Why Profiling is Good For You

diversity, profiling, marketing segmentation, targeting, positioning, writing copy, targeting minority audiences

I’ve been in marketing for many, many years — in fact, I could say for most of my life. I grew up in a family-owned business that I was forced to work in at a very young age. My father had some unique ways of promoting his business that my brother and I were conscripted into. One of those was riding through the streets and neighborhoods of Milwaukee as our dad drove a van painted with do-nut characters, with speakers on the top blaring out Chuck Berry songs.

He’d stop on a street and direct us to get out and go to the houses on the street, ringing doorbells and handing out flyers. It was always such a relief when no one was home and we could just tuck the flyer in the door or under a doormat. It was always such an embarrassment when somebody actually opened the door. We did the same thing in smaller communities surrounding Chippewa Falls when we moved there. This was even more devastating; it’s much easier to be incognito in a large city — in smaller communities, people tended to recognize us. As a very shy, chubby kid with short, curly, red hair and freckles, I really didn’t want to be noticed.

But I digress. My point is that marketing has been, in a certain sense, in my blood since very early in my childhood. Later, I gravitated to a career in marketing readily, and I love every aspect of it. I understand the principles well; they come naturally to me. Sometimes, though, that can be problematic because it can cause me to overlook what others don’t so readily understand.

This brings me to the topic of this blog post: why profiling is good for you.

A few years ago, I was teaching a capstone public relations course at a local university. For the capstone, students were presented with a real-life issue. They were broken into teams and charged with creating a public relations campaign to address the issue. That semester, the campaign was designed to address the university’s challenge in recruiting diverse students to campus. It’s been a perpetual challenge for this school and an area of ongoing focus.

Throughout the semester, we talked about the steps in developing communication campaigns, the importance of understanding the target audience and the concepts of segmenting, targeting and positioning — three key elements in marketing communications. It certainly seemed, throughout the semester, that they understood it. They clearly knew who their primary target audience was: minority students in high school or at other colleges and universities.

But, at the end of the semester when the students presented their campaigns, I discovered that they somehow didn’t connect the dots when it came to identifying a target audience and then creating communications to speak specifically to that target audience. Their campaigns were, without exception, generic in tone. The messages, images, communication channels, etc., were not selected to specifically target minority populations. Why? In discussing this with them as we debriefed on the assignment, they said: “It’s wrong to profile.”

To me, the ability to get inside the heads of a target audience, and then identify channels and create messages designed to connect with that audience, is fundamental to marketing communication. And it fundamentally requires profiling, or generalizing, about target populations. To marketers, that’s just part of the job — a really important part of the job. To non-marketers (including these students), generalizing about certain groups — particularly minority groups — is wrong. And, of course, they’re right. But, that’s what we do in marketing.

That’s a big bunch of cognitive dissonance! 

Effective marketing requires profiling. As marketers, we do profile. We do try to direct messaging to individuals based on generalizations we make about them. We must. If we don’t, we don’t connect. We end up with bland, generic messaging that doesn’t connect with anyone.

People are all different, so we need to segment them into smaller groups and target them with specific messages we believe are likely to resonate with them because of their general personal characteristics. Now, this doesn’t mean we should do this based on personal biases or false assumptions. We need to study, and understand, our audiences so we can connect with them effectively. But, by virtue of the work that we do, unless we’re connecting with people one-on-one, one at a time, we must generalize.

To me, it’s interesting how readily I can compartmentalize profiling from a marketing standpoint from profiling in general. In general, I agree with my students. Yes, it is wrong to attribute certain characteristics to an entire class of people. In marketing, though, I believe just the opposite. (I think someone once said that the definition of brilliance — or was it insanity? — is the ability to hold two disparate thoughts in your mind at the same time.)

The considerations of the appropriateness of profiling also tend to present different levels of concern. It’s one thing to recognize the importance of sending different messages, in different ways, to children vs. adults, or women vs. men, or urbanites vs. ruralists. But, when we move into other market segments, like various minority groups, sensitivities may certainly arise. Still, the importance of profiling in marketing cannot be denied, or dismissed.

It just, I’ve come to recognize, takes a little time to get used to.

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