Avoiding the audience catch-22: how brands grow their audience without alienating their customer base

Do we value loyalty? Proposed by Dr Byron Sharp in his book ‘How Brands Grow’, he wrote that brands must always reach and appeal to new audiences to drive sales. This beckoned a seismic shift in how we market to audiences. He explained how a brand’s sales are mostly accounted for by occasional users — not loyal ones. This thinking has been widely adopted, known amongst marketers as “Penetration growth”.

“Penetration growth” has become a highly prized objective for marketers. But in the search for new audiences, problems begin to appear for brands who abandon the importance of appealing to their core user base.

Brands stop exploring the possibilities of core audience’s ability to offer sustained growth. Chasing penetration means brands can find themselves in a lose-lose situation blinkered by the desire to focus on a growth audience that can be too small and hard to convert. Ultimately, the attempt to reach new audiences (at the expense of the old) can alienate the original appeal of the brand to their core user base. A brand can end up nowhere, or in a worse position than when they started. This is the “Audience Catch-22”.

Gen X. Millennials. Gen Z. Gen Alpha. There are always younger groups of people that brands will want to reach. On one hand, this makes perfect sense. Reaching younger audiences early in their exposure to the brand will only help in the long-term. But equally, this is also a decision wrapped up in fear. A fear that marketers who don’t pursue younger audiences will own an ‘aging’ brand, and they won’t appeal to a new generation of consumers. They won’t be “current” enough.

This rush to reach younger audiences can also mean a brand disregards the real-world benefits of an older audience. Research shows that Millennials’ wealth and spending power is significantly lower than older audiences. Forbes has coined this the ‘Greying of Wealth’. It’s estimated that 75% of wealth is controlled by a 50+ audience. Therefore, there is huge value to be gained by ensuring brands maintain their presence with older demographics as well as targeting younger ones.

To avoid the audience catch-22 brands should focus on basic marketing principles that enable growth: Firstly, brands must understand their core customers and why they’ve made that choice. Secondly, principles such as consistency of activity and universal brand distinctiveness will appeal to all audiences — not just one. Taking these principles into account, brands can concentrate on gaining traction with their growth audience. Here are three ways to do this:

Start with the right product.

Think, if you have a portfolio of products, do certain items naturally bring growth versus different groups? L’Oréal identified a clear opportunity to deliver harder against an older audience, who make up 60% of the total UK skincare category value. They tailored the creative execution to better resonate with this group, supported it heavily and simultaneously grew their sales with younger age groups across their range.

If you’re not relevant, partner with someone who is.

Brand partnerships and collaborations can widen appeal without resulting in a wholesale change of position or a communications’ look and feel. Retail companies are particularly successful at this: Burberry collaborates regularly with other designers, such as Vivienne Westwood, and uses a variety of celebrities and aged models in their work to widen their appeal. These partnerships can be across

completely different worlds — as is true of arts organisations like the TATE Modern, who collaborate with Uniqlo in their TATE Lates programme.

Make sure your core and growth audiences always make it onto the brief.

It goes without saying but all aspects of the communication plan should reach the right people in the right way. This is critically important to consider when most campaigns will utilise multiple agencies and in-house departments — everyone must be on the same page. For media, it’s very easy for a “national campaign” to be activated in such a way that it limits audience size. To make sure the plans are built to maximise the brand potential in the most effective way, media planners and buyers need clarity on both core and growth audiences.

It’s a marketing imperative to reach new audiences, but this shouldn’t have to come at the expense of those who already buy into a brand’s identity. People buy certain brands because there is something they can relate to — something they identify with. Trying to grab the attention (not to mention purchasing power) from a new audience can alienate the brand’s core buyers. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Following the steps above will provide a positive framework, based on tried-and-tested marketing principles, that will help brands avoid the trap of the audience catch-22 and increase growth effectively.

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