Recession Challenges: Mass Marketing to Fragmented Consumers

SAI Marketing Tracks Four Different Shopper Types and Their Reactions to Economic Stress

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The new economic reality presents a special challenge to consumer packaged goods brands that were built on the concept of mass marketing, but that now need a nuanced approach to closing the sale with shoppers. For three years, SAI Marketing has tracked changes in the consumer economy, using a tool it calls the Consumption Context Index, which aggregates econometric indicators from three broad categories: economic, social/cultural and political.

Through its research, SAI has identified four distinct consumer segments based on education, employment, viability and household status. The groups take into account both the consumer's current situation and earning potential.

These are underlying structural changes that have been playing out over the last 30 years as we progress from a manufacturing-based economy to a knowledge- or information-based economy. Education in this scenario is the bright line separating the losers from the winners. That's why we are seeing GDP growth and record corporate profit, but very high structural unemployment. There is a mismatch between the skills many people have and the skills needed to get solid, well-paying jobs. Add to that an aging workforce, which is historically new, and you have the recipe for a new consumer world with the undereducated in low-paying service jobs and the well-educated in high-paying knowledge-based jobs. This is a problem for CPG brands trying to market to an increasingly fragmented "mass" audience.

Each segment's profile influences price sensitivity, brand selection, private label receptivity, channel selection and switching, long-term customer value, basket size and trip mission.

The Dispirited
This segment has not managed to graduate high school and therefore is either underemployed or marginally employed. Their median individually earned incomes are about $20,000, and they earn less than $25,000 as a group.

Surprisingly, 47.4% of American workers fit into this category and their unemployment rate stood at 15.3% as of 12/2010.

This segment shops in a just-in-time manner, buying small sizes and mostly inexpensive packaged food. Their approach is buying cheap calories without much regard to health issues. They are very price sensitive and their choices are driven by deals and discounts. They make multiple trips to the store when they run out and when there is money available to spend.

The Insecure
The insecure are marginally better. They have high school degrees, earn between $25,000 and $35,000 on an individual basis and represents 13.7% of the workforce. Their unemployment rate is 9.8% which is slightly above the national average.

This segment tends to load up to save money and thinks long-term in managing their food budgets. They are disciplined shoppers and stick to the list. They search for bargains, use coupons religiously and use multiple retail channels. To manage their money, they are more oriented toward cooking at home. They are very sensitive to changes in meat and dairy prices and therefore are quick to trade down or trade out of meat and produce options.

The Uncertain
With either some college or an Associate's degree, this segment is in far better shape and represents the core middle-class consumer. They earn between $35,000 and $75,000 and make up 27.5% of the workforce. They are employed in medium-skill jobs or low level management positions. Their unemployment rate of 8.1% is below the national average.

Budget oriented as a result of a cultural change in their behavior, this segment exhibits traditional middle-class values of thrift, family and discipline. They are the ideal shoppers to be influenced by the path-to-purchase model. They plan their weekly meals carefully, combine both essentials and non-essentials according to their value set, and are health conscious about food choices. They include a few indulgences on their list and are open to a few impulse purchases.

The Confident
The sweet spot for marketers, the confident are well-educated college grads that earn more than $75,000. These earners represent just 11.4% of American workers. They work in the professional roles, management and academia. Only 4.8% lack jobs.

This segment is driven by experiences in all aspects of their lives. They are at the forefront of the "foodie" craze. They eat for pleasure, for health or for some idealized vision of family life. They are biased toward natural, organic or locally sourced food. They shop at farmers markets, specialty retailers and grocery stores that cater to their food sensibilities. They are big consumers of more exotic type foods that enable them to experiment and be creative in their meal planning. They do plan their purchases but will buy on impulse if something interesting catches their eye.

Implications for Marketers

The effects of this recession will be long lasting in changing purchase behavior just as the Great Depression changed behavior for past generations. The combination of wealth destruction, tight credit and structural changes in the composition of the economy, have reoriented the future for the great middle class. With education and skill sets being the key determinants in achieving middle-class status, we are seeing some consumers falling further behind and some surging ahead, creating essentially two consumer economies, thus breaking apart the old mass market.

Marketers need to find a common marketing thread that allows brands to communicate a common purpose that is relevant and attractive to all segments. Mass brands that can find common cause across the segments can create a culturally shared affinity that is of interest for the entire spectrum of demographic groups. Identifying needs that are universal and values that span the continuum will enable marketers to remain relevant to all the segments.

Building a flexible communications strategy that allows for message and brands to align with shoppers and their context will create a reason for consumers in each group to engage with the brand on a sustained basis. This nuanced approach will allow marketers the ability to get their brands in front of the best shopper with the best message according to the needs of each segment.

The media channel is as important as the retail channel. Each segment demonstrates both unique and common media habits based on education and culture. Mapping the habits of each segment and aligning them with decision points in the process of brand consideration is important in engaging shoppers at the right time when they are in brand decision mode.

Bill Melnick is director of strategic planning at SAI Marketing, a shopper-marketing agency in Philadelphia. In addition to more than 20 years agency experience, he has held executive level positions in marketing at Merrill Lynch, Conde Nast and CNBC. The full report can be downloaded at
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