Think Big, Act Small #1. Understanding Your Target Consumer



Understanding the target customer is an area that big consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies will invest a lot of market research in, sometimes to the point of analysis paralysis.  Meanwhile, start-ups might operate with a simple target customer definition in their business plans and underinvest in truly understanding the target, which can lead to misplaced marketing investments and/or missed sales.  Here I’ve called out 3 opportunities to help start-ups strike a happy medium by learning from common CPG approaches.

  • How Do I Define the Target Consumer for my Business? Doing some up-front understanding of the target consumer is critical for focusing a startup’s efforts.  Strong understanding of consumers’ needs can not only help prioritize what to do (and not do) but also what to invest in (and not).

Questions to Ask:

  • What is the end benefit the customer is seeking?
  • How does our offering fit with his/her desired benefit? Are there gaps we need to address in our offering?
  • What are his/her unmet needs vs. current offerings? Can we fulfil them?

Tools to Use:

  • Desk research (i.e., secondary research): gather insights from existing research or external studies (e.g., from market research firms or trade publications) to strengthen your consumer profile.
  • Qualitative primary research: conduct exploratory research with individuals, one on one or in small groups (e.g., focus groups) to understand underlying reasons, opinions and motivations for why they feel the way they do. Can help shape ideas for quantitative analysis.
  • Quantitative primary research: conduct a survey (e.g., via Surveymonkey or other tools) to gain a broader understanding of customer’s needs and opinions (e.g., likes/dislikes of different features, etc.). Quantitative research methods can also be used to more fully test the appeal of product concepts.
  • How Well Do I Understand How Consumers Shop my Category? Likewise, it’s important to understand how consumers shop your category.  In a handful of cases the shopper is different than the end consumer (just think of children’s products) but in all categories there are key elements of how consumers shop that need to be understood in order to drive sales.

Questions to Ask:

  • How will we make the consumer aware? Interested?  A purchaser?
  • What else is in his/her consideration set? (i.e., what products/services does my offering compete with?)
  • What are the purchase barriers that make the consumer reluctant to purchase (e.g., too many choices? Unconvincing benefits?  Value?)  How can we address this in our marketing?

Tools to Use:

  • Qualitative research: conduct “store intercepts” (talk with consumers in/near the stores where they shop your category) – note: you will typically need store approval to conduct proper in-store interviews, but it never hurts to ask someone in the aisle some random questions to start to build your fact base
  • Quantitative research: in your surveys, gather information about what channels/retailers they shop, if they purchase the category online, where they get information to aid in their purchase decision, etc.

3)    How Do I Actually Reach my Target?
Importantly, add granularity to your consumer and shopper profiling to optimize your marketing activities and focus your investments.  Go beyond targeting “M25-34” or “W25-54” or attitudinal/psychographic targets such as “scent seekers” or “scent revellers.”  Define your consumer target with the specificity that you can buy media against and create a shopper profile that you can buy tactics against.

Questions to Ask:

  • What are targetable characteristics of the consumer to help reach them?
  • When I go to buy traffic on search, what parameters will I focus on to better reach my target?
  • How can I use early search testing to further refine my targeting as I increase my marketing?

Tools to Use:

  • Build the profile for your target backwards from observed user behaviour, such as search/browsing data, website traffic and usage data, Facebook “likes”, etc., rather than a pre-defined target alone.
  • Iterative Testing. Don’t just make concept testing a “once and done” process – quickly test iterations to understand what incremental consumers like (or dislike) each test to refine profiling.
  • Google Analytics. Jumpstart your understanding of how your target searches the category and how to refine your messaging.




Note: mentions of specific tools (e.g., surveymonkey, Google analytics, etc.) are solely intended to help you get started.  These mentions are not an endorsement by either the author or AlleyWatch.

Stay tuned for next week’s column: “Defining What Your Business Stands for in the Eye of the Consumer.”

About the author: James Black

James Black is a marketing and insights consultant and freelancer based in New York.  He has 10+ years in marketing and sales experience across P&G, McKinsey and L’Oreal.  Most recently, he founded and led a retail start-up, Black & Puryear Ltd., in the U.K., where he served as Director and Chief Curator.  At L’Oreal, James was head of shopper insights, where he identified and shaped shopper insights to drive greater connection between consumers and L’Oreal’s portfolio of beauty brands across channels.  At McKinsey, he worked in the firm’s Marketing & Sales practices, advising clients on marketing topics across B2B, packaged good and retail clients.  At P&G, he working in both traditional brand management roles as well as in the company’s marketing centre of excellence, studying best practices.  He has an AB from Harvard in Government and an MBA from the Darden School of Business (University of Virginia).

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