Wednesday 1 June 2016 10:22 am

Mrs M&S: Why demographic profiling no longer works

I report on retail and property for City A.M. I have covered the investigation into BHS and London's housing crisis. You can email me on with tips or commentary.

I report on retail and property for City A.M. I have covered the investigation into BHS and London's housing crisis. You can email me on with tips or commentary.

Brands underestimate the power of social media at their peril. Steve Rowe’s comments about targeting ‘Mrs M&S’ last week were treated with derision on social media, with the Twittersphere roundly condemning Rowe’s decision. One user argued that it was “gendered, exclusionary and old-fashioned”, while another explained that Mrs M&S is "so cringey it makes my skin crawl”.

Not exactly the reaction Mr Rowe was looking for.

He had suggested that Mrs M&S was a female around the age of 50, who shopped with the retailer about 18 times a year. Meanwhile, Debenhams have also unveiled their research on their core customer profile. ‘Claire’, who is 41, is interested in fashion and likes to break up her frequent shops with a coffee or glass of fizz. Like Mrs M&S, it is hoped targeting ‘Claire’ will lead to a turnaround at the flagging retailer.

Both retailers are missing something crucial: Mrs M&S and Mrs Debenhams are not only reductive and inaccurate representations, they are alienating for customers shopping at those stores. Major brands like these have complex and ever-changing audiences that consume that brand in a range of ways. Each specific audience segment needs to be acknowledged and addressed. One size fits all does not work for customer understanding anymore than it does for a tailored dress.

Read more: M&S needed a roar from Rowe, but all it got was a whisper

Mrs M&S is a confused approach to strategy that uses outdated approaches to customer insight. No longer can we rely on simple demographic profiles that look at your age and address. Gone too are days when looking at a customer’s purchase history can tell you enough about how they need to be interacted with.

In an age of personalisation, predictive technology and real-time updates, it’s all about looking forward and understanding customers’ (and potential customers’) aspirations, as well as their current needs.

This is where Rowe’s Mrs M&S is so off the mark – she may represent the kind of woman that currently spends the most money shopping for clothes in M&S, but she ignores the individuals that buy M&S clothes occasionally, or those that aspire to shop there. This approach reduces the possibility that those other groups will ever turn into customers.

That is why social media data is so powerful. It fills the gaps left by what is merely a retrospective picture painted by purchase history insight. Social media analysis illustrates the inspiration, aspiration, and connections of consumers, which show us what they are likely to need, want or even be able to afford in the future.

Brands like M&S need to appreciate that the market is changing. Social media is not a bolt-on for retail businesses. It must be at the core of what retailers are focused on – for it is the most immediate connection with customers and capable of provoking real emotional response. It has become the most important platform for tapping into consumers’ needs, wants and aspirations.

Read more: 2016 set to be the year of retail failures – here's why

By analysing their social media data more closely, brands like M&S and Debenhams can now measure how much they appeal to the women’s fashion market in the UK, and – most importantly – how they can increase that appeal by cross-referencing other interests.

What this news has shown is that some of the UK’s biggest brands are still lacking a complete understanding of their customers, and public reaction has proved how costly that can be. Deriving insights from social media allows brands to understand the complex and ever-changing nature of specific audiences. Through social media data, M&S would be able to create a much more realistic picture of their core female customers.

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