Thought Leadership

Why you should never have a 'target audience'

The terms ‘target’, ‘audience’ and ‘consumer’ have a subtle, pervasively negative impact on all our brand marketing. By being aware of this and placing our focus instead on well-founded human insights, we can develop a productive empathy for the people we want to buy our brands.

Richard Wise

Brand Anthropologist & Global Head of Planning Geometry UK


As you’ve no doubt learned in Unconscious Bias workshops, the everyday terms and metaphors we use are often loaded with unexamined meaning which bends our behaviour and thoughts.

It’s easy to see this when we look at advertising from just a generation ago, so loaded with casual sexism. But what if, today, we have the same horrible pre-conceptions about…everyone we make our marketing communication for? For the simple reason that we call them ‘targets’.

A target is the recipient of an aggressive action: passive, in the bull’s eye, about to get hit. How would it make you feel to know that your local off-license or liquor store has decided to make you their target? Imagine them, lurking behind their shop window, watching you walk down the street and saying, “There she is, there’s the target.”

If, at a marketing team meeting, someone asked the question, “Who are we stalking?” it would make people either laugh or feel very uncomfortable because it would sound like a question only a psychopath would ask. But we’re so accustomed to saying ‘target’ we don’t notice how predatory the term is.

Try dropping it. And, while you’re at it, take a critical look at another term that’s part of everyday marketing vernacular: consumer. When we have planning meetings and talk about “our consumers,” we are supposedly putting them first. But we are actually putting them second. Because of the way we refer to them, they’re lesser beings, less cognizant, less aware, just consuming.

I had the privilege of listening to the CMO of Diageo, Syl Saller, talk about the future of brand building at this year’s Cannes Lions Festival. She said, “We need to stop using the word consumer. They’re people. That they consume our product doesn’t define them. People don’t go out for a Smirnoff evening. They go out to have a good time.”

And John Rudaisky, Global Brand Marketing Lead for EY built on that, “Not only do we have to stop the using the word consumer, we have to stop using the word employee. They’re PEOPLE. Come on.”

And let us not forget ‘audience’. The term arose in the era when the most glamorous part of brand building was television commercials, so, yes, most people experienced advertising as an audience. And, yes again, television is still today one of the most powerful brand building media that exists.

But the person you are trying to convince to buy your product is an audience only when they are more or less allowing you to interrupt their enjoyment of what they’re watching. But when they buy your product, they are anything but an audience. So why talk about them that way? Again, we’re all too comfortable with a vernacular that makes our prospect passive and agent-less. It’s not healthy.

Now ‘prospect’, there’s a useful and respectful term. You’re trying to make a sale. They’re the ones who are in charge. It’s your job to understand them and figure out what they want to hear and what they want to buy. If you don’t, you’ll blow it. It’s inherently humble because it reminds you that you’re not in control, they are.

And if you’re trying to focus on those most likely to buy or those who have the most social influence, then let’s call them ‘the prime prospect.’ What I really like to see is a strategy that starts with a Prime Prospect rather than a ‘target consumer.’ And then write it about people, not consumers.

When you name them, try to come up with a two-word term drawn from everyday speech, not corporate marketing-speak, that describes the type of human being you want to develop this deep visceral appeal to.

Guest Author

Richard Wise

Brand Anthropologist & Global Head of Planning Geometry UK


Richard uses his skills as an anthropologist to help global brands embed themselves in local culture. He serves as the global head of planning at Geometry UK. He is the author of the humorous book, Save Your Soul: Work in Advertising.