The New Independents: Marketing to the Single Adult
Vice President, Quantitative Research
It wasn’t too many years ago in my agency life that I was helping edit a communications brief for an upcoming new business pitch. Our potential client was a vacuum cleaner company. I remember noticing that every paragraph in the brief describing the target and the target’s mindset started with the same word: “She.”
Can you remind me again who “she” is, I asked. It was explained that the target audience was a female head-of-household, age 35-49, married, with children. The idea, of course, was that the people who were most likely to buy this awesome new vacuum device were going to need it to clean up after their messy husbands, kids and family pets, so she could feel like an accomplished mom.
Made sense to me.
We finished the brief; and over the next several years, multiple marketing plans and ad campaigns for the brand were built – all with “her” in mind. In fact, it’s hard to remember a time when any of our marketing plans or briefs at the agency didn’t begin with the assumption that the most opportune head of household target was always married. And usually female. And quite often with kids.
THE MYTH OF THE MARRIED MAJORITY
Flash forward to September 2014. Maybe you saw the media splash that month that occurred after the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that for the first time in our national history, the number of adults who were single outnumbered those who were married. It hadn’t happened overnight – the proportion of singles had been ticking upward a point or two every year since the Bureau began reporting the statistic in 1976 – but the tipping point had finally been reached, and 50.2% of adults now reported themselves as single.
In light of this news, a few questions dawned on us, the biggest being: If 50 percent of the population is single, then why does it seem like 100 percent of marketing efforts are targeted toward married people? Was it possible that marketers were just going with the same conclusion that they always had – that 30-50 year old adults were in a married household of 4.2 people? If so, could they have lost sight of the evolution of an important untapped majority of consumers?
Our agency client, TPN, it seems, has a gift for being psychic. In that same week, they called and wanted to discuss fielding new research because they had been incubating the very same trend. If we could validate this theory, they realized, then there were overflowing opportunities to address the needs of single households, and they could help their existing and prospective client base be first to market in doing so. From independent research they commissioned, TPN estimated that just the subset of singles age 35-54 represented $567 Billion in annual spending power. We marveled that that figure was larger than Millennials’ spend in 2014-more than 11 Black Fridays; or (my favorite) roughly the GDP of Sweden.
We were eager to help. Over the next ten months, C+R and TPN jointly launched an in-depth, multi-phase, qualitative and quantitative study among single and coupled adults. Our overarching goal was to shed light on opportunities that could be realized by decoding the characteristics that differentiate single adults from their coupled counterparts in the marketplace.
We got a wealth of information from the study, not only about the raw potential of marketing to single adults, but also about a distinct set of key misconceptions about them that marketers – and even researchers (!) – fall into when characterizing what singles could mean to brands. Further, we also began a proprietary analytic blueprint for understanding the behavioral and emotional triggers of consumer categories to determine exactly where and how forward-thinking brands could step into “singles’ blind spots” and leverage the power of Households of One.
Download the white paper co-published by C+R and TPN
Millions of Singles, Billions of Dollars:
The Rise of the New Independents
As we’ve explored the seismic shift in the composition of American households, it’s clear that singles making up the majority of adults is only the first step. Let’s delve deeper into how this new majority is reshaping the consumer landscape, challenging existing marketing paradigms, and offering unprecedented opportunities for brands willing to adapt.
The Single Adult is Not Who We Thought they Were
I mentioned recently that C+R and agency partner TPN launched a proprietary consumer research study on single adults, stemming from the revelation that for the first time in US history, singles outnumber those who are married. That trend was interesting in its own right, but we suspected that this shift represented serious opportunity to the marketing world, since everywhere we looked we saw marketing that was decidedly married-centric.
What we found when we explored singles’ attitudes and behaviors to brands, shopping, and lifestyles confirmed our suspicion: the face of single adults in 2015 was very different than the one that marketers and even market researchers may have set in their minds many years back, and never evolved.
JUST DON’T CALL ME ‘SINGLE’
Early in our research, it became very clear that for as many conventional wisdom myths that we might have held for married people, there were at least as many stereotypes out there that marginalize singles. For starters, we heard that just the term “single” itself had some stigma attached to it. Research participants told us that sure, the term was technically true for households of one, but for many the word single seemed to imply a fault or an uncomfortable state before being able to achieve “couplehood.” In fact, though, the group of single adults in the study much more often painted a picture of enjoyment of freedom and flexibility in their singlehood that they were in no hurry to trade.
While we felt fine using the term single as a technical description, we recognized that the fundamental changes in households of one required an improved term. We named them The New Independents.
As the study progressed, we found we were able to bust many myths that seemed to still be based on the “single minority era” 50 years in the past. For example:
- MYTH: Singles are lonely until the time that they can finally be coupled.
- TRUTH: More than ever before, New Independents are fully content with their life status and the freedom of choices it brings.
- MYTH: Singles have less spending power, and struggle to establish themselves financially.
- TRUTH: New Independent households age 30-50 have a higher INCOME PER CAPITA than their coupled counterparts, and spend it more independently on categories like leisure and entertainment.
- MYTH: Singles are reckless in their spending and purchase impulsively, making them difficult to market to.
- TRUTH: New Independents are savvy shoppers who have a unique freedom to purchase what they want when they want to vs. when they need to, indicating a need for a different set of purchase “proof points.”
- MYTH: Singles are effectively reached by one-size-fits-all marketing plans, most of which tend to be built around family-centric narratives.
- TRUTH: New Independents do indeed notice the lack of marketing toward them, and indicate they would respond to brands that are relevant to their lifestyle.
THE OPPORTUNITY AHEAD
So it is clear that the vast majority of marketers don’t have specific plans in place to leverage single consumers, and that there is huge opportunity awaiting. Of course, the size of that opportunity will have much to do with the goods and services category in question. For example, there’s probably a lot of “white space” in financial services (imagine speaking to the set of people whose financial goals are NOT paying for college tuition or a child’s wedding!), while there’s probably not as much obvious open singles territory in, say, the diaper category.
Right now, C+R and TPN are continuing to audit the many consumer and retail categories from our study’s data set, and we intend to keep the conversation flowing — both in public and in direct discussions with both agencies’ clients and friends – about where we think the greatest opportunities might be.
More than identifying where the opportunities are, we’ll be sharing some insight on WHAT marketers might want to do to activate New Independents. The study yielded a set of key behavioral and attitudinal personality markers unique to singles that provide a framework to reach them. By leveraging the markers that are most critical to the category, we can characterize category opportunities based on their alignment with the set of key indicators of “singles distinction” derived from the foundational research, and prescribe a path for matching brands to their most opportune New Independent consumers.
Earlier this month (October 2015), TPN and C+R co-published our first white paper on this topic: Millions of Singles, Billions of Dollars: The Rise of the New Independents, which contains much more detail about the study and the opportunity at stake.