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The biggest marketing fallacy? The idea of an average customer

If you’re selling to everyone, you’re selling to nobody


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Aliza Rosenfelder

3 years ago | 4 min read

If you're selling to everyone, you're selling to nobody

Chang Duong via Unsplash
Chang Duong via Unsplash

Can you imagine a dating profile where someone lists themselves as “average” in the hope they’ll have mass market appeal? I can’t, but for many products it’s the gold standard that by designing for the average person they can serve 80% of the market. Yet, what is the average consumer? In an attempt to target the supposed average, you may end up creating something for a strange hybrid that does not actually exist or neglecting a key aspect of your market.

One of the most bizarre examples of this was the creation of a pilot’s cockpit that kept resulting in plane crashes. The reason? It was based on average height and hand measurements. Yet, when researchers took the measurements of 4,000 pilots not one of them conformed to this supposed average. The engineers redesigned the cockpit to cater to the variety of human shapes observed and the crashes stopped. Similarly the only phone that could easily fit into women’s hands was the iPhone SE, which either suggests that every major phone manufacturer cannot manage basic data collection or that women are not considered a significant consumer segment.

Even the word itself has become loaded, if your line manager decides to use that word in a performance review, you are most likely uploading your CV to Indeed in the not too distant future. From an advertiser’s perspective, we’re living in a golden age of ad personalisation, but when looking to target the average consumer David Ogilvy’s old adage holds true. Consumers don’t think how they feel, they don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say. A persona you’re looking to target may be a composite of traits that are not present in an actual human being.

This can be the only reason I can think of for the roll out of Harley Davidson perfume in the 90s. I’ve never been on a date and the other party disappointed I did not smell like a motorbike. It may have been an attempt to broaden their audience, but today it seems as unlikely as a Kardashian endorsing silent retreats. The perfumes were, perhaps unsurprisingly, withdrawn from the market due to a lack of popularity. However, just as companies can roll out products that have a limited appeal, they can also create an air of exclusivity that increases the desirability of their offerings.

A powerful case for this is the prevalence of Ralph Lauren in hip-hop culture. When I think of a Ralph Lauren ad, what comes to mind is someone in a country club playing polo with improbably clean clothes. However, neither Ralph Lauren himself nor the Hip-Hop artists who love his products would be welcome in the institutions venerated in his advertising. On a certain level, not being born with silver spoons in their mouths helped propel both forward, but the dichotomy between the advertising and the people who are most passionate about the products is fascinating. To me, it provides an insight into human psychology that so many of us buy into this image of exclusivity, however ersatz it may be.

What Ralph Lauren and the vast majority of luxury fashion brands understand intuitively is what Steve Jobs famously said: People don’t buy products, they buy better versions of themselves. In Ralph Lauren’s case it’s preppy clothes symbolising a lifestyle of ease and affluence, but even though the image is exclusive, a piece of it can belong to anyone for a certain price point. Though few of us are lucky enough to be born into a world of New England mansions and ponies, Ralph Lauren’s marketing makes an extraordinary life seem somehow accessible. The world of luxury fashion taps into a universal human desire to be seen as slightly better than the person next to you whilst conforming to society’s expectations. Everyone hopes to be their best self, not just like the guy next to them.

This may be why when brands try to appeal to the average person, it often has unintended consequences. The BBC’s brand erosion is a perfect example of why you need to tread carefully, especially when you’re a public body whose executives can earn 9 times the Prime Minister’s salary. The BBC’s internal idea of an average British citizen seems out of touch with what the British public actually want. This was illustrated by an internal decision last summer not to broadcast Rule Britannia on the last night of the proms which was met with public outrage and ultimately a U-turn. In light of this, when surveyed 48% of the British public felt that the BBC had failed to be impartial in recent years, while less than a third, 29%, thought it had succeeded at remaining impartial. When the central pillar of the BBC brand, impartiality, is in jeopardy it suggests that the corporation’s idea of its consumers is out of touch.

In this respect the BBC and the world of medical research are aligned in inadvertently focusing on a flawed selection of data to represent the supposed average. If there’s a place where you do not want to be seen as just like everyone else, it’s under the eye of a clinician whose care you depend on. However, persistent use of flawed mathematical models has permeated the world of medicine. The failure of the BMI to take into account muscle mass and bone density is well known, but in knee replacements there are six standard sizes which seem to work for nobody. In fact, according to leading Orthopaedic Surgeon Paul Jairaj 25–40% of people feel worse than they did before after having the replacement. Like the average cockpit, the average knee replacements are not fit for purpose.

To conclude, we live in a world where there is more data than ever before and an average persona can easily be generated. However, we may inadvertently create something that only works for a hypothetical average and not a living breathing human being. I may be average in many respects, especially if you’ve ever watched me attempt any kind of dancing, but I suspect that nobody wants to think of themselves in this way. When building any product whether it’s mechanical, medical or personal maybe it would help to think of it being used by a person and not an average.

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Aliza Rosenfelder

Google for Startups UK Ambassador | LSE | Blockchain


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