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Digital demographics: 11 brands that are doing it right

Digital demographics: 11 brands that are doing it right Jim Nichols

It's refreshing to write an article about digital marketing that puts target over platform, by which I mean one that reflects the importance of campaign ideas over the delivery form. As an industry, digital marketing has historically had a bias toward thinking about execution first -- to such an extent that much of what passes for advertising and marketing online has no idea in it whatsoever.

Demographic targeting is one of the oldest segmentation approaches, and it's great to be able to report that strong campaigns now exist online, in mobile, in gaming -- and are aimed at the full range of ages. This reflects both the changing demos of the space and the recognition of those changes by most major brands.

In developing this article, I used the following demographic targets to identify examples:

  • Teens

  • Millennials

  • Gen X

  • Boomers

  • Seniors

It's an imperfect list, but its breadth does illustrate solid target insights reflected in efforts across our media.

Here then are some examples of demographic targeting across digital.

Ah, the leaders of tomorrow -- leading older folks in adoption of virtually every form of digital media. Because this group tends to be so platform-innovative, it should come as no surprise that media form plays a big role in marketing to them. But so too do values.

The military
No organization has a greater interest in appealing to teens than the military. It's certainly no accident that the imagery in many armed services ads shows great similarity to that of a first-person shooter game.

More on the ubiquity of gaming imagery: Most people know that the U.S. Army offers a multiplayer game online called America's Army. What you may not know is that the Army has many games designed to introduce youth to life in the service:

Gaming might be a keystone in military marketing, but so too are social networking, video, mobile, and tailored peer-to-peer experiences that enable prospects to speak directly with soldiers and hear firsthand accounts of life in the military.

And all this person-to-person marketing isn't just for guys.

Believe it or not, values and ideals are the central themes in all of these executions. In the sponsored games, virtue triumphs over evil. In daily activities, soldiers are more likely to be shown as relief providers after tsunamis than street-to-street fighters. You might disagree with such portrayals for moral or political reasons, but make no mistake -- they are central to virtually all of these communications. And that's because they are central to the sensibilities of today's teens.

Of course, many other brands are interested in appealing to teens. I am now going to talk about Axe, for no other reason than to see if iMedia Connection will let me discuss a viral effort called "Clean Your Balls" on these hallowed pages.

There's certainly a seminal idea here:

Millions of YouTube plays. 'Nuff said.

Some 200,000 people are also fans of Axe and the campaign on Facebook, where important conversations like this take place every day:

Axe has heavily integrated mobile into the mix as well, most notably in its "Hair Crisis Alert" SMS campaign:

"Thx 4 supporting
Axe Hair Crisis Relief efforts.
Guys -- Get girl-approved hair;
Girls -- Help guys get good hair.
Reply GUY or GIRL. Txt X 2 quit.
Std msg chrgs aply."

Overseas, the Axe brand has appealed to teens with an IM-delivered spin-the-can game that encourages teens to reveal sex secrets. Since few teens have a high privacy threshold, it offers the brand a prime opportunity to get intimate.

In her excellent treatise [PDF] on millennial marketing, Carol Phillips, Notre Dame professor and president of Brand Amplitude, identifies seven key characteristics of effective marketing to millennials:

1. Be authentic.
2. Be relevant.
3. Be a necessity.
4. Be a value.
5. Be socially responsible.
6. Be shareable.
7. Be an experience.

Ford's Taurus effort in partnership with car lifestyle magazine Dub reflects many of these characteristics. By talking to real millenials, not actors, Ford honestly addresses past image problems, thereby making the ultimate family car relevant to the new family values of millennials. The nice rims didn't hurt, either. But that's part of being a millennial too: Family? Flash? Doink! Let's have both!

There was a lot more than video to this effort, with digital outdoor, social media, and brand integration on the Dub site, to give just a few examples.

Oh, but perhaps you found a tuner car campaign too "easy" to qualify as a sage observation from me in this article. For you, dear reader, I offer eHarlequin.com.


Yes, that Harlequin -- famous for torn bodices and eerily hairless pirate torsos.

Yes, Virginia, Harlequin romance novels are definitely not just for Grandma anymore.

There are still pirates with hearts of gold and dusty but decidedly unstinky cowboys on some of the covers. But Harlequin is working hard to evolve and be culturally relevant to millennials. According to Book Business, Harlequin is at the forefront of e-publishing and "enhanced editions" that combine updated potboiler text with rich content, websites, and interactive experiences especially for Gen Y.

Harlequin is a leader in ebooks, offering titles on all the major platforms. In addition, the publisher offers blogging support, widgets, and badges, and extensive online marketing programs designed for the demo. Now, there's nothing to say that all this interactivity isn't relevant for all ages, but its success at attracting millennials is getting significant attention.

I Can't Believe It's Not Butter
From where I sit, I Can't Believe It's Not Butter's new campaign is genius. How do you do health product news for a not-health-obsessed target, on behalf of an irreverent brand? Cue Gloria Estefan song!

This seems quintessentially Gen X to me both because of the vintage of the song the brand parodies, and the surreal nature of the whole darned thing.

There's also the ironic fun. A thankfully non-jail-baity boy band behind our faux everywoman female lead, Megan Mullally. Majestic lyrics to boot.

Don't believe me? Visit the tub-aoke video.


The video had 3,629 views upon this writing. That's a modest number, but (assuming four views from the understandably proud brand manager), it's 3,625 more than one would reasonably expect for a song about margarine.

The ad campaign for FreeCreditReport.com, based on the fear of mundane, menial jobs, seems to be pointed squarely at Gen X. I mean, the idea of having a McJob as a result of a bad credit rating -- Douglas Coupland couldn't have written it better. While the reality of low-paying jobs is sadly known to far more people than just unlucky Gen-Xers, one of the ads comes straight out of "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."

Boomers are a massive group, and sociological pundits point to at least two segments: the early boom and the late boom. Whichever segment is being targeted, it is clear that digital advertisers understand that 45-pluses are not interested in growing old to classical music in preppy drawing rooms. We are loud and proud. We have no interest in car suspensions with as little resiliency as hominy grits. Ditto on pleated navy blue skirts that make boomer gals look like extras from "Howards End."

Cadillac marketing embodies this spirit. No car brand can stand by and grow old with its existing users, so the products and the marketing have evolved dramatically. This video, a TV ad repurposed for online, is typical. It represents genuine aspiration for men and women with a scosh of snow on the roof:

St. John Knitwear
St. John Knitwear is another great example of a brand reflecting the assertive nature of boomers. Traditionally a favorite of well-heeled mature ladies, St. John offered the sort of clothes tailor-made for the wives of Republican senators.

No, it never had the staid sensibility of The Talbots, but the brand's current lines reflect an entirely more sexy and aggressive aesthetic than seasons past. While not terribly aggressive in Web 2.0 tactics, the brand's online ads certainly reflect a desire for updated relevance to the new 45+ gal.

St. John's website also reflects the proud and involved nature of today's boomer woman. It reflects her connected lifestyle with strong community features and high-quality edutainment in the form of runway coverage and interactive features that allow you to "shop our ads."

Fiber One
On to the GI tract. If you are a boomer, you likely remember the late 1980s campaign for All Bran -- the set of ads nicknamed "slice of death," in which medical studies about colorectal cancer were the central theme. Contrast that with the today's marketing for Fiber One:

You don't use cancer to sell fiber to people who grew up eating Honey Nut Cheerios. We want sated taste buds with our clean recta.

Now on to the biggest organ of all. Dove has been covering the digital waterfront for years with its boomer-friendly celebration of beauty in all forms. When you can walk Times Square and see gigantic digital outdoor boards sporting these beautiful women, it's apparent that all forms of digital are relevant to this target.

Madison Avenue and Silicon Valley aren't doing a great job reflecting insights about seniors. Never have, of course. But at least our industry is recognizing the multifaceted nature and resilience of this audience segment. In the past, everyone over 60 was believed to be a granny, and grannies weren't a market for things beyond denture cream or adult undergarments.

A quick tour of sites with strong senior composition unearthed ads for online education, high-end jewelry, beauty regimens, cars, dating sites, banks, online brokerages, and many other categories. These ads rarely depicted people over 60, but they were there on the sites. The number and heterogeneity of these campaigns provides some indication that our industry has woken up to this market.

And then I got to thinking -- maybe the presence of such broadly targeted campaigns is a reflection of senior desires and lifestyles. The reality is that many seniors are having richer lives that are fuller of entertainment, travel, and gourmet meals than their juniors. Certainly, though, this ad for Olay Regenerist offers a decidedly more positive portrayal of fighting the signs of aging than the old Porcelana ads.

Conclusion: It's the idea, stupid
There is certainly evidence of demo-specific targeting across age cohorts in digital. But having witnessed hundreds of examples in the course of writing this article, I am struck by how the medium is less central than the messages and values. Which is as it should be. It's apparent that digital has matured to a medium that begins with an idea rather than an executional form.

We digital-centric marketers have taken a long hard look at the way we used to think about the space, and now see the centrality of the idea as paramount. It's wonderful that we have matured from an industry that ran like lemmings to every new platform. We used to care more about what we used to talk with consumers than what we were going to say. The days of "Gotta have a widget. Gotta have a widget. Why? Because I Gotta!" are behind us.

No offense to widgets intended. Some of my best friends are widgets. But you get what I am saying. Teen campaign ideas should be different than senior campaign ideas. We should talk to millennials differently than we do to Gen X or boomers. But the tools we use can come from a common list.

Jim Nichols is senior partner at Catalyst: SF.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Jim Nichols is VP of Marketing for Apsalar. Jim has 20+ years experience in over 80 different categories, including developing successful positioning and go-to-market plans for more than 40 adtech and martech companies. He joins Apsalar after...

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