Politics, Demographics, and Milkshakes

Much political media coverage these days focuses on demographic categories:  How will candidate X do among women…among Black people…gay people…low-income people…etc?  And much if not most political marketing is also aligned along these categories.

Demographic and targeting are also used in business marketing, of course.  But that’s not the *only* approach that can be used.

In his book The Innovator’s Solution, the late Dr Clayton Christensen told of a restaurant chain which was trying to improve sales results for its milkshake product line. “The chain’s marketers segmented its customers along a variety of psychobehavioral dimension in order to define a profile of the customer most likely to buy milkshakes. In other words, it first structured its market by product–milkshakes–and then segmented it by the characteristics of existing milkshake customers….both attribute-based categorization schemes. It then assembled panels of people with these attributes, and explored whether making the shakes thinker, chocolatier, cheaper, or chunkier would satisfy them better.”  Marketing 101 stuff, but it didn’t yield much in terms of results.

A different team of researchers. found that, surprisingly, most of the milkshakes were being bought in the early morning. Customer interviews indicated that these were people who faced a long, boring commute and wanted something to eat/drink on the way. Milkshakes were superior to alternatives because they didn’t get crumbs all over (like bagels) or get the steering wheel greasy (like a sausage & egg sandwich.)  And the morning milkshake buyers wanted shakes that were thick, in a large container, whereas the customers at other times preferred less-viscous shakes and smaller containers.  (Even though the morning and non-morning customers might be the very same individuals)

Christensen observed that a product can be thought of in terms of the ‘job’ it is doing for the customer:  what is a customer trying to accomplish when he ‘hires a milkshake’?

The parallel isn’t perfect, but something like the same thought process might be applicable in political marketing:  What is a voter trying to accomplish when he ‘hires’ a candidate for X position?

For example, there are a lot of voters who lives in areas with poor public schools and who are not in a position to send their kids to private school.  Maybe the ‘job’ they want to ‘hire’ a politician for is to give them realistic alternatives.  And maybe the appeal of this message is pretty independent of whether the voters are male, female, black, or white, and of whatever sexual preference they have.

There are a lot of voters who own small business.  They have a lot of broadly-similar issues that are relevant to politics, and, again, these are mostly independent of the usual demographic categories.

Seems to me that a lot more could be done with this kind of cross-demographic-category marketing…not that demographics can be totally ignored, but that other voter-behavior factors need more consideration.

Also, it’s important to note that the Democrats are, because of their emphasis on top-down planning, inherently much more focused on demographic categorization than are the Republicans.  As Rose Wilder Lane wrote:

Nobody can plan the actions of even a thousand living persons, separately. Anyone attempting to control millions must divide them into classes, and make a plan applying to these classes. But these classes do not exist. No two persons are alike. No two are in the same circumstances; no two have the same abilities; beyond getting the barest necessities of life, no two have the same desires.Therefore the men who try to enforce, in real life, a planned economy that is their theory, come up against the infinite diversity of human beings.

But people who think in categories…and rigid categories, at that….tend to communicate in those same categories.  Which may not always be to their interest.

Your thoughts?

6 thoughts on “Politics, Demographics, and Milkshakes”

  1. The old truism that goes “Man proposes; God disposes…” is applicable, here.

    Human beings are, at the core, pattern-recognition machines. We do categorization of everything in our environment–That toothy thing over there? Threat. The not-toothy thing? Dinner. That’s the basis of it all, and how our minds are set up.

    The problem is that the world is more complex than our adapted monkey-minds can comprehend, and we’re disturbed by this fact. Life is a dance with chaos; we really, really don’t like that. One misstep off the branch, a missed grab, and you’re on the ground looking around at all the nice predators looking to turn you into a meal.

    We don’t like it, but chaos is our natural friend. We need to embrace it, and give up the semblance of control that we like to think we have. Predictability and control are only ever available in small slices of reality, and for limited amounts of time. You begin to count on something in the conditions around you, and you’re going to wake up and find that no, you’re not really able to count on them at all.

    Which is what destroys any ability to plan on the large scale you need to run an economy or anything else of that size and scope. As the military puts it, “The first casualty is the plan…”.

  2. “Nobody can plan the actions of even a thousand living persons, separately. Anyone attempting to control millions must divide them into classes, and make a plan applying to these classes.”

    Which is one of the reasons that Progressives in California are trying to outlaw independent contracting.

  3. Indeed – people like independent contractors are controlling their time, their work, and their hours devoted to it.
    This seems to be something that the prospective overlords cannot stand. Imagine that all those proles think that they can control the conditions under which they labor … without the benevolent oversight of the overlords!

  4. Mike K, how did you like The Innovator’s Prescription?

    Haven’t read it, but based on what I *have* read, I think CC was one of the relatively small set of B-school professors and business authors in general who really have anything worthwhile to say.

  5. WSJ today has a review of Russell Jacoby’s “On Diversity: The Eclipse of the Individual in a Global Era”, in which he argues that Americans are actually becoming more alike. The WSJ reviewer thinks this is a questionable thesis, as do I, but there are a couple of interesting quotes:

    “Uniformity weakens the individual, which in turn weakens democracy. If individuals lose their singularity, they form a susceptible electorate.”


    “Roughly the second half of the book is a brief account of the Enlightenment contest between standardizers, on the one hand, and champions of genuine diversity, on the other. Exponents of the French Revolution tended to demand sameness: standardized calendars, currencies, weights, measurements and language. The radical priest Henri Grégoire, for example, felt strongly that any foreign language, indeed any dialect, signified disloyalty to the state. ”


Comments are closed.