Demographics: Dead, Dying or Reincarnated?
The market for traditional demographic data remains fairly robust, even as more marketers, retailers and brands question both its limitations and its effectiveness. Without the benefit of tools such as dark analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), ethnography, social network analysis and other high-tech innovations, demographics delivers a one-dimensional caricature of the consumer — a picture that most consumers don’t recognize.
The Demographics-Resistant Generation
Today’s consumers aren’t content to conform to rigid cohort-defined behaviors. A.T. Kearney’s "Consumers@250" research, which describes American commercial and social life in 2026, finds they value self-expression, recognition as individuals, and personalized products and services.
They want to be understood — and sold to — on their own terms, free from the limitations of marketing assumptions.
Understanding an individual’s basic demographic profile doesn’t yield the kind of robust insights that businesses need to capture a growing share of their customers’ wallets. And much of the reputation and profitability of some high-profile research firms is wedded to longitudinal studies — some decades old and dating back to an era when mass marketing was more effective, mass media could define demand, and social networks and consumer ad-blocking technologies didn’t exist.
The limitations of traditional research were almost painfully on full display during the 2016 election when the only predictable thing was analysts’ inability to understand the new realities of the political market and, as a result, correctly foresee the outcome of the election. Given the ability of sophisticated cognitive analytics to micro-segment consumers into functional markets of one, it is past time to revise long-held marketing organizing principles, including how we buy media and classify actual and potential customers.
But despite the availability of sophisticated analytics, you can’t buy media or leads based on behavioral data. Instead, it is sold by gross rating points (a measure of how many eyeballs your campaign reaches), which are then discounted based on incidence rates — trapping marketers in a closed, less efficient, effective and economical media-buying system.
It’s more realistic to think of traditional demography as a starting point on the road to understanding the customer — necessary perhaps, but clearly not enough.
How Do You Segment Individuality?
Consider the case of a Millennial hipster couple — each earning more than six figures — pioneering the gentrification of a poverty-stricken neighborhood. Looking at their address, we might assume they were poor. Knowing their income but not their dedication to social causes such as restoring urban communities, we might market high-end luxury goods to them, not realizing they’ve rejected materialism. And gender-based assumptions are always dangerous, especially in a society exploring ideas such as gender fluidity and gender identity.
We need methodologies and tools that track across virtual communities and the physical world, giving us practical insights into behaviors, values, and attitudes.
Need more reason to question the traditional approach? Look at how more consumers are self-selecting into the demographic cohorts they believe they belong in, including previously unambiguous areas such as ethnicity and gender. And we know that for a variety of reasons, from benign exaggeration on a dating website to criminal fraud, people often create false digital selves.
Brands need to leverage a new portfolio of digital technologies and social science tools. Think of flash mobs and crowd sourcing as the physical embodiment of the power of these new approaches.
Does demography explain why more than 50,000 people in 300 US cities simultaneously broke out in a song and dance in the 2015 Guinness World Record flash mob organized by ViSalus to promote its Body by Vi fitness program and the Vi-Shape Nutritional Shake? Could traditional cohort analysis have predicted that from April 2009 until today, Kickstarter would raise more than $3 billion in pledges to fund more than 125,000 projects?
The simple answer is no.
I’m not suggesting that the entire market research industry is standing still or should be abandoned. However, the challenge to today’s marketers is to find ways to act on the new insights at a scale that supports billion-dollar businesses.
We are pioneering unchartered territory, so we can’t let “perfect” become the enemy of “good.” Demography isn’t going away, unless it refuses to evolve.