The marketing expert Philip Kotler postulates that market segmentation is the process of devising subsections in a product market, such that targeted customers can be sold products befitting not only their needs, but preferences. These subsections can be generated through exhaustive analyses of demographics, location, psychographics, gender, and behavioral patterns, among other attributes. Unfortunately, categorization inevitably leads to generalization. To illustrate, one market segmentation “trope” that persists to this day is that power tools are targeted to middle-aged males, mostly suburban husbands, thus cultivating the stereotype that work involving light machinery and power tools is more or less an exclusive domain of middle-aged men. As this example puts forth, generalizing tendencies and behaviors as representative of an entire particular group, which is stereotyping, perpetuates myths about the limitations of other groups and creates biases against them. The inescapable truth is that market segmentation has traditionally depended on these stereotypes. Therefore, it is imperative to know that market segmentation is responsible with assigning groups based on attributes, and not assigning attributes to groups (or stereotyping), to come up with a market category.
The perils of stereotyping
Still, for obvious reasons, one is reasonably tempted to think that many of those who create and define market segments are guided not by the accuracy of analytics, but by their own personal prejudices. This is evident in advertisements, which is the conventional mode by which promotional messages about products are conveyed to the targeted market segments. For example, the grossly uneducated and plainly racist notion that a lighter complexion is more desirable and superior to a darker one has continually been fed to consumers by multinational personal care brands like Dove and Nivea in their regrettable African ad campaigns. This clearly demonstrates that market segmentation, when based on assigning attributes to groups, is not only insensitive, but potentially dangerous. Such advertisements promote the false notion that many people prefer a lighter skin than a darker one, inciting society to regress to the unenlightened ages - colonization and worse, slavery.
Recognizing the long term damage that can be caused by confusing segmenting with stereotyping, a great number of companies have begun to segment their markets by challenging social, cultural, racial, and gender stereotypes. Thus, to illustrate the vital role that market segmentation plays, it is important to cite an issue that still divides society - homosexuality, and how it is presented in marketing campaigns. In 2012, retail giant J.C. Penney aired advertisements that featured families with same sex parents. In 2015, Campbell’s soups followed suit with a Star Wars-themed advertisement depicting two fathers delightfully taking turns in feeding their son. As expected, these realistic advertisements caused a significant furor among right-wing, ultra-religious, and not to mention, homophobic groups. In response, the organizations firmly stood their ground, while some corporations went against the grain. In 2016, athletic apparel maker Nike famously terminated its endorsement deal with boxing superstar Manny Pacquiao following the latter's anti-LGBT comments. In doing so, Nike championed the rights not only of the LGBT community, but also sent a strong message to society. In 2018, Nike's stocks soared at a record high after it released an ad that featured beleaguered civil rights activist and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. In 2019, razor manufacturer Gillette released an advertisement showing a father elaborately and affectionately teaching his transgender son how to shave. Due to the prevalence of socially relevant and truthful advertisements that carefully and sensitively carry out market segmentation, the backlash was considerably less vitriolic. The media, television, and online streaming services such as Netflix are replete with advertisements, movies, and series that realistically portray the natural state and humanity of homosexuality. The significant market segment which is the suburban American family has evolved from the 1950s “working dad and housewife mom” image to the 1980s and 90s “working parents,” to today’s “two same-sex working parents” image, without downplaying the presence of the archetypal “dad-mom” image. These aforementioned advertisements, aside from being strokes of marketing genius, epitomize market segmentation done to perfection. It is fair to say that simultaneous with the ongoing zeitgeist shift is the slow but promising evolution of market segmentation.
Stereotyping still plays a part
However, it cannot be wholly dismissed that stereotyping is vital to life and survival, and to a certain extent, market segmentation. Why? Because situations are swiftly and effectively resolved with it. Case in point: it is highly likely that men will enjoy a conversation about the most durable all-terrain tire brand more than women drivers will. This type of stereotyping is of great help when pressed for time in deciding who the ideal target customers for an all-terrain tire should be. While such an assertion seems almost accurate, it is insensitive, sexist, and dangerous because it oversimplifies and downplays women’s interests, while also ignoring the truth that other genders can also be intrigued and be potential buyers of all-terrain tires. Thus, an ideal and effective market segmentation advertisement would be if the tire brand’s target segment are men but the presence of non-male, niche segment is shown and acknowledged. Hence, the ideal advertisement would be men raving over the performance of a tire alongside a couple of equally fascinated women and transgender drivers is an example of stereotyping that seamlessly transitions towards effective market segmentation.
Market segmentation now and beyond
It is obvious that when market segmentation retains its true essence of assigning groups based on attributes and not the other way around, it is possible to continually forge social harmony and debunk insidious prejudices that impede progress. It is crucial to exert conscious effort to dissociate research-based market segmentation from plain stereotyping in marketing. Lastly, it must be understood that market segmentation is inextricably linked to discerning patterns in consumer behavior, which simply means that it cannot and will never be an exact science, because unpredictability is a characteristic of human behavior. Thus, for as long as human behavior is unpredictable, market segmentation and its processes, as well as stereotyping, can never be a truly accurate means of understanding and segmenting consumers.