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By Bob Relihan, Senior Vice President

When I started in research, my mother began complaining to me that she hated to be asked her age. But, what I think really bothered her was that she would be terminated when she answered. No one cared about the opinions of someone over fifty-five. Back then, we all knew that "seniors" were stuck in their brand and purchasing preferences. They weren't really worth marketing to. This was never absolutely correct, but it didn't matter when there were such large groups of young families in their twenties and early thirties and growing families in their late thirties and forties.

Well, I am now the age my mother was then. And, I still notice a fair number of surveys designed to terminate me. Even terminate Arnold. This is despite the fact I seem to be tremendously brand promiscuous (How many different craft beers are there?), I am constantly trying the latest gadget, and I shop for furniture like I am establishing a new household. Boomers will always be shoppers, in search of the next new thing. What's more, there is always a "new thing."

The point of this is not simply to take umbrage at being ignored by marketers. The population is much more diverse than it once was, and putting together even a basic project involves a wide range of choices. Designing a simple focus group project with the four-by-four matrix of men vs. women and over vs. under 35 just does not cut it anymore. Those simple and clear demographics once could serve as short hand for a basket of variables. Now, no more.

What to do:


  • If you want to use some traditional qualitative methodology, segment your interviews on the basis of meaningful life stage variables -- for example, the presence or absence of children under five -- and ignore the age of the participants.

  • Or, segment your interviews on the basis of meaningful behavioral differences, even if that behavior is not directly related to the category in which you are interested. We have all observed that consumers who exercise regularly are markedly different in their general attitudes from those who do not exercise. This difference is much more meaningful across a wide range of products and services than some arbitrary age difference.

But, the ultimate answer to this fragmentation of the marketplace and the proliferation of meaningful distinctions among consumers, whatever their age or sex might be, is to take advantage of digital technology to capture individual consumers in the moment of the particular behavior in which you are interested. If I can have consumers easily record their food preparation, their housecleaning, whatever, and provide the context for this behavior, deciding which bucket each falls into becomes much less important. Their behavior, in all its detail, will define them.