08/09/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

"Nuancing" The Consumer

Studies show that marketers have been missing a huge part of the population. Could it be? Apparently, having so shifted their focus toward women, marketers have lost touch with the male consumer -- but there are several "secrets" to reaching them that will save the day.

Nanette Byrnes's cover story for the September 4th issue of BusinessWeek goes to some length to point out how men are evolving as shoppers and how there is much more nuance to their buying habits than marketers had perhaps previously considered. The article's sources and ideas are definitely worth note, still, should it be big news -- especially to business readers -- that not all men feel included by the term "metrosexual," or that the new generation of dads is doing a lot more household shopping?

Such press coverage reminds me of the big swing toward a women's-market focus that emerged roughly eight years ago. At about that point, the business media were all over the "astounding" research that women, in general, were not being well-served as consumers and that marketers had a long way to go to really address the nuances therein. In my mind, the pendulum swing then was not from serving male consumers amazingly well to serving women (at all), but from marketing based on huge assumptions about how people buy to a wisely more narrowed focus on core customers with a much deeper understanding of how purchase decisions are influenced. This could only be progress.

After all, good, basic, effective marketing involves narrowing the targeted segment to its utmost passionate core and then really digging in to get to know them as well as possible (aka -- lots of work). All men everywhere were never "Leave It To Beaver"-type working husbands/fathers, but, for several decades, that was the default ad campaign depiction. These days, all men everywhere are not stay-at-home dads (though those guys are getting a lot of press), but remain - now as then -- an interesting mix of different types of people with different priorities and lifestyles. Just as it is for women! Who knew?

In her BusinessWeek article, Byrnes explores aspects of today's male consumer market that may actually be more general indicators in our marketing culture and history. There is nothing incredibly "new" about the male consumer. Marketers are just shaping a different perspective given their years of study. Take gender out of the discussion, and the real topic becomes how marketers are still taking short-cuts and making assumptions about reaching consumers, despite all the evidence that such broad-swath strategies rarely resonate with the people who matter.

The following issues, which Byrnes mentions with reference to the male consumer, specifically, actually apply to today's entire consumer market:

1) Nuances in the ways/whys of consuming. Just as most men don't want to lose their mojo when occasionally shopping for skincare, or just as single men may want non-family sized/oriented home choices, so too do women not wish to lose their femininity while buying a lawnmower. Nor do unmarried home-buying women want to have only family-oriented sizes and layouts as options.

2) Labels rarely fit completely. Who wants to be known as simply a "metrosexual" or a "soccer mom?" In both cases, the person might well represent the marketing profile on paper, but still consider themselves to be much more unique (thereby always feeling as if "marketers just don't get me").

3) Generational differences loom large. The ways men and women have been raised or the expectations for their being traditional husbands, wives and parents, has shifted hugely in the past fifty years. It is now much more accepted practice, especially in the regions where most cultural trends take hold (the coasts/urban areas), for men and women to share in household management and parenting tasks -- just as they more often design their own unique work arrangements. All of which make it understandable that some men now shop more like women, as Wendy Liebmann, president of WSL Strategic Retail points out in the BusinessWeek piece: "Men under 35 shop more like their sisters than their fathers and grandfathers. They shop the same kinds of places. They're not just in and out fast, but are people who like to browse, use shopping as a community experience."

4) Nostalgia for a place of one's own. Both men and women need to have time/space where they can be their manly or womanly selves (admit it), and without worrying about political correctness. Retailers are starting to see the beauty of including in their shops or the shopping centers a space where men can comfortably relax and entertain themselves while their wife/girlfriend meanders. But, the thing is, there are a lot of women who'd also like such a space for the days when they are tagging along with a more shopping-oriented mate or friend.

The news in the "secrets" to the mind of a shopper is not gender specific. Rather, the news is in human behavior and larger cultural trends. This cycle of buzzworthy "marketing to women" or "marketing to men" coverage does not mean we've previously been missing entire markets (woe is us). After all, the marketing profession is full of intelligent, talented and experienced individuals. But, the truth is that even the pros need to continually remind themselves to narrow in on the significant nuances of consumers as the people they are, and not get waylaid by first glance differences -- as may sometimes be the case with gender.

It is human behavior to hook onto the latest new trend, whether as consumers or as cutting edge marketers. Life and work can be so much more exciting that way! However, the bigger picture for marketing is the importance of continually re-framing consumer research discussions to re-fit the ways humans are evolving.

Nuanced consuming can only be better understood by explorations and study beyond the usual easy categories for gender attributes, generations, or other market segment labels. Given the subtleties and variables involved in any one shopper's habits, there is much more marketers can be doing. Consumers deserve and expect nothing less from brands.