Customer segmentation is at the heart of every marketing program. And even with the litany of new social, behavioral, and demographic data available, one age-old classification method still remains constant in nearly every analysis: social class.
Very little has changed in the way the U.S. Census assigns class rankings. You’re low, middle, or upper, depending on quantifiable data points like your wealth, income bracket, education, and so forth. These are typically the designations that marketers follow in their practices as well, but could it actually be leading them astray?
Results from a qualitative research study we conducted with thousands of consumers over the course of a year reveals that class, and in particular the middle class, may be more of a state of mind than a data segment. Despite falling on either end of the conventional classification spectrum, a growing number of people are actually identifying themselves as middle class.
But what’s causing them to self-identify this way, and what are the implications for target marketing?
The Middle Class State Of Mind
Economists typically define the middle class as those earning $35,000 to $100,000 annually. But in our research, we found consumers with incomes under $25,000 a year referring to themselves as middle class--as did consumers making more than $200,000.
Many of those considered lower class by economic standards explained that they label themselves as middle class because they feel financially stable and perceive others to be in worse situations. Those who would be viewed as upper class don’t feel comfortable describing themselves as such, as it insinuates they are self-important or out of touch.
“We would like to be upper-middle class at some point. Definitely would not want to be upper or lower class though ... We take pride in our lives and our ability to manage rough financial situations. On the flip side, upper class seems pompous and disconnected. Put-offish and snarky.” – Male, 25-34
Education didn’t seem to be much of a factor in self-categorization either. Both the majority of those with a high school diploma or less, as well as the majority of those with an advanced degree, label themselves as middle class. The takeaway for marketers is that middle class has become less of a demographic subset and more of an identity and state of mind.
Building Connections With The New Middle Class
This self-identified middle class is a diverse segment of consumers, much broader than Census reports and economic indexes would lead you to believe, whose shared mind-set and spending power is a savvy marketer’s dream come true. In fact, our research shows marketers have specific opportunities to connect with this audience.
1. Market the practicality of purchases: Practicality is paramount for the middle class state of mind. These consumers will go a long way to justify their purchases--even pricey designer products such as Louis Vuitton handbags--as practical and durable. The more brands position top-of-the-line pieces as long-term investments by delivering a message of quality and longevity, the more likely consumers outside of their typical segments are to purchase. It’s important to not underestimate the buying power of consumers who technically fall outside of traditional middle class definitions.
“I typically splurge and spend more money on clothing. If our economic situation changes in a downward manner, I can take them with me. Also, it is something reasonable to splurge on, rather than household improvements. Or expensive food which is gone after an hour.” – Female, 45-54
2. “Feel” local, no matter how mega your brand: When shopping, middle class consumers seek quality and value, but appreciate distinction. They are proud to shop within their communities and support local businesses. But a brand doesn’t have to be local to feel local. Even larger, national chains can emphasize the fact that they care about their customers as individuals and members of a larger community. This is particularly salient in the realm of consumer packaged goods. A brand that can deliver a hometown experience with personable employees and local specials is viewed as a caring partner that is invested in consumers and their communities.
“I identify with Trader Joe’s the food store. I like that their prices are reasonable, their products are ethical, and they have a limited variety. The people who work in the store near me are really nice. It feels human. Not corporate.” – Female, 35-44
3. Capitalize on celebrity and social media X-factors: Celebrity spokespeople can influence sales and public opinion, which is why they don’t come cheap and should be used well. We discovered that, to appeal to the self-identified middle class, the ideal spokesperson should be attractive, likeable, genuine, worldly, and honest.
Another point to consider is that social media has vastly changed how consumers view and interact with celebrity spokespeople today. With unprecedented access to celebrities’ thoughts, opinions, and journals of their daily lives, merely seeing them act in a commercial doesn’t elicit connections in the same way it once did. You may want to take this into account when selecting someone to pitch your business. If a celebrity spokesperson can show advocacy for a brand on the person’s own profile (as opposed to a cameo on the brand’s profile), chances are the plug will feel more authentic and will likely reach more followers.
As an example, Estee Lauder recently partnered with Kendall Jenner as its new “face,” and she announced the relationship on her own Instagram. Within days, Estee Lauder’s Instagram following saw a significant boost. The goal, of course, is for this to translate to increased sales and help the brand draw a younger demographic.
Segment Based On Personal Perceptions, Not Economics
This self-identified middle class isn’t the only audience of its kind. As consumers grow more resistant to defining themselves within traditional societal classifications and identify instead more strongly with their values and experiences, it behooves marketers to do a target audience audit to ensure their audiences are as accurate and all-encompassing as they can be.
This involves re-visiting how their personas are defined: What characteristics are involved? Should they be changed up this year? If targets are based mainly on demographics, challenge those demographics and ask consumers to categorize themselves, rather than vice versa. Only by aligning with consumer perceptions–and passions–will marketers be able to build loyal fans and avoid costly misfires.