Episode #120: The Dangerous Allure of Marketing Personas

Grad Conn

April 22, 202117 min read

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For years, marketers have been using personas, those fictional representations of supposedly real people that help you target your marketing messages. The problem with these fictional people is that they’re, well, fictional. They don’t exist. Not as individuals, and not as groups.

But there’s a better alternative. It’s time to start looking at consumers in a new way, using real behaviors and interests instead of manufactured demographics.

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Yes, the sweet, sweet strains of that sweet, sweet guitar. And that can only mean one thing. It’s time for the CXM Experience. And as always, I am Grad Conn, your host, I am the CXO, or Chief Experience Officer for Sprinklr. And for those of you who don’t know, Sprinklr is a unified CXM platform. And what we do is help you listen to what your customers are saying about you, help you sort that in a way that makes sense, and then help you respond to it in an intelligent fashion. And we’re going to talk a lot about what that all means in today’s episode, because today we’re going to talk about Personas, an old tried and true marketing tactic, technique, strategy, tool, however you want to play it, that people still use. I’ll talk a little bit about why you probably should think differently about that. This may actually go into rant territory today, I’m not a big ranter. But there’s a non-zero chance that we may have some ranting. So, let’s see where we go. I’m all hopped up on iced tea and lemonade here. So ready to rock, that’s right.

Before I do, we obviously call this show the CXM Experience and the experience is very much a nod to the Jimi Hendrix experience. And if you experienced and Jimi Hendrix if you’re familiar with that. I came from Seattle, obviously Jimi Hendrix came from Seattle, very big, cultural thing around Jimi Hendrix in Seattle. And I was listening to a show on Sirius XM, hosted by John Densmore, who’s the former drummer for The Doors. So, if you know John Densmore, he does a number of different things out there. But he’s a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And he appeared on every recording made by the band, has famously great hands, and has done some famous fills that have become the staple of most drummers’ repertoire although he criticizes his feet, which is interesting. He was self- critiquing his own drumming style, it was fun to listen to him. He’s on a show on our channel on Sirius XM called Classic Vinyl. I just discovered it recently. I don’t know how I ran across it. But Classic Vinyl is an amazing channel. It’s all albums, like classic rock albums from late 60s, early 70s, you know, Cream and King Crimson and all sorts of Doors and Jimi Hendrix and all sorts of amazing stuff. And then some Beatles and Stones and stuff like that too as well, of course, but just an incredible array of amazing music in this kind of classic vinyl, that the playlist is absolutely fabulous. And John Densmore is hosting a show. I guess they started a couple of days ago. And the show was basically the top 50 albums as voted by listeners – top 50 albums as voted by listeners … that were turning 50 years old. And it’s amazing when you see some of these albums that are turning 50. I think still there’s a Who album in there, and you listen to this thing and it’s still way out there. It’s still rocking. And that was 50 years ago. It’s pretty amazing. And one of the albums they were talking about is the Cry of Love. Cry of Love was actually the first posthumous album by Jimi Hendrix. It was supposed to be his fourth studio album. And most of the songs that are on the Cry of Love were the proposed Track listings by Hendrix, but he obviously wasn’t around for the final track selection. So, Eddie Kramer, who’s recording engineer, and Mitch Mitchell, who was Jimi Hendrix’s drummer, plus his manager, Michael Jeffrey, worked as producers and came up with the final tracks and a reasonably well received album. Listening to it today, you still can’t be anything but stunned by the scope of Jimi Hendrix’ talent. And I had a very enjoyable drive back from PT yesterday, with that cranked all the way over in here, the fingers on the guitar strings, really something else. What were we going to talk about today? Oh yeah, personas, so let’s move on. Let’s get into some marketing stuff, maybe we should just play the Cry of Love for the next 10 minutes. Now … no, no …that wouldn’t make any sense.

So, let’s talk about personas. First, let me describe them. Most people call personas and the persona tool Personas. But there are some other names out there. And some businesses have trademarked different forms of this and talk about it different ways. So let me describe it so you understand on a base level what we’re talking about. And let me tell you why they’re rubbish. And then we’ll go from there. And this is actually spurred by a conversation I had with somebody not at Sprinklr but an individual that I met, and we were just talking marketing. And I made my point of view on Personas known and he kind of came back with, “I really like personas” and told me why he thinks Personas are really awesome. I didn’t feel like getting into a big argument with him but this is my argument. So, I’m doubling down on the rest of that conversation now and, and yeah, he knows who he is. And he’s probably listening. So, here’s the rest of what I wanted to say about Personas.

I started my career at Procter and Gamble, Procter and Gamble being the soap manufacturer based in Cincinnati, Ohio. They make products like Tide and Downy and Cheer and Spic and Span, Swiffer, Always, Pampers, the list goes on and on. And I worked in detergents my whole career. Actually, it’s not completely true. I started in detergents, worked on all the detergents. I started on Tide, which is an amazing place to start and really set me up for my career at P&G. Then I moved on to and was brand manager for all the, what they called, minor brands. So that would be Cheer, Bold, Oxydol, Dreft, Ivory Snow, and there’s probably one that I’m missing right now. I think so anyway, so there is one more out there, I think. And so, the minor brands were all the other detergents, did that for many years. And then I got promoted to the rinse cycle, which is really exciting. And then I got to work on Downy, I was a brand manager for Downy, which was really fun, and did that for a while and had a lot of fun with Downy then got to the dryer. So, made it to Downy sheets, which was really an exciting launch. I don’t think they’re around anymore. But Downy sheets were a big deal when we launched them, and then kind of moved on to other things that clean things. But it was the progress of laundry room was very exciting. And then, I eventually left and went into Tech. But at P&G we ran a lot of TV advertising, that was our primary form of communication. And the target market on every creative brief was always the same: women, 18 to 49. And there was very little a 49-year-old mother has in common with her 18-year- old daughter, but that was our target. That’s how we targeted it. And so, you could say that’s an oxymoron. That’s not a target audience. That’s a general audience. And I would agree with you.

Now, as we started doing more segmentation, we started trying to build a deeper understanding of our customers, so we could talk to them in different ways. And so, we would build these very complicated segmentation studies, with our market research department, using surveys, and would come up with a set of segments. And the segments would show different propensities and sentiments towards cleaning and towards products. For example, one segment in the laundry category would be a segment called dedicated launderers. And a dedicated launderer would actually be someone who was really into laundry, liked to do it, scent was really important, got a lot of satisfaction out of doing the laundry well, folding it and seeing the laundry as an expression of love for the family. So think of this as I’m showing my love for the family by doing the laundry in a certain way. And this is how one of the ways I show love, it’s an act of service. If you ever know the love languages, that would be an act of service. And then they were casual launderers, you know, I’m coming home from work I, at the time, I’m wearing white shirts or something and it’s nice to get it done quick, I’m lightly soiled, I’m not covered in stuff. And I just want to get it done, I want to get done fast, I want move on.

Then we would then create these segments, we would create a persona around it. And this is where I think things go off the rails. So, with the dedicated launder, what do you do is you’d look at the general demographics. This would be classically how it would be done – Susan is 43 years old, she has three children, she lives in the suburbs of Chicago, she drives a GMC Yukon, volunteers … you build all these sorts of fake things about this person. And at the time, I even thought, ‘This is kind of weird’ because that’s not a real person. You just know that there’s no person that’s like this. This was just made up from kind of amalgamation of demographic factors and essentially tendencies within the dedicated laundry segment. But I’m a dedicated launderer. I get a huge amount of satisfaction from doing laundry, I love folding it. It’s a way that I show love for my family, every single thing about dedicated launderers, right down the list, that’s me. I love doing laundry, I get deep, deep, deep satisfaction from it. And you know, I’m not a suburban mom driving a Yukon. And so, it always struck me as being dangerous to create these personas, but also seductive. The seductive nature of personas is that the inability to see the person you’re talking to makes you feel rootless, makes you feel like you don’t know the person you’re talking to so you don’t know how to position your language. The problem is that by answering that need with somebody and answering that need with a specific personality and demographic type, you inevitably, as a human being, are going to overlay your own sort of stuff on top of it, because I’ll know someone like that so that person and that person’s characteristics start to become part of that persona; you create a very dangerous idea that you think you know who you’re talking to.

And I think the biggest difference is that you don’t really need to talk to people’s demographics, that actually comes from a deep-seated human issue and is the source of much of our problems as a society, which is we’re stereotyping machines. So, we see someone who looks a certain way, we start to stereotype them right away. That’s probably some kind of deep-seated reptilian instinct around, you know, you see a tiger, start running, because maybe that tiger is friendly, but most aren’t, so I’m just going to make sure I don’t get eaten by the tiger. But it’s not very productive in modern society. And so, this stereotyping machine, when you start to create demographic stereotypes, what you’re doing is you’re trapping yourself in the thinking, and quite frankly, you’re reinforcing, in some cases, racist, but certainly very anti-diverse perspectives in your mind. And I think personas, as you can tell, this is … we’re not quite in rant territory yet … but I think they’re really dangerous. I think they’re really dangerous. I think it’s the source of why much of our advertising is not reflective of the way most of society looks. I think they’re the source of why the voice and the tone of the way a lot of commercials are is not the tone of the way most society talks. I think that personas are … the devil’s work. Okay. So, you know, I’m joking a little bit on the devil’s work, but they’re definitely evil.

What should we be thinking about? And then the amazing thing to me is that personas are just as prevalent today as they’ve ever been. Partly because people are comfortable with them, partly because of this stereotyping machine that we have in our brains that is essentially the source of racism that causes us so many challenges. What we should be doing is targeting behavior. And the amazing thing about the world we live in today, and you’ve heard me talk about this a little bit is that we’re moving from the broadcast world that I described, when I first started at Procter and Gamble to a conversation world, we’re moving from broadcast marketing, to conversation marketing. And in that shift, we’re moving from this very anonymous motion, where we’re desperate to try to understand a little bit about who we’re talking to, to a motion where we’re actually talking to people and having conversations. It doesn’t really matter what they look like, doesn’t really matter where they live or you know what color their hair is or what kind of car they drive or anything. None of that’s important. What’s important is the behavior. So, if Procter & Gamble is talking to me, and I am really into fabric softener, which I am, I’ve got a great fabric softener story. I’ll tell you another podcast and you may not be into fabric softener after I tell you the story, but I still am. They should talk to me around the behavior, around why I like fabric softener, why I use it, what I use it for, what satisfaction I get out of it. They don’t need to know what I look like. It doesn’t matter.

And this is the amazing thing about what we have in this conversational web we have today is that we have the ability now to look at people’s behavior, look at what people do, look at what people show preferences for, and talk to them about that. And talk to them about that at a micro level. Now, you’ve also heard me talk about mass one to one, which is something that Mark Pritchard coined at Procter & Gamble. Of course, now, I have had people say, ‘Wow, one to one; that doesn’t seem like something I could do in my business, because I’m trying to sell a million candy bars a day’. Well, it may not be one to one, but certainly one to few. And there’s a couple of really interesting examples right now, of some of the new broadcast apps and platforms, I can’t name this specifically. But some of the new launches, what they’ve done is they’ve sort of looked at your proclivity for what you want to watch, right? So I happen to like a lot of stuff about space. My oldest daughter likes classic animation. My youngest daughter likes a lot of stuff about marine biology. So when that new channel advertises to us, they’ll advertise based on showing classic animation to my older daughter, marine biology stuff to my younger daughter and space stuff to me, same product. And you’re seeing this more and more, this high level of personalization, where you basically understand what people like, understand their proclivities, understand their interests, and then target that, regardless of what their demographics might be.

And it really is a shift from this very crude demographic targeting … I’m going to rant on that one more time in a second … to psychographic targeting, which is how you think, and the demographic targeting, I actually honestly believe it is a very dangerous thing for us to create these ideas of … there’s expression, soccer moms, … I think it’s extremely dangerous to create this idea that because you happen to be a certain race, or a certain type of person, or a certain geo, that you’re going to be a certain way, I think this is the worst thing you can do to people, because it locks us into stereotypes and leads to a lot of really evil things from a humanity standpoint, anytime we’ve tried to typecast a group, and sort of say, ‘All these people are the same’, very bad things happen. It is the worst instinct of humanity. What’s more important, I think, is to say, ‘Hey, who likes this kind of thing, who’s into this, who’s into that?’ And then let them all come in. And there’ll be different people from different places, find that interest and find that way of doing it.

So, what I would do from a marketing standpoint is I would junk that whole persona thing. I know, it’s reassuring and makes you feel like you’re talking to someone, but you’re fooling yourself, you’re literally fooling yourself, and instead, start thinking about what are the outcomes that people want? What do people look for? What are the emotional instincts that people are starting to try to exercise? Talk to me about laundry in a way that someone who really wants to show someone that they love other people wants to use laundry, it doesn’t matter where I live, and doesn’t matter what I look like. And it doesn’t matter what my gender is, none of that’s important. What’s important is my psychographic profile. And what my interests are, it’s a very different way of thinking about marketing, it’s a little less secure, because there’s a lot more of that. And you’re essentially trying to turn off your internal stereotyping machine. And we’ve all got one running 24-7, so I get it, it’s hard. But try turning that thing off and try thinking outside the box, and outside the stereotype and go for what is the unique human emotion that you’re trying to sell against and try to own that. And don’t worry about whether people have a lot of money or a little money; doesn’t really matter. What matters is what they’re thinking and how they would go about buying it. This is a bit of a companion piece to the podcast I did on why people buy no name products, where we tend to have a point of view on people who would buy no name products.

Completely wrong. People who actually buy no name products typically are people with a lot of money to spend, because they can afford to waste it. And that’s a good example of where stereotyping can get you into a lot of trouble. So that’s it. I think I contained myself reasonably well. I mean, I did say that personas were the personification of evil and all things terrible on the planet. So, I guess I kind of went downtown on them a little bit that way, but I kept my tone level. I’m a reasonably relaxed. I’ve still got half my lemonade iced tea, too. And it’s actually an Arnold Palmer. But I’ve noticed lately when I say I’m drinking an Arnold Palmer that a lot of people think it’s an alcoholic drink for some reason. I don’t know why people have come to think of Arnold Palmer as an alcoholic drink, but it’s not. It’s lemonade and iced tea together. So, I’ve not said that as much because I don’t want you to think I’m sort of boozing it up here on the CXM Experience because you know, we’re alcohol free on this show. Anyway, that’s it for today. For the CXM Experience, I’m Grad Conn, and I’ll see you … next time

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