Stop targeting your consumers! (Do you want to kill them?)

Paradigm Shit Targeting Cartoon

The use of the term “targeting” has always driven me nuts. I mean seriously, is that any way to approach someone you want to build a meaningful relationship with? And while we’re at it, who wants to be thought of as a “consumer” — something whose sole purpose is to mindlessly ingest whatever is shoved down their throat until they explode in Monsieur Creosote-esque glory? I’ve spent 25 years in strategy — half of them in marketing and advertising, latterly working with design thinking and wicked problems — and this de-personalising language is ubiquitous. It’s also toxic and counterproductive. Why? The language we use determines — and reveals — how we see things.

The language we use determines — and reveals — how we see things.

The mental model or framework we are using to make sense of what’s going on for us. It determines the way we interpret information and the decisions we make. If we assume someone is thick, we’ll dumb down how we address them, dismiss their opinions, and ignore any evidence they might be bright, as the Rosenthal-Jacobson study showed. If we assume they’re right, we get the Pygmalion effect . If we see ourselves as unlucky we’ll miss opportunities, lose out on the rock-star car spots, and take fewer risks (since what’s the point?). Our mental model creates our reality.

Business (and corporations) rely on the mental models of the military, war, sport and factories, all of which have the lenses of control and de-personalisation at their core. Hence the cliché “It’s business, it’s not personal.” Bollocks. We know we make decisions emotionally and then post-rationalise them. And if it wasn’t personal, we wouldn’t keep going on about brand loyalty.

These metaphors may be useful in some contexts, but not when we’re trying to build healthy relationships. And let’s face it, that’s precisely what marketing, advertising and design thinking are all about. What’s the point of doing all those interviews, empathy maps and journey maps — of really trying to empathise with a person’s experience and understand their world — if all they are to you is a wallet with a gaping maw and a target painted on their chest? Do you really think that’s how to give them the warm and fuzzies?

So why not use language of relationships? Take a minute to consider how you would answer each of these in turn, pausing to answer each in your head as you go, and notice how differently you respond to the shifts:

Define target market” vs “Who do we want to seduce?” or “Who do you want to befriend?”

“Define brand proposition” vs “What’s important to them? How can we help them achieve that?”

You don’t answer them the same way do you? You’ll likely want to close one down with some assertive bullet points, and open the other up to explore.

So please. Enough with “targeting” and “customer lifetime value” and “grabbing a bigger share of wallet” and “retention rates”. Enough with the left-brain illusion of control and certainty. Bring on the honest fuzziness of real human interactions. Embrace the emotions that are at the heart of those interactions and the decisions you are asking people to make. Replace some of the BS “hard” metrics with metrics that mean something.

Bring on the honest fuzziness of real human interactions.

You wouldn’t use that language to think about someone you wanted to date or marry, so why use it to think about the people on whom your business depends? If you want to build deeper, more loyal relationships with your customers, don’t think of them as consumers, and don’t target them.

Relate to them instead.


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