If I was going to recommend just one piece of research to my clients – or indeed any business – without hesitation it would be this:

Find out who buys your product.

It’s a fairly common theme for research, but even so I’ve found that surprisingly few brands have a good handle on it.  Pretty much all have a good idea of who they want to buy their product, or who they think is buying their product, but very few actually know who truly is buying their product.

Why this is I do not know.  Cost I suppose.  It feels kind of wasteful to spend money researching people who you’ve already “captured”.  But perhaps a secondary disincentive is fear; fear that you won’t like what you find.

This fear is well founded, since I’ve found that almost invariably the true nature of a brand’s consumer base is very different from their idealised conception of it.  It is always less educated, less trendy, less youthful, lower status, and generally all around less “aspirational” than the brand would like it to be.  People tend to think they’re serving Michelle Obama when they’re actually serving Homer Simpson, and they find this pretty depressing when they figure this out.

I however don’t find this depressing.  In fact I think it’s fairly liberating.

What it means is that targeting is much less meaningful than we imagine it to be. 

We do not need to appeal explicitly to a certain group in order to be successful with that group.  In fact we can do the opposite: we can target ourselves at tiny slivers of the population safe in the knowledge that it will not restrict our sales accordingly.

This is important, because the narrower the target, the more distinctive the brand.

Broadly targeted brands – at pains to show that they are “for everyone” – are dull; and consequently appeal strongly to no-one.  However narrowly targeted brands – because they can be something particular – are vibrant and characterful; and thus attract a broad pool of people due to their outsized market presence.

This is what I all “the targeting paradox”:

The narrower your target market, the broader your overall appeal.

A classic example of the targeting paradox in action is the Marlboro Man.  Aside from the obvious fact that cigarette brands can’t advertise anymore, I find it unlikely that such ad creative would ever get commissioned today, purely due to its supposed lack of inclusiveness.  It is after all, extremely macho; and thus would seemingly alienate not only all women, but a good chunk of men too.   Needless to say however this isn’t what happened – the Marlboro Man is credited, explicitly, with making that brand the number 1 cigarette with women.  Crazy right?  It’s as if people are actually happy to buy a product which doesn’t precisely mirror themselves.

A modern equivalent of this same dynamic can be found with the anecdote I’ve mentioned before about Grenade – the most childishly masculine brand in UK grocery – selling to an equal split of men and women.

Quite why we should be surprised by this I do not know.  I mean, nobody is stupid enough to think that expensive diving watches are only bought by deep-sea divers – so why do they think that such blunt logic applies to more everyday brands?

Of course marketers have long understood the idea of “aspiration”; of selling to the person someone would like to be as opposed to who they are.  But in truth it goes wider than that.  People are generally more than happy to buy products made neither for the person they are nor the person they wish they could be.  Distinctive and memorable tends to do the trick, especially in categories you don’t think too much about.

So that’s the bottom line this week.  By narrowing your target you enable yourself to take ever more strong and distinctive positions.  This equates to clarity, cut through, and above all else charisma – something that moves people far more powerfully than the illusion that the brand was made for them.

I hope it goes without saying that I don’t wish to suggest that targeting counts for nothing.  Certainly you can see solid trends across socio-economic groups, and in other similarly broad categories.  Premium brands do indeed appeal to people with more money, for instance.  That’s obvious.  But when it comes to the juice, the interesting stuff like archetypes and cultural niches, then the picture is much less clear, and you can free yourself to have much more fun.

Never fall into the trap of believing that the people you target are the people who actually buy you.  Life isn’t that simple.  And thankfully it’s not that boring either.