Creating Your Imaginary Customer

Chrysler, Delta Airlines, Best Buy Build Marketing Personas

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Roberto Moore's pad looks pretty typical for a 28-year-old single guy. An Xbox console and an issue of ESPN The Magazine hog the coffee table. There's a hockey stick mounted on a wall. An open can of Axe deodorant sits atop an electronics cabinet. Junk food abounds, including a half-empty bag of Funyuns. And Mr. Moore, like many Hispanics, is big on his family, evidenced by several photographs on the wall above the TV.

Next door, 30-year-old Jenny Sieverson's living room bespeaks her comfortable income as a pharmaceutical-sales rep, as well as her multiple leisure pursuits. A picture she took of a mountain vista hangs on one wall. She's away so much that the only pet she can keep is in the fish bowl on an end table. And Ms. Sieverson tries to eat healthful snacks: A SoBe Lean drink and a Luna bar are among the culinary artifacts spread about.

But these rooms aren't in a Gen X apartment complex somewhere; they're on the second floor of agency Organic's building in suburban Detroit. And Mr. Moore and Ms. Sieverson aren't even real people: They are "personas" that Organic and its client, the Chrysler Group, have come up with to represent primary market segments for their new Dodge Caliber and Jeep Compass vehicles.

By creating these fictional but very dimensional characters, and even rooms where they "live," Chrysler and Organic have given their marketing teams a much better grasp on their target customers than reams of sterile data ever could. Personas allow them to journey into a relational territory where they can understand on an emotional level the most important determinants of real consumers' brand preferences and purchase decisions. And personas give marketers a meaningful shorthand for communicating with one another.

"We are finding persona rooms to be very useful in developing marketing campaigns for our new product launches," says Christine MacKenzie, Chrysler's executive director-multi-brand events and agency relations. They help Chrysler's brands "create more targeted, lifestyle-appropriate communications and to identify the right media opportunities to reach potential buyers."

Rooted in Real Life

Personas eased into software design after Alan Cooper -- who had invented Visual Basic and then sold it to Microsoft -- introduced them in 1999 in his groundbreaking book, "The Inmates Are Running the Asylum: Why High Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore Sanity." Soon, product designers at Microsoft were using personas to help design the first version of the MSN Explorer Web browser and new Windows products.

In the last few years, major-brand marketers and their agencies have introduced personas into the marketing realm. Delta Airlines, for example, created a video of "Ted," a persona that represented its primary business customers, and then showed it to thousands of flight attendants and airport personnel. Best Buy created personas to represent its five most important segments, including "Lisa," a soccer mom, and then used them to create more customer-centric stores.

And Universal Studios Orlando has seen online ticket purchases climb 80% this year after it created personas and refocused the Web site toward them.

"[Personas] help marketers get inside a customer's head and then convey your insights to a broad base of people in a company in a way that they're going to remember it," says Harley Manning, VP-Forrester Research, an online marketing research firm in Cambridge, Mass.

HomeBanc Mortgage recently created 11 different personas to represent its customers. The marketing team then checked these personas against focus groups of actual consumers to make sure it had accurately identified its major market segments-and that they hadn't drawn the personas too narrowly.

"We actually get about 90% accurate in terms of placing customers in one of our personas," says Jackie Yeaney, CMO-exec VP of the Atlanta-based lender. "If you get your personas right in the first place, you should be able to pick anyone you know and place them in one."

With the personas deemed accurate, HomeBanc focused on the most important four-especially Christina and Lee Gillespie, representing boomer and Gen Y parents who are experiencing an increase in income and can afford more house, in a better community, for them and their kids. Ms. Yeaney used "the Gillespies" as the linchpin of a Web-site redesign in 2005. Pictures of people in the segment that they represent flash up and, even more important, HomeBanc changed the functionality to be more in line with what the Gillespie segment wanted to see, such as online bill payment and mortgage information that was made very prominent on the home page.

Just as important, persona talk has caught on throughout the company. "It helps everyone outside your core marketing people figure out what you're trying to do, because our personas help them relate to the actual people they're serving," Ms. Yeaney says. "Other executives have even started using the names of our personas when they talk about improving the customer-service experience."

Target Markets Come Alive

At Zippo, a family-owned lighter brand in Bradford, Penn., North American Marketing Communications Manager Patrick Grandy began using personas largely as a way to help his marketing and sales team understand the target markets for the significant new products that the company was introducing over the past three years-Zippo's first brand extensions in more than 70 years.

So, when Zippo launched in 2005 its Outdoor Utility Lighter for use around the patio, it came up with Louis N. Clark, a persona representing "the weekend warrior who goes out and takes his motor home out and takes the kids camping," says Mr. Grandy. "He loves to do bonfires and roast marshmallows."

And Mandy Pepperidge, from Old Saybrook, Conn., became the persona to represent the Martha Stewart wannabes who were the primary target for Zippo's new multipurpose lighters, which are used throughout a household for tasks such as lighting candles and barbecue grills. A persona named Dirk McGurk, meanwhile, represents the typical customer for Zippo's traditional lighters: an 18- to 25-year-old college student.

To make the new target markets come alive for Zippo's sales force, Mr. Grandy made up and outfitted some of the company's district managers to resemble the personas and appear at a big internal sales conference-complete with scripts to read.

Predicting Behavior

Despite the ever-wider use of personas, there are some caveats for CMOs. The excessive granularity that is encouraged by the goal of creating relatable personas can cause marketers to miss types of consumers who don't fit the molds represented by personas. And yet in trying to cover every possibility, marketers are tempted to create too many personas. "You really can't work with-or cater to-more than four to seven different personas per business line or product," says Bryan Eisenberg, co-founder of Future Now, a New York-based online marketing consultancy.

Another problem arises when marketers are satisfied with personas that seem to fit their customer segments instead of using them as a tool to understand and predict consumer behavior. "You can fall into the fallacy that personas represent customers instead of a modality of customer behavior," Mr. Eisenberg says. "The important part of marketing is understanding motivations of consumers and how they make purchase decisions-not just understanding who they are."

About the author: Dale Buss has covered marketing and other matters for publications including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, in addition to Point. He lives in Rochester Hills, Mich.
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