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Insight/ Tools

Single-Minded Marketing: A Multitrillion-Dollar Opportunity

by Mercedes M. Cardona
Contributing Writer
CMO.com

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Article Highlights:

  • The number of single-person households in America is growing fast, with implications for all kinds of industries.
  • Marketers have to think of people who are single by choice and how that lifestyle shapes their spending.
  • Single households are not a demographic block with similar traits, but a bundle of different life cycle stages.

The City of New York recently sponsored a competition to design “micro unit” apartments to serve as starter homes for urban singles.

When announcing the winning design, Mayor Michael Bloomberg acknowledged the city is trying to adjust to a 21st century reality: “The growth rate for one- and two-person households greatly exceeds that of households with three or more people, and addressing that housing challenge requires us to think creatively.”

In that regard, the mayor is ahead of the marketers. The number of single-person households in America is growing fast, a result of demographic changes, such as seniors living longer and youngsters delaying marriage.

“Singles use to be considered a situation by default. . .Now considering more and more people desire to be single, there’s a change in mindset,” said Eric Zeitoun, president of Dragon Rouge US, a branding firm with clients including Kellogg and GE.

The most recent U.S. Census figures show more than one-quarter of U.S. households are single-person homes. They were the fastest-growing household type in the last Census, and in some areas, such as New York City, they have become a majority. And singles are not just 18 to 24 anymore; as the population ages and Americans keep postponing marriage, the average age of the single consumer is creeping up, too. Single seniors are a fast-growing household segment.

But mass marketers are still pitching products to married women with children, their default consumer profile. Marketers as a whole are not doing a very good job of connecting with the lives of single consumers, Zeitoun told CMO.com.

“It’s a very new realization,” he said. “Marketers are just about to realize the full potential of this segment.”

Singles Grow By Double-Digits
To be sure, the single-person household is a sizable consumer market: According to the most recent figures by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, single people spend a little more than $2 trillion annually.

If this demographic change continues, then brands will have to rethink the way they package and sell products from consumer goods to financial services, observers said. “Like everything else, [marketing is] becoming polarized. You need the super size for the large family and the small size for the single person,” said Judith Russell, analyst with retail industry publication The Robin Report, in an interview with CMO.com.

Indeed, according to the Population Reference Bureau (PBR), the percentage of American women of all ages who’ve never been married has climbed from 21 percent in 1970 to 28 percent in 2008, the most recent figures available. The growth in singletons among men has been even sharper, from 26 percent in 1970 to 35 percent in 2008.  

The dragging economy could be pushing that number even higher, according to the PRB. It found the rate of never-marrieds in the population ticked up slightly at the start of the recession, from 30.7 percent to 31.2 percent of all Americans. That implies with increased economic stagnation, we should expect singlehood to linger.

“It’s worth it as a CMO to take at a look at your creative and think: What’s your target audience and what percentage of our advertising is connecting to those groups?” said Brenda Fiala, SVP of strategy at Blast Radius, a digital agency with clients including Bacardi and Nike.

In fact, the growth in one-person households has implications for all kinds of industries, Russell added. As more singles set up their own homes, the big areas affected are real estate and companies that provide goods and services for the home, she said. Developers are looking for ways to build and market single-person units, as well as multiuse developments for older singles who want to live on their own and have shopping and services within walking distance.

Fiala singled out supermarkets as having adapted their marketing to singles early. For example, Waitrose supermarkets in the U.K. has done a good job of catering to single shoppers by creating single-serving prepared foods that break out of the TV-dinner mold, she said.

Marketers have to think of people who are single by choice and how that lifestyle shapes their spending, Zeitoun said. For example, marketers of food products shouldn’t assume singles will just need a smaller portion of the same dish a family would eat, he said.

“They may spend more time eating out. Give them a reason to eat at home, and not just in front of the TV,” Zeitoun said. “You can’t assume they are, by default, making the same choices as families with 2.1 kids.”

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‘Marketing To The Tribe’
Messaging is also very important in reaching out to singles, Blast Radius' Fiala said. The message needs to be calibrated to acknowledge that people are staying single, but not make it sound like it’s a second-best default choice.

“As is true with any demographic. . .you want to see yourself reflected in the advertising,” she said. “Not every advertising needs to have a wedding ring.”

Fiala noted State Farm’s current ad campaign includes spots targeting Millennial consumers that appear to be all singles--two young men in a car being attacked by a buffalo, or two young women shopping for shoes. While the ads are mainly “marketing to the tribe” of twentysomethings, Fiala said, they hit home with singles by leaving out the marriage and family pitches common in financial products, such as insurance.

In fact, ads that don’t hone in on family life can be just as effective with singles and marrieds, while family-centric ads exclude singles, she explained: “[When] I see a woman hanging out with her girlfriends, I don’t necessarily think, ‘These are women who don’t have children,'” Fiala said.

Yet while marketers adapt to that reality, they need to keep in mind that these single households are not a demographic block with similar traits, but a bundle of different life cycle stages, income levels, and consumer profiles. A single adult consumer is as likely to be a young urban professional as he or she is to be a retiree not yet ready for the rest home.

In fact, the two large cohorts of single households are at the opposite ends of the age spectrum: on one hand, twentysomething Millennials entering their earning years, and, on the other, Boomers hitting retirement age and losing their spouses.

“I think the danger for marketers is to treat is as one demographic when it’s not,” analyst Russell said. “You have to market differently to the 30-year-old guy who just has cans of beer in his refrigerator than to a 64-year-old woman who has cans of Ensure.”

That's why segmenting and targeting become even more important to separating the beer and meal-supplement drinkers.

“Definitely look at the numbers, the geography, and see where there are enhanced opportunities for repositioning or brand extensions or messaging,” Russell said.

One interesting segment is divorced men over 50, Fiala said. They appear less likely than women to remarry, and since their children tend to be older, they’re not paying child support and therefore have more disposable income.

“You can segment by demographics and attitudes. You can’t assume all singles are dealing with singlehood the same way,” especially when sorting Millennial singles from widowed seniors, Dragon Rouge's Zeitoun said.

One wrong assumption is that all singles are affluent, spending more discretionary income than married households and are prime targets for luxury brands. But more than 80 percent of upscale-consumer households are couples, said Pamela Danziger, president of Unity Marketing, a luxury-marketing consulting firm, in an interview with CMO.com. With average per capita incomes from about $60,000 to $65,000 annually, it takes two incomes to put a household into the affluent sector, she explained.

And as the number of single-person elderly households grow, the average single adult is more likely to be in a fixed income. So lifestyle messaging that also carries a value proposition will resonate with them, experts said.

Marketers have an advantage, thanks to the technology that’s available for segmenting and targeting, and the online media that are connecting these singles into networks. Now they can serve different messages for different segments among singles. Social media, for example, gives marketers a very effective microtargeting tool, Zeitoun said.

Marketers can use dynamic ad services to serve different offers to each target group and use the data to test and optimize along the way, Fiala said. Those older singles can be reached just as effectively online as younger singletons, she said: “The 'silver surfers' are on the Internet. They’ve kind of taken over Facebook.”

Wallets are shifting, and marketers need to adjust their plans and messaging to connect with a different consumer template and get that share of wallet, Fiala said.

“It’s not: ‘Hey, I’m for singles.’ It’s showing that you don’t have to have a partner or children to participate in the brand,” Fiala said. “It’s packaging the product and packaging the brand experience in way that makes it feel like: ‘It’s for me.’”

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