Brock Shinen
Digital Transformation Consultant


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How to Destroy your Business with Faulty Targeted Marketing


I think Kia may have flipped over the handlebars. Maybe they’re not alone, but Kia’s recent ad on Power 106 stands out as a horrible example of faulty targeted marketing. To be fair to Kia, though, let’s back up a few steps.

Brands have always created campaigns and ad sets targeting sub-markets that differ from mainstream campaigns. An English commercial for “Americans” that features diverse actors on the streets of Los Angeles becomes sub-market targeted when it is translated into Spanish, features Latin actors, and is shot on Olvera Street. Less American? Probably not, but the point is not which commercial is more American. The issue becomes about reaching different sectors of society in culturally relevant ways to pull consumers towards a brand.

Successful sub-market targeting typically draws on data relating to consumer habits, socio-economic realities, and other demographic-specific attributes. That’s why I was surprised that Kia’s niche campaign on Power 106 was all about “wow, that’s a huge…,” “that’s the biggest one I’ve ever seen…,” and “size does matter…” The inference is overt.

Wait, what? Find it and listen to it, and you’ll see what I mean. And what does this mean for the Kia brand and how it views the Power 106 demographic? The perspective doesn’t require explanation.

I guess you could ask, “what’s the big deal?” Most of America went haywire when Carl’s Jr. launched it’s sexualized burger commercials back in 2005 with Paris Hilton. We’ve seen it time and time again, haven’t we? Ad campaigns that are offensive, stupid, and/or gross?

This time it’s different. Carl’s Jr. banked on targeting a sexualized society, in general. Kia is banking on targeting a primarily Latino and African-American demographic with its “size doesn’t matter” campaign. What does this say about Kia’s perspective on that segment of society?

I’m not going to answer that one. Would you? So what can we learn from Kia’s ad and the risks of sub-market targeting? Here are a few takeaways:

Don’t project a negative attribute on your market

Even if your ad relies on some purported truth within the target demographic, make sure that truth is not negative. Marketing in a way that suggests that your target market is less educated, less prosperous, less monotonous, less ‘legal,’ less drug or alcohol free, etc., you have already insulted them. Sure, there may be a few who laugh it off or say, “well, it’s the truth,” but when you target a demographic by projecting a negative, it’s always a mistake. That type of marketing also perpetuates negative stereotypes, so it possesses much more destructive force.

Don’t assume your market will get it

Marketing that relies on a deep understanding of cultural nuance will only work if you reach the sliver of society with that cultural experience. Unless your product or service is specifically designed for a micro-niche, don’t market that way. You’ll alienate everyone who doesn’t get it. Ads like Kia’s may be understood by the masses, but if you miss on an attempt to analogize something inappropriate with cars, most of your audience will not get it.

Don’t rely on offensive, sexual, or other traditionally objectionable material

Most people cuss. Research demonstrates that most people over a certain age have sex. Does that mean your marketing materials should include cussing and sexual content? No. Society, in general, still views that type of content as inappropriate for marketing goods and services. Just because Game of Thrones and Westworld possess certain worldly attributes doesn’t mean your marketing should. Stick to the moral high ground because society wants you to stick to the moral high ground.

Targeted marketing highlights brand perceptions

Every brand should realize that disparate targeting campaigns highlight how a brand views each demographic. If you’re going to do it, it better be positive across the spectrum. Otherwise, the differences (in how the brand views the target) are accentuated and the brand may look ignorant, racist, foolish, or worse. This is particularly troublesome when a brand markets in a positive way to one demographic and in a negative way to another. Why would a brand do that? The brand believes relevance is the issue. The consumer, however, believes it’s the brand’s negative perspective on one group.

Turn it around (quickly), and move on

Staying quiet and doing nothing is almost always the wrong idea. If you find yourself in a quagmire, don’t fret. The best way to turn things around is to first stop running with a faulty plan. Cut it off at the roots by terminating broadcasts and posts including the offending ad. Next, don’t draw attention to it, unless the PR powers that be say the damage is too great to ignore. If that’s the case, you better understand how to rehabilitate your brand. Your final step is to shift gears into a new campaign that is powerful, encouraging, and positive. Leave the negative behind and don’t dwell on it. Even the best brands in the world fail sometimes.