The Sharp doctrine: is segmentation really pointless?

“Target the market” is a much vaunted quote from Byron Sharp. And as often happens with quotes, they sometimes take on a life of their own. After a while, the context in which you read or heard it disappears. And once other people’s experiences and opinions are also thrown into the mix, at some point what you’re left with is that segmentation is pointless. Except that’s too simplistic and not entirely correct.

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Written by Bram Jonkheer

But let’s face it, it’s just how our brains work. The process is a bit like when you watch a detective series you’ve seen before. You soon realise you’ve seen it and lots of details feel familiar but you can’t remember the plot or who the perpetrator was.

So a little refresher on what Byron Sharp said about segmentation, targeting and mass media wouldn’t go amiss. To make it clear from the outset: Sharp is an advocate of sophisticated mass marketing.

Byron Sharp’s most important discovery is this: Big brands have a big customer base. Their customers might also be slightly more loyal, but the main thing is that there are a lot of them (that’s the Double Jeopardy law). By far the biggest group of customers only buy things in the category once in a while. And it’s mainly with that big group of light users that successful brands can make a difference. So Sharp advocates a penetration strategy.

In essence, he says that it is more important to be an acceptable alternative for a big group than the top choice for a specific group. But then you have to be easy to buy at the right time.

So you have to make sure that as many people as possible know you and recognise you. Sharp’s research shows that it is important to reach as big an audience as possible. So don’t be too restrictive in formulating the target audience for your marketing message. This actually gives us a completely different picture of what we are used to referring to as “waste”. You can’t really call it that any more, if you interpret Byron Sharp freely.

But does that mean you should start using old-fashioned mass media (i.e. TV)?

Whatever your approach, the advice is to have a media mix that enables you to reach as many category buyers as possible at least once. But if you want to reach as many people as possible, what does that mean in terms of your message? This almost smacks of middle-of-the-road and one-size-fits-all marketing. But it isn’t – far from it – because the most important thing is to stand out, and you won’t do that by being a grey mouse. Instead, think of it as a challenge to appeal to as big an audience as possible. It’s all about looking for a balance. And that takes creativity.

A good example of a brand that has discovered that this is the key to success is the Dutch outdoor wear store Bever. Their slogan tells the story: “Nobody is an indoors person”. What started out as a shop for the seasoned, diehard back-packer has gone on to appeal to the entire market. Which is actually the opposite of segmentation.

Another good example of this was a surprise discovery by FrieslandCampina. Their market research revealed that large numbers of Optimel users didn’t match the profile of the twenty-something woman watching her weight. What’s more, many people were buying Optimel for reasons – and in situations – for which it was never actually intended. Their first reaction was disappointment: we’re a grey mouse, we’re stuck in the middle, we need to revisit our brand positioning. But once they looked at it through the How Brands Grow lens, their reaction changed: we’re not stuck in the middle, we lucked out in the middle. Apparently we’re a good choice for a very wide audience. The term “mainstream” has taken on a whole new meaning for them. To many marketers who grew up with Kotler, “mainstream” is by definition a marketing no-no. But it’s actually the basis for success – and for growing your success. Now there’s even a man in Optimel ads – something that was unthinkable until recently. But that’s not to imply that they’ve changed tack completely in their communication, as Optimel would no longer be recognisable and it wouldn’t be building consistently on those memory structures. And that would in fact be a mortal sin in Sharp’s eyes.

In short, be careful not to narrow down your target audience too far, don’t make your media plan too specific, and don’t focus too much on targeting the increasingly narrow audience that delivers those great conversion rates. To put it simply, you’ll be missing out on a whole lot of people who may well make the difference in the long run. Sharp thus opposes the general practice of targeting more and more narrowly. And he finds Procter&Gamble on his side. In the Wall Street Journal, Chief Marketing Officer Marc Pritchard says “We targeted too much, and we went too narrow”. This is a very worthwhile conversation to have internally and makes good input for a discussion. Don’t stick too religiously to the strategy you are following at the moment.

And of course, when we talk about targeting the market, it goes without saying that you have to define that market first. So when you’re selling tampons, for example, that automatically excludes men. In that sense, women aren’t a segment but the market itself.
What Sharp isn’t talking about is segmentation based on needs. In other words, segmentation aimed at product development. For convenience’s sake, let’s call that internal segmentation. The extent to which segmentation is useful in that context is not what Sharp is referring to. And so it goes too far to claim that segmentation is pointless, to quote Sharp. Clearly that would make for a very interesting discussion in itself at some point. But to bring this one to a close: yes, Sharp is indeed outspoken in his criticism of external segmentation for the purpose of raising your profile more effectively. But internal segmentation for the purpose of optimising your product portfolio is far from pointless.

Find out more about Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow vision