News & Views

Opinion / Beyond Demographics

by Contagious Contributor
A desire for individuality and meaningful engagement is shaping the way brands communicate with their audiences. Bella Towse, creative strategist at brand and packaging design agency Bulletproof, argues that this marks the death knell for copycat branding and soulless, pushy, ‘targeted’ advertising

Consumers of all ages and ethnicities are now living in a world of mass empowerment made up of billions of individual personalities. We are living such modal lifestyles that we no longer fit classic demographic margins.

For brands, segmentation has become a crude and progressively irrelevant way of understanding how today’s audiences ‘tick’. People can no longer be pigeonholed, as the ‘box’, so to speak, no longer exists.

Millennials are driving this change with a new desire for realness, passion, transparency, share-ability and engagement that addresses their individual needs and desires. Online social interaction has been central to unlocking this new realisation and technology (in particular the rise of wearable technology) is allowing us to become increasingly more informed about our individual choices, habits and subconscious tastes.

Because of the speed and ubiquity of information delivered to us, we are seeing the emergence of more short-lived, finite and passing trends and fads. Audiences are becoming fickle and non-committal in their choices and we are, in turn, seeing the emergence of fewer established subcultures.

Social media and digital connectivity is, in fact, making ‘seeming’ more important than ‘being’. Once an empowering channel for authentic voices and genuine word-of-mouth advocacy, it has evolved to become a medium for buying influence and commoditising ‘Likes’ – another vehicle for pushy click baiting and the proliferation of irrelevant, soulless, commercial messaging.

It is clear that brands can no longer hammer these channels with fabricated, disingenuous, aspirational images and expect audiences to easily ‘buy in’. Rather, in order to achieve meaningful engagement, they have to feel ‘invited in’ through empowerment and reassurance. We are now beyond demographics, accustomed to having individual influence and share of voice in a digital space that transcends traditional boundaries.

In turn, brands are having to really listen to consumers in order to create authentic conversations. They are harnessing new and creative ways of communicating to audiences that respects the individual, rather than just broadcasting to the masses.

While social media has enabled people to become influencers and thought leaders in their own right, it has changed the way in which people interact with each other on a more human, one-to-one level.

Smart technology has long been vilified for its so-called erosion of real interpersonal relationships, so it’s quite ironic to see how the very tenets of such technology – manifested in the innovation of ‘wearables’ – is mobilising us to reconnect with each other in a more emotional and mindful way.

Take the pplkpr smart watch (above) for example, which monitors your physical and emotional response to the people around you and analyses the collected information in an app. The idea is to enable you to identify people who uplift you against the detractors, so you get a better grasp of the social and environmental factors that affect your mood and this galvanises you to take action towards fostering more meaningful and rewarding relationships.

Technology, it seems, has almost come full circle; once impeding us from developing meaningful contact with each other, it has now been reconfigured so that we get a much better understanding of our relationships with ourselves and, of course, each other. It is providing us with the tools to emotionally optimise our life – even to the point where sophisticated man-made algorithms will soon be able to make better interpersonal decisions than the complex, fallible, prone-to-malfunctioning beings we know as humans.

With this abundance of data, brands ought to be better informed about their consumers. But in the face of all the bombardment of data-informed, so-called ‘targeted’ advertising, brands have only recently cottoned on to the concept of true ‘individuality’ by implementing this into their visual and verbal brand communication in order to transcend demographics, compounded by the influence of technology and social media.

Individuality, personalisation and experience-led campaigns are shaping the way brands communicate with their audiences. No more talking down to consumers  brands must engender a sense of inclusivity, a feeling of ‘we’ that is more human and more authentic.

From a design sense, this has unleashed all manner of visual and experiential concepts that bring the values of uniqueness and a sense of specialness to life. We are seeing personalisation empowering consumers to create or adapt a brand to put their ‘mark’ on it. Famously, Coca-Cola released its named bottles, encouraging people to ‘share a coke’ with a friend; hazelnut chocolate spread brand Nutella likewise followed suit, and Malibu rum released a blank limited edition bottle complete with colouring pens so people could create their own bottle design as part of its Malibu by U project.

Packaging design is becoming more visually tantalising and almost too special to be discarded. Due to the rise of life hacks and consumer frugality, packaging is being granted a second life. The Ladurée macaron box with its opulent pattern, doubles up as a handy trinket; Marc Jacobs’ fragrance bottles find a new lease of life as vases for freshly cut flowers; Hendrick’s Gin hacks see the vintage bottle transformed into a premium looking hand wash dispenser. These methods of re-purposing in turn deepen the emotional connection the consumer has to the brand as they ‘live on’ by their kitchen sinks, bedroom cabinets and dressing tables.

In the retail space, brands are harnessing individuality and specialness to develop immersive interactive environments that enhance the brand experience. Shoppers at fashion store Top Shop, for example, were virtually privy to an exclusive catwalk show, giving them a privileged sense of what it would feel like to sit in the front row and rub shoulders with Anna Wintour.

We are seeing really exciting developments in the way we shop and experience brands, and it all comes back to the power of one – the individual. We are no longer a demographic of pigeonholed ‘types’, and we no longer respond to brands’ lazy, scattergun approach to engagement.

In a noisy world, on and offline, we crave affirmation and a share of voice, and we yearn for acknowledgement and recognition as individuals with unique idiosyncrasies and quirks. Ergo, today’s audience want curated content, projects and products that are tailored or tailorable to these specific, nuanced needs. Brands who are able to find a genuine, personable and authentic voice and communicate to us, the consumers, in a way that respects our individuality, are the brands, which will find meaningful and sustainable engagement with a richly diverse and complex audience.