The selling of life-styles: are you what you buy? Madison Avenue wants to know

The selling of life-styles: are you what you buy? Madison Avenue wants to know

Berkeley Rice

THE SELLING Of LIFE-STYLES YOU MAY NOT CARE about psychographics, but psychographics cares about you. It cares about what you think, what you feel, what you believe, the way you live and, most of all, the products and services that you use.

Ever since the snake convinced Eve to sample an apple in the Garden of Eden, advertisers and marketers have been trying to discover why consumers buy what they do. A few years ago, marketers thought the reason was demographics, and that buying was governed by consumers’ age, sex, income, education, occupation and other characteristics. They also tried to divide the purchasing world up according to social class.

These mass-marketing strategies, however, are now considered crude and overly general. Marketing researchers today want to get into the individual consumer’s head, so that companies can aim their products at more specific segments of the population. Some think that psychographics is their ticket inside.

Psychographic analyses for Schlitz beer, for example, revealed that heavy beer drinkers were real macho men who feel that pleasures in their lives are few and far between, and they want something more, according to Joseph Plummer, the researcher who conducted the study. This insight led to Schlitz commercials that told people “You only go around once,” so you might as well “reach for all the gusto you can.”

When the current walking-shoe boom began, the athletic-shoe industry assumed that most walkers were simply burned-out joggers. Psychographic research, however, has shown that there are really several different groups of walkers: Some walk for fun, some walk with religious dedication, others walk to work and still others walk the dog. Some really want to exercise, and some want the illusion of exercise. As a result, there are now walking shoes aimed at several groups, ranging from Nike Healthwalkers to Footjoy Joy-Walkers.

When Merrill Lynch learned through psychographics that the bulk of its clients saw themselves as independent-minded, upwardly mobile achievers, the investment firm changed the image in its commercials. Instead of the familiar thundering herd of bulls from the 1970s, Merrill Lynch ads portrayed scenes of a solitary bull: “a breed apart.”

The term psychographics first began to pop up in the business community during the late 1960s, referring to attempts to classify consumers by their beliefs, motivations and attitudes. In 1970, psychologist Daniel Yankelovich, who headed his own social-research firm, launched an annual survey of changing values and attitudes called the Yankelovich Monitor. It tracks more than 50 trends in people’s attitudes toward time, money, the future, family, self, institutions and many other aspects of their life-style. By measuring these shifts in attitudes, Monitor researchers claim to have spotted or predicted trends such as the shift to white wine and light alcoholic beverages, and the rising sales of supermarket-chain brands and generic drugs. About 100 companies now pay $28,500 a year to subscribe to the Monitor survey.

By the mid 1970s, “life-style” had become a popular buzzword in advertising and marketing circles. Many advertising agencies began to do their own psychographic research: Needham, Harper and Steers (now DDB Needham), for example, divided consumers into 10 life-style categories typified by characters such as Thelma, the old-fashioned traditionalist; Candice, the chic suburbanite; and Fred, the frustrated factory worker. A flurry of ads tried–often blatantly–to pitch products by appealing to the life-style of people commonly referred to as the “upscale market.” An ad for Chrysler’s 1979 LeBaron, for example, featured an attractive young couple engaged in typically active, upscale pursuits such as tennis and sailing. The ad copy gushed: “It’s got style. It’s got life. Put some life in your style.”

While all of this was going on, a researcher named Arnold Mitchell wrote a series of reports analyzing the way people’s basic needs and values influenced their attitudes and behavior, particularly as consumers. Working at what is now SRI International in Menlo Park, California, he had administered a lengthy questionnaire to nearly 2,000 people. Using the results, Mitchell divided consumers into categories based in part on the theories of the late psychologist Abraham Maslow and his hierarchy of “needs growth.”

Maslow believed that most human behavior is based on certain internal drives or needs, and that personal development consists of stages of maturity marked by fulfillment of these needs. Until the needs of one stage are satisfied, an individual cannot progress to the next level of maturity. At the lowest level are basic bodily needs such as hunger and sleep, followed by needs for safety, shelter and comfort. The next levels consist of psychological needs: to belong, to have self-esteem and to be respected by others. Near the top comes the need for self-actualization: fully developing one’s potential. People who reach this level are likely to be more creative, successful and influential than people who haven’t attained it. Finally, Maslow said, the needs for spirituality and sensitivity lead to the highest level of consciousness.

Mitchell also claimed that each stage of an individual’s development is marked by a “particular pattern of priorities… a unique set of dominating values and needs.” He used his survey findings to create nine psychologically graphic portraits of consumers, one for each pattern he identified. By 1983, when Mitchell published a book called The nine American Lifestyles, his work had attracted considerable interest from marketers and advertisers. Based on his work, SRI had formed a commercial marketing-research program called VALS, an acronym for Values and Lifestyles. Before he died in 1985, Mitchell saw VALS become the country’s most widely used system of psychographic research.

The VALS typology begins with two life-styles, the Survivors and the Sustainers, both small groups with limited financial resources. Survivors are typically elderly and poor: Most feel trapped in their poverty, with no hope of escape. Sustainers, only slightly better off, are struggling at the edge of poverty. Although they often bitterly blame “the sytem” for their troubles, Sustainers have not quite given up.

VALS then divides into two pathways, Inner-Directed and Outer-Directed, terms drawn from the work of sociologist David Riesman. There are three Outer-Directed types: Belongers, Emulators and Achievers. Belongers are the largest VALS group of all, making up 38 percent of the country’s population. These stable, hard-working blue-collar or service-industry workers are conservative and conforming; they know what’s right and what’s wrong, and they stick to the rules because they want to fit in.

Emulators are more ambitious, more competitive and more status conscious than Belongers. They also make more money, but they envy the life-style of the Achievers, one level above them. Emulators would like to feel they’re “on the way up,” but most will never make it. They wonder if they’re getting a fair shake from the system.

Achievers, who make up 20 percent of the population, are the successful business managers and professional people. Competent and self-reliant, “they know what they want and they make it happen.” They want the trappings of success–expensive homes, cars and vacations–and most expect to get them. Having achieved the American Dream, they are generally staunch defenders of the society that rewarded them.

Parallel to but quite different from the Outer-Directed types are the three Inner-Directed VALS categories. The first, the I-Am-Me’s, is a tiny group: generally young, highly individualistic, very egocentric and often confused about their goals in life. As their outlook broadens and they become more sure of themselves, they tend to mature into Experientials. If they then extend their view to include society as a whole, they become the Societally Conscious. This is the largest of the Inner-Directed groups; its members tend to be knowledgeable and concerned about social causes such as conservation. Many earn a good deal of money, but their life-styles emphasize simplicity and involvement.

At the pinnacle of VALS is the tiny group of psychologically mature Integrateds, the lucky few who have put it all together. They combine the best of Inner and Outer Direction: the power and drive of the Achievers and the sensitivity of the Societally Conscious. They have a sense of balance in their lives and confidence in their place in the world.

SRI has produced a half-hour video that provides brief looks at people in different VALS categories. Estelle, an elderly Survivor in the film, lives alone, scraping by on a tight budget. Moe is a hispanic sustainer who spends his afternoons at the racetrack hoping for a big win. Dave and Donna, a young Belonger couple who believe in God, family and country, live in a small house in a development of similar homes. Art, the Emulator, is a door-to-door salesman who drives through a fancy neighborhood and wonder, “What did they do right?” Steve, a lawyer-enterpreneur Achiever who’s pictured soaking in his hot tub with his attractive wife, insists that money’s “just a way of keeping score.”

Mitchell’s idea that basic psychological needs or drives affect consumer behavior makes a good deal of sense, and few researchers would quarrel with it. It’s less clear, however, that VALS survey methods really tap into the things that Maslow was talking about. VALS “does not measure basic psychological characteristics, but social values which are purported reflections of those characteristics,” says psychologist joseph Smith, president of the market-researcher firm Oxtoby-Smith. Those values, Smith contends, don’t predict consumer behavior very well: “Maslow was working in the world of clinical and developmental psychology. To try to adapt his theories and language from that world, as VALS has donw, is an engaging idea but bound to be fruitless.”

But bear fruit VALS has. Since SRI began marketing psychographic research, 250 corporate clients or “members,” as SRI calls them, have used VALS data. Most VALS clients sell consumer products and services: packaged goods, automobiles, insurancE, television, publishing and advertising. Depending on how much customized service they want, 150 current VALs members pay from $20,000 to more than $150,000 per year, producing reported annual revenues of more than $2 million for Mitchell’s brainchild.

Member companies can combine VALS profiles with much larger marketing systems that provide information on specific product brands and media use. Or they can link VALS to several “geodemographic” marketing services that group people by ZIP codes or neighborhood, according to the demographic features of typical households.

Advertising agencies such as Young & Rubicam, Ogilvy and Mather and J. Walter Thompson have used VALS information to place ads on TV shows and in magazines that draw the right pschographic segments for their clients’ products or to design commercials and print ads that target specific consumer groups. They have learned, for example, that TV’s daytime soap operas draw heavily among Survivors, Sustainers and Belongers, because they’re often home alone. Achievers watch a lot of sports and news shows, while the Societally Conscious prefer dramas and documentaries.

Magazines such as Time and The New Yorker have a lot of Achiever readers, while Reader’s Digest has more Belongers (Psychology Today, which uses a different psychographic system, has readers who are broad-minded, style conscious and experimenters–probably more Inner- than Outer-Directed).

VALS has attracted many clients form the auto industry, including GM, Ford, nissan, Honda and Mercedes-Benz. VALS studies show what you might expect: that Belongers tend to buy family-sized domestic cars, while Emulators and I-Am-Me’s prefer “muscle” cars like the Chevy Camaro. Achievers usually buy luxury cars, often foreign models like Mercedes or BMW, not so much because of their superior quality but because they represent achievement and status. Societally Conscious types might also buy a Mercedes, but more for its technical excelence than what it “says” about them.

To complicate matters for advertisers, nearly half of all couples are “mixed” marriages of two different VALS types. Ads for mini-vans, therefore, may need to carry a double message: one to appeal to an Achiever husband who might use it for golfing or fishing expeditions with his buddies and another to appeal to his Belonger wife, who sees it primarily as a vehicle for ferrying the children.

Corporate clients can ue a 30-item VALS questionnaire to survey their own markets and have SRI classify the results into VALS types. The Questionnaire asks people to indicate their agreement or disagreement with statements such as “What I do at work is more important to me than the money I earn” or “I would rather spend a quiet evening at home than go out to a party” or “I like to be outrageous.”

By using such research methods, client companies can construct VALS profile for their own markets or those of their competitors; position products or design packaging to appeal to particular groups; or spot trends in product use and consumer needs.

Ray Ellison homes, a big real estate developer and builder in San Antonio, Texas, took advantage of this type of VALS research. The company began by mailing a VALS questionnaire to 5,000 home buyers in the area and also asked them how much they valued items such as wallpaper or landscaping. “We needed to find out their values,” says Jim Tilton, vice president of merchandising and advertising, “so we could really build to their needs and desires.”

The company then conducted in-depth group interviews with the three VALS types most likely to buy its homes–Belongers, Achievers and Societally Conscious–to probe for further insights. When a group of Achiever women saw pictures of a big country kitchen, one of them exclaimed, “There’s no way I’d clean all that tile!” A similar display of tile in the luxurious master bathroom, however, did not put her off. Apparently, the kitchen made her think of work, but she viewed the bathroom as a place of relaxation.

On the basis of these interviews and the survey results, Tilton says, “we took our standard houses apart and started from scratch, putting them back together piece by piece.” To attract Achievers, for instance, the company added impressive facades, luxury carpeting and elaborate security systems. For the Societally Conscious, they designed energry-efficient homes. “What we’ve done,” executive vice president Jack Robinson explains, “is really get inside the consumer’s head, into what his perceived values are, and give them back to him–in land, in financing and in the features of a home.”

While VALs is the best-known and most successful psychographic research program around, it is hardly the only one doing this kind of work. Yankelovich’s Monitor is still going strong, and many smaller firms do custom-tailored research for individual clients or specific markets. Some large consumer-goods companies and TV networks now do their own psychographic studies.

Despite this popularity, psychographics has plenty of doubters. Some critics, like Smith, question its utility: “We can’t really measure the important personal attributes based on surveys,” he says. “Psychographic research gives you a lot of superficial, inconsequential and titillating material but very little of pointed use to the guy who is designing products or trying to advertise and sell them.” Because psyhographic research firms guard their methods very carefully, as trade secrets, outsiders have been unable to test the data’s validity and reliability (most firms claim they do their own validity testing).

Russell Haley, a professor of marketing at the University of New Hampshire, who heads a market-research firm, points out that decisions to buy some products are simply not closely related to personal values. “If you’re dealing with paper towels,” he says, “personal values are not likely to be that relevant. On the other hand, if you’re selling cosmetics or insurance, VALS may be quite useful because people’s attitudes toward beauty or money or very relevant.” He concludes: “I have some clients who like it, and some who don’t.”

Some companies that have used VALS and other psychographic research in the past no longer do so, having decided it’s not worth the extra cost. Some claim that psychograhics merely reveals the obvious or that it duplicates what demographic data show more clearly. In demographic language, Belongers are 57 years old on average, and the majority earn less than $20,000 per year; 72 percent of them are married, and only 3 percent have graduated from college. Experientials are 28 years old and earn $32,000 per year, on average; only 31 percent of them are marrie, and 40 percent attended college.

“When VALs first came out,” says Bob Hoffman, president of Mojo MDA, a San Francisco advertising agency, “it enlightened us and described behavior in certain ways that some people hadn’t thought of before. But now it makes people think in boxes.” Hoffman and others argue that psychographic tries too hard to categorize everyone iinto discrete types, ignoring the fact that most people have traits and behavior common to several types. People also don’t always think and behave consistently in every context. Some individuals may vote as Belongers but think like Achievers when they walk into the automobile showroom. Some Achievers may act like Belongers when pushing a baby’s stroller through a supermarket.

In response to such critics, VALS marketing director Jack Tyler insistes that “We’ve never claimed that all individuals fit neatly into one category, like cookiecutter types, or that they have a stereotypical response to every situation. We provide our clients with secondary VALs scores that indicate these other characteristics.” VALs simply claims that people’s general behavior fits the profile of a given category, Tyler says, and that these categories offer valuable insights into the consumer.

What VALs and other life-sytle studies have done is provide vivid portraits of American consumers; while the accuracy of the pictures is debatable, psychographics still has many believers. Says Jerry Hamilton of Ketchum Advertising in San Francisco, “VALS makes it possible to personalize marketing and to understand the target we’re trying to reach better than any other piece of research. Sure, it may oversimplify. No matter what classification system you use you’re distorting everybody’s individually. But the alternative is to tailor advertising to 80 million individual households.”

COPYRIGHT 1988 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group