demographic stereotypes. By David Allison

All around the world, age is still the basis for creating stereotypes, and these are used to sell goods and services.

Age is seen as useful because people act in certain ways at particular ages. Insurance companies still base their risk calculations on ideas about who does what at what age.

"It would be so much easier for these and other billion-dollar industries if we would all continue acting our age," explains the author, David Allison. The problem is, we don't, and trillions of dollars are dependent on the faulty logic of trying to sell to stereotypical people who no longer exist. "Who decided that forty-five-year-olds suddenly became something else once they turn forty-six?"

The reason age-based profiles have lasted so long is because we didn't have an alternative.

Millennials, for example, are touted as being unlike any other generation. They require different workplaces, new human resource policies, and new kinds of products, services, and brands. But the author found many things about millennials seemed to match his research on baby boomers exactly.

An article in the Sunday New York Times described how millennials enjoyed woodworking and were renting table-saws from tool-lending libraries in Brooklyn. Baby boomer men the author had interviewed lamented the loss of the workshop bench in their suburban garage now they had moved to an apartment. The same newspaper article reported that millennial women liked gardening, baking, making pickles and knitting, just as the baby boomer women did.

Allision had focused his marketing work on selling condominiums. Developers seemed to agree that diverse neighbourhoods are happier places to live and work, despite building for one cohort only. Allison, however, found that people of all ages reported being prepared to pay a 15% premium to live in diverse blocks, provided their neighbours shared the same values as they did.

This is very significant, because buying a home was the most meaningful and expensive purchase most people would ever make. It was based on values, and age was not a consideration.

If values are more important than age when making decisions of extreme importance like buying a home, why would it be any different when buying artichoke hearts or a pair of boots?

Consider this illustration. On vacation in an unfamiliar town, three friends leave the pub after a good dinner and many glasses of wine. Walking along, they realise they are entering a dark alley.

David, whose primary value is adventure, remarks: "Cool. That alley looks dangerous and exciting."

Kyle's primary value has always been safety and he doesn't like risks of any kind, large or small.

Dana's primary value is friendship and she doesn't care whether they go down the alley or not, as long as they stick together.

Their reactions to that alley demonstrates how powerful values are. It's the same alley on the same night, but different values motivate different people to do different things.

If you were charged with convincing a lot of people to visit that alley, you would do it very differently for people like David. "This is the most exciting alley in the world!"

For people like Kyle, you might present the alley as extremely peaceful, where harsh light has been dimmed.

For people like Dana, you might present it as the alley of friendship, where the context bonds friends.

You might even decide to ignore one or more of these groups and focus on one profile that offered the best chance of success.

A radically different approach

This is radically different from using demographics to attempt to influence audiences. Demographics don't tell you what people care about or what motivates them. Psychographics were an improvement, but not only are they very hard to obtain, but are descriptive, not motivating.

Allison reports having built the world's largest purpose-built database of shared values which enables the targeting of people with common values.

Based on 75 000 responses to as many as 340 questions, Allison has been able to cluster people from the US and Canada into 10 groups which I briefly describe below.

The 'Adventure Club' are the fun lovers, the curious ones, always restless and looking to try new things, eat at new places, and meet new people.

The 'Home Hunters Union' are the unsettled who don't feel as much at home as they'd like, in all kinds of ways.

The 'Anti-Materialists Guild' don't wish to have things, own things, or collect things.

The 'Loyalist Lodge' members still have the same job and are loyal to a fault in all aspects of life.

Members of the 'House of Creativity' believe they are creative, which could mean anything from occasional knitting to full-time interpretive dance.

The 'Environmental Assembly' are focused on the planet. Mother Earth is in trouble, so we should do more to prevent this degradation.

The 'Technology Fellowship' can be considered a fellowship because they all connect and relate to the world, and each other, through technology. They congregate virtually.

The 'League of Workaholics' report being happy with eighty-hour workweeks, and they love the status and recognition they can buy as a result of all that work.

The 'Savers Society' will drive forty-five minutes across town because butter is on sale. They also like to save animals, people, and little hotel soaps.

The 'Royal Order of the Overdrawn' boasts both millionaires and grocery clerks as members: people who are always a few dollars shy of where they should be.

The profiles are comprised of a variety of variables, some of the weakest of which are based on age. Baby boomers only agree on anything 13% of the time; Millennials 15%, and Generation X 11% of the time. The commonality within the value cohorts Allison describes, by contrast, are between 76% and 85%.

The bottom line is that we should not be making assumptions about any target audience based on how old they are, how much they earn, or anything else except the values that they hold.

I am the father of two girls who were born 14 months apart, in South Africa, and who are very different to each other in almost every way. I have always been dismissive of the fatuous North American cohort applied to them - Generation X. You might share this discomfort as you consider the differences between your own children, lumped into a single fatuous cohort.

Allison's is a refreshing way of looking at people.

Readability          Light -+--- Serious

Insights                High --+-- Low

Practical               High ----+ Low


Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Strategy that Works and Executive Update. Views expressed are his own.

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