Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Understanding Consumer Identity: The Dangers of Ethnicity-Based Segmentation

Last week some fascinating new research was published by WARC.com regarding the media consumption habits of African Americans, Asians/Pacific Islanders and Hispanics in the United States. The findings have serious implications for media planners, since they point to strong differences in behaviour amongst these ethnic groups.

Any research that points to consistent correlation between multiple variables is useful. Yet as an anthropologist I feel uneasy about an ethnicity-based segmentation in the 21st century – for reasons that have nothing to do with political correctness.

‘Ethnicity’ is a funny term and should not be used unquestionably. Like ‘race’ before it, it’s the kind of word that derives its power from the assumption that it is something physically engrained in us, passed down from our predecessors. But ethnicity is not inherent. Rather, it is part of our (also frustratingly fuzzy) ‘identity’ which is fluid, situational and constructed in our daily lives – in the way we dress, the food we eat, the language we speak and so on. It is through such practices that we come to identify ourselves as belonging to one group or another. 

If we start talking about how media and technology consumption affects identity we get into a whole new ball-game. There is so much you need to take into account – Facebook, online forums, Apple versus LG – the list could go on forever. What’s more – the phenomenal speed with which technology and media trends emerge and become mainstream means that the next big thing is just around the corner. For a young American of Chinese origin his iPhone and Twitter profile might well form a much greater part of his identity than his grandparents’ immigration story.

A good segmentation is typically predictive of consumer behaviour. If the present study helps media planners devise more effective campaigns, it will have fulfilled its role. My note of caution goes out more against the implicit assumption inherent in this research – that ethnicity is a concrete stable variable against which other variables can be plotted. Instead, both ‘identity’ and ‘ethnicity’ have never been as fluid and fast-changing as they are today, and media and technology consumption are central to our ever-changing concept of ‘self.’

Just as segmentations used to be based on demographic data such as age groups before we realised that needs and attitudes are often more indicative of consumer behaviour, so too ethnicity-based segmentations might fall behind with the times unless we really understand the effect that ‘ethnicity’ has on consumer ‘identity,’ and what effect that, in turn, has on behaviour.