The myth of the typical consumer

iStock_000011860972MediumWho is the “typical” or “average” consumer? Is there such a thing? What do they look like? How do they make decisions? Am I an average or perhaps a below average consumer?

It’s something that comes up a lot in discussions around consumer protection, consumer advocacy, and regulation. Judges in consumer cases, for example, often ask whether the average person would understand their obligations in relation to a particular contract to which they have agreed. Similarly, cases related to the advertising of over-the-counter medicines, often rely on a judgment as to whether a typical consumer would understand the intentions of a particular advertisement.

And when you take into consideration American comedian George Carlin’s famous, and correct, assessment of the situation, “Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that,” you do start to worry a little.

But the question that I always grapple with is, by what criteria are we measuring typical or average?

Regulators, politicians, and judges of the Federal Court are all consumers, but many people would argue that they are not typical consumers; they tend to be highly educated, get paid quite a bit, hang around with people like themselves, and spend much of their time thinking about case law, policy, precedent, process, and competing arguments. So, it often surprises me that we look to them to make judgments about how a typical consumer might behave in a particular situation.

Perhaps the simplest way to find the average consumer would be to use simple statistics, and find the “mean” consumer across a range of demographics, such as age, race, income, and profession. Except the problem with that is that you end up with someone who is a bit of everyone, but no one in particular.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2011, the “average” Australian was a blonde, brown-eyed, 37-year-old woman with two children aged nine and six, two cars and a mortgage of $1800 a month on her three-bedroom home. Applying statistical analysis also revealed that this average person was born in Australia (as were her parents), describes herself as Christian, weighs 71.1 kilograms and works as a sales assistant.

But that isn’t very satisfying. It might, technically, be the average person, but there are certainly problems with assuming that every person is going to be a version of this one.

So, perhaps the best way to think about a typical consumer would be to view it from a psychological perspective. What can research into consumer behaviour tell us?

Prepare yourself, because the typical consumer is likely to be someone who is vain, slightly deluded about their capacities, makes most of their decisions without thinking about them, is easily swayed by emotion, is indecisive, and has a tendency to be somewhat biased about the type of information that they expose themselves to, and how they interpret it.

To add to the disappointment, the typical consumer uses cognitive shortcuts, is easily swayed by what is going on around him or her, uses bounded rationality, is impatient, has a limited and pot-hole riddled memory, is unable to process more than a small amount of complex information, and prefers to stick with what they know, rather than take a risk with what they don’t.

It’s not a particularly attractive or comforting picture, and may be a little unsatisfying to those of you who think you are a highly evolved creature, totally in control of your domain, but that pretty much sums up most of us.

Perhaps when people talk about the typical consumer, what they actually mean is something akin to the “ideal” consumer.

The consumer that we would hope to be.

But, then we get into a whole new area of complexity. Who decides what we mean by ideal? Politicians? Regulators? Talk-back hosts?

Often, when people talk about the typical consumer, they are unconsciously (or perhaps consciously) hoping for a definition that encompasses someone who is mostly rational and doesn’t make mistakes in their decision-making.

But unfortunately, a new study from Japan published in the journal, Psychogical Science, that tried to find this totally rational being – the elusive homo economicus –makes up only a minority of the population, and that this particular group also demonstrated some frightening tendencies and habits that were verging on psychopathy. Not the ideal consumer, if you ask me.

The other problem with this categorisation of the rational consumer is the recognition that markets work predominantly because people typically are not rational. Markets and economies rely on people taking risks, hoping for the best, making mistakes, learning from their mistakes, being optimistic and imagining a better future. If we were completely rational, or even mostly rational, and if we engaged in detail with every decision we made, every moment of the day, very little would get done.

For my part, the issue shouldn’t be about trying to define a typical consumer, but more about how we understand, accept, and describe complex human behaviour, and consider all forms of vulnerability.

To do that, those who are asking about the behaviour of a typical consumer need to be open to insight and evidence from outside their usual systems and knowledge bases. I am already seeing this amongst some enlightened regulators and judges, but they are very much in the minority.

First and foremost, however, we all need to recognise that the average consumer is an arbitrary and convenient construct, which is helpful, but not absolute.

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18 thoughts on “The myth of the typical consumer

  1. Great article, It allows me to rethink about “personas” that are commonly used in (digital) user experience (research) these days. The typical consumer and the “average” Australian mentioned here reminds of the Helix Personas created by Roy Morgan Research:
    http://www.helixpersonas.com.au

    Although it is interesting to see how the Australian population was classified into 56 personas and 7 communities, there are certainly limits as to how this information can be used. As mentioned by Paul, these typical profiles are a bit of everyone, but not a particular person. It is therefore at your own risk to use these personas assuming that everyone from the same community is the same.

    That said, I think these personas can still be of great reference when used appropriately, or when you have a true understanding of how these personas are formed. Referring to the point that markets rely on people taking risks, I think the key to using these profiles is to have a good understanding of the behaviours that help to shape these personas. In actual business context, instead of only relying on already available personas/profiles/segments, it is important to understand triggers and barriers along a customer purchase decision process in order to close gaps between customer expectations and product/service delivery.

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  2. It’s an interesting thought; the typical consumer. As this article so clearly points out there is really no such thing. But did we really expect one?

    Where variation exists the truth of the average can only be as good as the variation around it. Let’s be honest there is almost nothing more varied then the human race. Sure, we all have the same basic needs but that’s easy. It’s our wants that separate us, and they are a function of : sex, religion, social position, economic position, sexuality. Truthfully any adjective you can think of. With this much variation there can be no such thing as a truly typical consumer.

    So why care about the typical consumer? You can’t market anything to anyone; marketers would be out of a job if you could. Instead all the marketing conversation should be about the target consumer. We can then look at the variation around this target and find that the variation is much less wide. This will set the bounds, which once we know set the max and min on: price, place, promotion and position. With this information we can be sure we are selling a product to a person with the greatest value for company and consumer.

    But how do we deal with a legal system that requires an average customer? Should we just never do anything wrong? That would be nice.We definitely need to prepare for an typical consumer, in fact we need to prepare for all the variations around it as well, we need to know all the different typical consumers. How will they respond to situations, misdemeanors? What do they understand? What is true? This should not dictate the marketing. This information is defensive, we should not waste our money targeting the average; just use some time protecting ourselves from it.

    In all situations we use intelligence to attack and knowledge to defend. Why should marketing not be the same? We need to understand our target consumer so we can give them what they want but we need to know the typical consumer so we can protect from them.

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  3. Obviously defining an average person/typical consumer is a complex and difficult concept open to much debate. I feel that concentration on target markets is of greater importance for most firms, especially if considering how a firm is to improve its profits. However, it is important that businesses, industries and the economy at large try to distinguish (at least to some extent) a typical/average consumer for the sake of packaging, laws and any other similar consumer related issues. Furthermore, I imagine most for most businesses the majority of sales will come from a specific type of target market. A target market, which includes individuals who share a defined similarity of demographic. Examples of these demographics being as Paul mentions “such as age, race, income, and profession”.

    If the average consumer/person is “vain, slightly deluded about their capacities” as mentioned in this article, then perhaps businesses should also focus on a means of better educating the average consumer. Indeed the target consumer should be paramount to a firm’s considerations, but a firm should not forget the importance of the “average consumer”. I suspect it is possible that a good portion of sales can be lost due to your “average consumer” simply not being educated.

    For example, this Youtube video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ucBrcy7AdR8) from Dine Marketing regarding a consumer insight into Lamb consumption illustrates how many of the individuals studied seem to simply not consume much lamb for several basic reasons. Most of these basic reasons coming down to not being educated about the product and ways which they themselves could utilize lamb. Some of these reasons included: not knowing recipes, not knowing fast ways to cook lamb and lamb preparation methods. I find this a good example for firms to learn from. A little education could go a long way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Obviously defining an average person/typical consumer is a complex and difficult concept open to much debate. I feel that concentration on target markets is of greater importance for most firms, especially if considering how a firm is to improve its profits. However, it is important that businesses, industries and the economy at large try to distinguish (at least to some extent) a typical/average consumer for the sake of packaging, laws and any other similar consumer related issues. Furthermore, I imagine most for most businesses the majority of sales will come from a specific type of target market. A target market, which includes individuals who share a defined similarity of demographic. Examples of these demographics being as Paul mentions “such as age, race, income, and profession”.

      If the average consumer/person is “vain, slightly deluded about their capacities” as mentioned in this article, then perhaps businesses should also focus on a means of better educating the average consumer. Indeed the target consumer should be paramount to a firm’s considerations, but a firm should not forget the importance of the “average consumer”. I suspect it is possible that a good portion of sales can be lost due to your “average consumer” simply not being educated.

      For example, this Youtube video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ucBrcy7AdR8) from Dine Marketing regarding a consumer insight into Lamb consumption illustrates how many of the individuals studied seem to simply not consume much lamb for several basic reasons. Most of these basic reasons coming down to not being educated about the product and ways which they themselves could utilize lamb. Some of these reasons included: not knowing recipes, not knowing fast ways to cook lamb and lamb preparation methods. I find this a good example for firms to learn from. A little education could go a long way.

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  4. Thanks for that. It does get you thinking.

    I don’t know that we target a typical consumer per se? As others have said there are usually cohorts that we are marketing too. This is the STP component and we can see that many companies do this well. McDonalds capture the child hood market with the toys that they have. Cosmetic companies have traditionally targeted ladies but even this is changing with various products aimed at men. Older consumers are also being served well: http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/full/10.1108/07363760310499093.

    You mentioned that the average consumer “To add to the disappointment, the typical consumer uses cognitive shortcuts, is easily swayed by what is going on around him or her,..”. Where was this determined? After all this is going to be dependent on what you are marketing, to whom you are marketing etc?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Move over McDonalds, what a good job Woolworths is doing these days of capturing the childhood market with their promotions. Going on the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2011, the “average” Australian was a blonde, brown-eyed, 37-year-old woman with two children. I am brown haired , brown eyed, 37 year old with two children and my children still dont know what McDonalds is. However they have been swept up in each of the Woolworths marketing strategies over the last year. This article I found states Woolworths at the time had not released any data on the promotions, but I know by children have greater brand awareness of Woolies than Coles.
      http://www.powerretail.com.au/multichannel/woolworths-backs-a-bricks-and-mortar-winner-with-aussie-animals-cards/

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  5. Paul

    This is a good article to express the modern concept of consumption, today there are many people in life for some consumer goods necessary to reduce spending in order to go buy their own can not achieve the level of consumption to buy this product. This excessive consumption is not desirable, it will give rise to a number of negative effects.

    Because of lack of financial ability to lead not to buy their desired products at once, because many young people like a commodity and embarked on the path of crime. We should promote the rational consumption and buy some merchandise within their range of capabilities, and more is needed to enhance their ability to earn more money.

    Commodity temptation is great, do not believe that everyone can rational consumer spending, but also whenever the need to understand their own abilities.

    http://smallbusiness.chron.com/difference-rational-emotional-marketing-23661.html

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  6. Hi

    Good article. I would not believe that there is a typical customer or consumer and that yes this is a myth. I am sure that there would be millions upon millions of statistics available about what constitutes a typical consumer but it would be very different based upon what market we looking at. It is also largely based on perception. To me a typical consumer is someone that works, earns a salary of (X based upon the weighted average), lives in a home either rented or owned, owns a car or some sort, watches some sport, has some friends and family interests with a collection of hobbies, but this is my perception of a typical consumer. Someone else would draw up another view, perhaps given Australia has a high intake of students locally and internationally, that consumer would be someone who shares accommodation, eats noodles mostly and enjoys soft drink, would only use eBay and not Australian post.

    From an organisational perspective though a typical consumer could be closer defined. They need to know their market and who their customers are right!? Let’s take the good old and now famous technology company (no names mentioned). If this company gathered information about customers buying habits, in-store purchases, support requirements, time of year purchases, common interests (devices or apps), and their product use, they would be able to put together and build a more realistic (not perfect) profile of who their target market is and customer pattern for their products. There are many checkpoints for drawing a line through this as a weighted average. This is very much the basis of consumer behaviour, influenced by psychological decisions and external factors and in the case of technology corporations – technological trends. It’s also worth saying that it also depends on the company’s standpoint and how mature they are, if it’s a start-up well then quite frankly they would not have a very accurate picture of who their customer market is yet so how they can market their products or target their products to satisfy their customer’s needs. A mature company though would be looking at the alternative to this and aim to market their products to their customers to satisfy their needs directly. A good marketing strategy of course would not leave it there, if they have only homed into an average consumer base, well what about the other markets left open to their competitors?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I agree there is no such thing as an average consumer or average person for that matter. Using statistics to try and market something in my opinion is flawed as consumption is more closely linked to emotion rather than science and therefore all logic or statistics go out the window when emotion is in play. I feel that one of marketing’s main objectives is to manipulate someone’s mood so that they will spend because they are happy or spend to become happy. People generally want to belong and blend in so marketing wants to create a “crowd effect” as in the end people are sheep which are just looking to follow someone they aspire to.

    This journal article further supports the link between emotion and consumption: http://www.acrwebsite.org/search/view-conference-proceedings.aspx?Id=9842

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  8. Human have a wide range of personalities, character, attitudes, choices, different lifestyle no two person are identical in this world in any sense so taking out an average consumer traits won’t fit all the segments of the society. But if confined to a particular segment then it may be said that a typical consumer is one who knows the risk of operating/functioning in a segment, is aware of the law or system in that particular segment and is literate on an average scale like all other members of the segment.

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  9. This is a very interesting article Paul, the myth of the typical consumer. I am big fun of statistics and they surely make life a lot easier when problems in different areas of life need to be solved. being more specific Marketers use this tool (Statistics) all the time when they need to have target markets as it would be viable to ask 100% of the population.

    After doing the Marketing Law subject I can certainly say when judges have consumer cases and they mention the ‘typical consumer’ they don’t refer to the brightest person out there, no offence to anyone. The term ‘typical consumer’ it is defined by collecting data among citizens so then can be refined and have the outcome sought. Judges didn’t come up with the concept ‘typical consumer’ overnight this took a many cases to define the segment of ‘typical consumer’. The paragraph sumarises how our lecturer explained how the ‘typical consumer’ is established in law.

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  10. I agree with your last point – ‘the average consumer is an arbitrary and convenient construct’. Uniqueness and differences are what make us interesting so to try to generally define the “average” or “typical” consumer is an impossible task. In relation to marketing a particular product, this is why it’s so important to look at the 5Cs, in particular the C for customer. It’s also important to analyse who the target audience is (STP) as this helps to define who the “‘typical” consumer group for the product may be. With a clear strategy and good planning, finding the “typical” consumer group for the product will be easier.

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  11. From marketing perspective, it might be ideal if we could define the characteristics of a typical consumer and the behaviour of such personality and the factors influencing those behavioural patterns or decision making process. There are so many research outcomes, studies and theories on consumer behaviour, factors that influence certain behaviours, even factors that influence the decision making process, etc.

    But defining the typical consumer remains a challenge as the human behaviour is unpredictable and it varies from person to person and based on the region, social conditions, ethnicity, religion, education background, experience, financial stability, income, ego, values and so on. I accept that there are certain common attributes and patterns as well.

    I feel that defining or understanding the average consumer should be based on the Market Segment that we operate in for each product, brand or company; so that we can try to define the typical or average consumer in our target market for that particular product, brand or company and then study further to identify the factors that influence the decision making process of those.

    Research & Statistical analysis are very powerful tools that will help you in many ways, but how many of us can agree with the definition of the average Australian, but can we suggest a different approach to define the same? This is a big challenge.Therefore, it is understood that when it comes to the legal system or consumer protection or any other requirement in a similar context; they need to have a benchmarking or a personality defined as an “Average Consumer” in order for the system to base their arguments and justifications or even for the purpose of defining certain legislative requirements.

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  12. While it is clear to see that we all generally agree with the concept that one cannot define a typical consumer, it would be pertinent to consider the notion of creating one’s own perfect consumer.

    As rightly pointed on in the blog and comments above, there are too many variables when considering the typical consumer. One could spend a fortune on R & D and still not come on conclusive results on; who their typical customer is and what attributes/traits constitutes such a person.

    Not forgetting to mention the fact that these results are not set with stone (it’s a moving target), such results can change just like the weather – Social events, economic climate, peace/war, demographics, etc. A change in any of these variables can change a consumer’s outlook. Ask yourself how an event like 9/11 would affect tourism in that that region –even for the “typical” traveler.Believe it or not after 9/11, America and the world saw a new type of consumer.

    So put simply – why not create your own perfect consumer?

    Let’s consider the possibility that some companies have found that it is no longer productive or profitable to conduct business using warlike marketing techniques such as general statistic based targeting. Instead they amend their focus to create their own ideal customers relieving them of the obligation to search for customers.

    • Companies set the terms of trade and who they trade with. The aim to attract the right type of customer and filter the consumers they rather not work with.
    • They define the traits of their consumers and the people they want to be associated with their brand.
    • They even educate consumers to fit the mold they set out.
    • They prefect their marketing message so it only speaks to their ideal customers and not everyone.

    Is this a model that can work?

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  13. That’s a very interesting article, pointing out the sensitivity involved in the most common thought. Even though it is difficult to define an average customer, i think that some points mentioned above are certainly the qualities of a typical customer. Excluding the elite class, it is the average salaried persons on whom the majority of markets are depended. i think that these variations and differential rationales are balancing the markets filled with different types of human beings. Nevertheless people just don’t come up with something that’s almost impossible to define and there has to be a point where it is inevitable to cope up with a situation unless with a newer concept. I agree that its difficult to define it in genera terms but if we have to, then the best thing would be to view it from the particular market we are discussing about. Statistics are often misleading but in this modern world they form the foundation for every decision made. From the data presented above its quite convincing that its just a arbitrary concept but it is those variations that differentiates one from another and when we segregate them into groups, they form into target groups from which a typical customer can be picked.

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  14. While it is clear to see that we all generally agree with the concept that one cannot define a typical consumer, it would be pertinent to consider the notion of creating one’s own perfect consumer.

    As rightly pointed on in the blog and comments above, there are too many variables when considering the typical consumer. One could spend a fortune on R & D and still not come on conclusive results on; who their typical customer is and what attributes/traits constitutes such a person.

    Not forgetting to mention the fact that these results are not set with stone (it’s a moving target), such results can change just like the weather – Social events, economic climate, peace/war, demographics, etc. A change in any of these variables can change a consumer’s outlook. Ask yourself how an event like 9/11 would affect tourism in that that region –even for the “typical” traveler.Believe it or not after 9/11, America and the world saw a new type of consumer.

    So put simply – why not create your own perfect consumer?

    Let’s consider the possibility that some companies have found that it is no longer productive or profitable to conduct business using warlike marketing techniques such as general statistic based targeting. Instead they amend their focus to create their own ideal customers relieving them of the obligation to search for customers.

    • Companies set the terms of trade and who they trade with. The aim to attract the right type of customer and filter the consumers they rather not work with.
    • They define the traits of their consumers and the people they want to be associated with their brand.
    • They even educate consumers to fit the mold they set out.
    • They prefect their marketing message so it only speaks to their ideal customers and not everyone.

    Is this a model that can work?

    Like

  15. Great pulse! Very thought provoking observations. Validates a move from the concept of a typical consumer to a single customer view and the benefits of marketing strategies that are targeted at the specific individual. Loyalty programs, customer relationship management systems, social media following; more successful than a generic assumption of the typical consumer?

    Like

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