I’ve done a lot of market studies over the years — usually for places where the “market” seemed to have run for the hills. In disadvantaged urban neighborhoods, Appalachian villages, and crumbled first-ring suburbs, I have a long history of being the person who gets brought in when people go, “We’ve got something…something…right??”
The problem is that, if you look at the standard stuff that marketing firms use to locate the next shop in the franchise, or build the next strip mall or move the warehouse… for a whole lot of places, that data basically gives one message:
Go somewhere else.
This article from Next City described the psychographics developed by ESRI, one of the major online geographic information systems companies, and it takes issue with the fact that the categories with which they tag communities sometimes seem… not so nice. Here’s an except:
Some of the profile tags might elicit a smirk, like “Laptops and Lattes” and “Soccer Moms,” but the way that coded language crops up when sizing up low-income urban neighborhoods reveals a more unsettling truth about how marketers jockey information about race, ethnicity and gender in order to influence spending habits.
In fact, the language that ESRI and other data brokers use to flatten populations down into segments can end up sounding an awful lot like disturbing stereotypes.
Truth in advertising: I use ESRI’s Business Analyst Online, the information platform that these psychographics comes from.
(Psychographics, if you don’t know that word, are sort of marketing sterotypes of a population based on income and spending characteristics, as established through lots of surveys and a thicket of data sources).
I generally use ESRI’s because I generally find them less…well, creepy…. than the profiles produced by most of their competitors.
But that’s a relative assessment.
In my own market analysis/market restructuring strategy work, I usually use these to show the community WHY they are not getting the Talbots/Target/Applebees/fill in the blank that they want. It’s like looking in a mirror that only shows you what someone else is seeing in you. And if what you want someone to see in you is a desirable economic location, that data and those psychographics can be a pretty rude awakening.
After I’ve shown those psychographics to a community, though, it’s time to throw them aside. Because they only show a small part of the story (that magical mirror turns out to be one of those fun-house things with a big warp in the middle that makes you look like a giraffe or a string of beads.) There’s almost always opportunities, some kinds of real economic opportunities. But they’re going to look different, sound different, operate at a different scale, than what the people who look at and actually believe those psychographics will do.
That opportunity almost always requires growing your own.