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Our House is a Very Fine House…But You May Not Recognize It

AcxiomSeptember 15, 2014

I’m a mom.  A single mom, as a matter of fact.  A single mom of an adult child in college in another state.  And guess what?  We are a household.  All two of us in two different states.  And if you are a marketer this should be important to you.  Why?  Because I hold the wallet.

Even though my daughter is an adult, she’s also a college student so I still support her in many ways: her health insurance, her car insurance, her tuition, utilities, and major purchases are all funded by me.  So even if she is an adult and is a valid target for marketing, it’s really good to know that if you want to sell her a high priced item you might have more success coming through me.  But how do you do that?  You have to figure out what really constitutes a household and what data and knowledge are necessary to recognize households.

If you’re paying attention to the world around you, you’re well aware that a ‘household’ means many things – single person households, single parent households, nuclear families, blended families, cohabitation of the same or different sexes, and roommates, just to name the most common.  If you want some real magic in your marketing, an understanding of consumer relationships and associations beyond the address – like economic relationships, extended families, and beanpole families – gives you a reach most haven’t achieved yet. But, over and over again in marketing campaigns, marketing databases, and targeting I see a household defined as “adults with the same last name living at the same address.

Where does that leave you when you want to sell something expensive to my daughter?  Let’s break down the definition:  Adults?  Yes, we are both adults.  Same last name?  Yes, we share a last name.  At the same address?  Nope.  You just lost our relationship and no longer consider us a household.  So, if you know she loves to cook and browses deluxe stand mixers regularly you can market to her, but she’s broke so she won’t buy it.  If you know we are a household and market to both of us, chances are I’ll buy it for her birthday.

Out of curiosity, I went through census reports from 1950 to 2010 to see how the government has changed the definition of a household over the years.  From history lessons and vintage ads, we know how society viewed a household and how it was defined, so I assumed what I would find are the old fashioned, traditional definitions.  Surprisingly, the U. S. Census Bureau got it right long before marketers did.  According to the 1950 United States Summary, the definition of a household changed in 1947 to begin including related and unrelated persons in households as well as “a person living alone in a dwelling unit, or unrelated persons sharing a unit as partners”. 1   There are still some definitions I expected, like married women are not classified as “Head of Household” or that “Inmates” refers to anyone in an institution, including nursing homes.  So, although there were definitions that today we consider very outdated, the government got closer to reality than a lot of marketing has gotten since.

Fast forward to the 2010 Census and the definition of a household is much broader.  Now the composition of a household is not just husbands and wives, but biological, adopted, and step children, siblings, parents, grandparents, housemates, roommates, unmarried partners, same-sex spouses, and other relatives and non-relatives.

Think about those definitions and consider again how we often define a household in marketing: adults with the same last name living at the same address.  Just by including “same last name” in our definition we run the risk of missing a lot of opportunities.  According to the 2010 Census, the unmarried partner population grew 41 percent between 2000 and 2010, four times as fast as the overall household population (10 percent).  It is also reported that 1 out of every 8 homes includes one or more people not related to the householder.  That in itself tells us we need to change how we define a household in marketing.  At the very least, lose the last name qualifier.

So, when we get it wrong we miss opportunities, but we can also alienate customers.  A good example of that is “The Know-it-All Marketer” in 4 Annoying Marketing Personas .  When you stick with standard definitions of a household you run the risk of misidentifying people and completely missing the target when marketing. purple mixer

Different companies, industries, and marketing channels define households in many different ways, but too often the outdated, traditional definitions are still the foundation when marketing to households.  Are you one of those who miss your target with outdated assumptions, limited data, misidentified customers, and an inability to recognize a household?  It’s time to change how you think about households.  I do know of one marketer who got it right.  Look what my daughter got for her birthday.