Total Market – Observations from the Field

Brenda LeeAaahhh! Total Market…finally we’ve arrived. Despite the melting pot that is the United States, we have now reached a place of cultural evolution that says that there are unifying themes that make the disparate segments of the U.S. more similar than different. Bonus…this is sure to translate into marketing communication efficiencies that translate into cost savings.

Well, this all works very neatly for marketers. But, is this the reality for consumers?

I recently worked on a project with a large Fortune 500 company that went from being totally committed to segment marketing – with dedicated teams and agencies focused on creating and executing the most compelling marketing campaigns against specific segments – to fully embracing the concept of total marketing. This total market approach has resulted in disbanding segment teams and consolidating agency relationships.

I was asked to research the communication effectiveness of a new advertising campaign that had been developed using the total market ideology. The messaging, that previously tested well for relevancy, was delivered through casting that represented a variety of ethnic and economic groups. The respondents were a reflection of this casting.

What we found is that respondents had a really hard time relating to a message that did not reflect their affinity group. How many times have we heard/said “consumers are very literal”? Well, on this project, I experienced this in every one of the 12 discussions that took place across the country for this project.

Respondents were looking for themselves in the ads and without that, they could not connect with the messaging. Even their interpretation of the main message suggested that ads were directed to consumers other than themselves. Additionally, because of the total market approach to the research design, many of the discussions became quite heated as respondents struggled to explain why they could not relate to an execution, while still trying to be politically correct. So, for example, a white man inevitably would “step on a landmine” when trying to explain why he could not relate to an ad featuring an Hispanic woman and offend 1) the other Hispanics; 2) other ethnic groups and/or 3) women in general.

This really punctuated for me that perhaps we are expecting too much from consumers. The total market approach still requires marketers to be sensitive to cultural nuances that define each segment. Certainly, given the unifying U.S. experience, we have now reached a point in the evolution of marketing that makes unifying global messaging possible. However, to ignore the importance of the cultural nuances that makes each segment unique is naïve.

Any unifying total market messaging can be made more compelling and relatable through customization of messaging with segment insights. Additionally, marketing tactics and research design certainly have to accept that consumers have not fully embraced the dogma of total market.

The total market approach to marketing was really never intended to dismiss the significance of connecting with consumers by leveraging distinct and compelling segment insights. Rather, total market is really the job description of what marketers should have been doing all along. To maximize the effectiveness of marketing initiatives, marketers should have taken the time to fully understand and leverage insights that distinguish segments, as well as, bridge them. Armed with the unique segment insights, marketers had the opportunity to connect with segments on a deeper level.

The general market and ethnic marketing infrastructure of the past came from a realization that the unique insights that characterize the ethnic segments were often lost in the pursuit of those insights that work for general market.   The set up of general market and separate ethnic market teams was a “band aid” to address the acknowledgement that marketers were not fulfilling their jobs as total marketers.

Unfortunately, this swing to a declared total market approach does not appear to correct the problem. Rather, total market is now often being used as an efficiency tool to streamline marketing planning and execution (e.g. to save money). The premise for this is the misunderstanding that total market is the marketing Mecca. That is, that place where there is a single unifying message and where segment nuances cease to be important in creating a motivating connection with consumers.

It seems to me that the intent of total market is really an attempt to get marketers to do their jobs e.g. to be total marketers. Mindset is far more important in this effort than organizational structure.

Brenda P. Lee


Vision Strategy and Insights

Baltimore, Maryland


One Response to “Total Market – Observations from the Field”