Segments, Social Facts and Shared Experiences

In a general election that didn’t lack for tension and excitement, one thing was missing. Mondeo Man. He first made his appearance in the 1997 election when Tony Blair saw a man washing his car and realised this was the sort of voter New Labour needed to seize power.

That election also featured ‘Worcester Woman’, the 2001 poll gave us ’Pebbledash People’ and in 2005 Labour went after the ‘Bacardi Breezer Generation’. Political campaigning has become more sophisticated – more data is being collected and analysed – and more targeted. The broad brush demographic segments that defined these earlier elections were largely absent from the 2015 event.

The Tory campaign this year, orchestrated by Lynton Crosby, tried to understand people in terms of their attitudes towards polarising issues such as immigration, the NHS and HS2. And in the news there was less talk of the catchy demographic labels that have defined past election campaigns.

These labels were always, to some degree, public relations effects and were likely the result of more sophisticated data and analysis than their generality implied. But still, there’s something rather hollow about them.

There’s something about these labels that is simultaneously their great strength and their fundamental flaw. They are things of which people can assume they have a shared understanding. But, in reality, what they really see behind the label is likely rather different. As with most works of fiction, metaphors or social representations it is difficult to be certain that what you ‘see’ is shared by others. While strength lies in this flexibility – we can all agree on something without knowing exactly what it is we think we agree on – there also lies danger.

Who is Mondeo Man?

I (think) I know what Mondeo Man looks like – where he comes from, what he believes and how he thinks – but how much overlap is there between what I think and what you (and many others) think Mondeo Man is? If I’m the reader of a bit of journalism about Mondeo Man that doesn’t matter.

If “Mondeo Man” as an idea – a representation of a social groups – is meant instead as a platform for activity – be that political or commercial – then it might be more of a problem. How can an idea that’s not universally shared act as a central and organising force?

Land of Segments

Of course, politics is not the only domain where the idea of segments runs deep. They are a mainstay of the commercial world – useful tools to distinguish audiences and drive targeted marketing, and product or service differentiation. Beyond the (important) debate about how segments get created – through psycho-demographic, behavioural, attitudinal techniques – there’s another discussion worth having. That is, namely, how do they work as usable and useful forms of representations: representations of what is an inescapably messy social reality.

For segments to be useful there needs to be general agreement that they represent recognisable groupings that have a coherence in and of themselves, and a coherence in relation to other segments.

But agreements about whether a segment or group of segments makes sense ultimately lies in the question of whether these representations of a population make intuitive sense. Do they represent reality well? Or, perhaps more precisely, are they commonly agreed to represent reality well?

In Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Richard Rorty suggested that:

 “the desire for theory for knowledge is a desire for constraint – a desire to find ‘foundations’ to which one might cling, frameworks beyond which one must not stray, objects which impose themselves, representations which cannot be gainsaid.”

The same might be said of segments, core forms of market knowledge. When a set of segments provide ‘foundations to which one might cling’ they have immense power. They can shape discussion, inform decisions and guide activity. But to become things that diverse people, teams and functions can ‘cling to’ they need to feel right.

How these all important representations get created is a key part of making them feel right. They are typically the process of both qualitative and quantitative research – processes which are owned and managed by small subsets of their eventual users: a research department. But in our work we are increasingly seeing the value of making that process of creation (and subsequent use) a team sport. Practically, that means engaging broader teams in the research which informs segmentation AND working on what that new knowledge of the segments means for commercial activity.

For representations of a complex reality to become truly social facts, they need to be the result of shared experiences. Share experiences lead towards representations of the world which all can agree and act on.