Is segmentation just discrimination with an acceptable name?

A short time ago we posted a basic explanation of the Cambridge Analytica/Facebook scandal (which you can read here). In it, we stated that market segmentation and stereotyping are essentially the same thing. This presents an ethical quandary for marketers as almost every marketing organization makes heavy use of market segmentation.

To review, marketers place customers into segments so that they can better understand and serve them. Segmentation is at the essence of marketing. Segments can be created along any measurable dimension, but since almost all segments have a demographic component we will focus on that for this post.

It can be argued that segmentation and stereotyping are the same thing. Stereotyping is attaching perceived group characteristic to an individual. For instance, if you are older I might assume your political views lean conservative, since it is known that political views tend to be more conservative in older Americans that they are in general among younger Americans. If you are female I might assume you are more likely to be the primary shopper for your household, since females in total do more of the family shopping than males. If you are African-American, I might assume you have a higher likelihood than others to listen to rap music, since that genre indexes high among African-Americans.

These are all stereotypes. These examples can be shown to true of a larger group, but that doesn’t necessarily imply that they apply to all the individuals in the group. There are plenty of liberal older Americans, females who don’t shop at all, and African-Americans who can’t stand rap music.

Segmenting consumers (which is applying stereotypes) isn’t inherently a bad thing. It leads to customized products and better customer experiences. The potential problem isn’t with stereotyping, it is when doing so moves to a realm of being discriminatory that we have to be careful. As marketers we tread a fine line. Stereotyping oversimplifies the complexity of consumers by forming an easy to understand story. This is useful in some contexts and discriminatory in others.

Some examples are helpful. It can be shown that African-Americans have a lower life expectancy than Whites. A life insurance company could use this information to charge African-Americans higher premiums than Whites. (Indeed, many insurance companies used to do this until various court cases prevented them from doing so.) This is a segmentation practice that many would say crosses a line to become discriminatory.

In a similar vein, car insurance companies routinely charge higher risk groups (for example younger drivers and males) higher rates than others. That practice has held up as not being discriminatory from a legal standpoint, largely because the discrimination is not against a traditionally disaffected group.

At Crux, we work with college marketers to help them make better admissions offer decisions. Many colleges will document the characteristics of their admitted students who thrive and graduate in good standing. The goal is to profile these students and then look back at how they profiled as applicants. The resulting model can be used to make future admissions decisions. Prospective student segments are established that have high probabilities of success at the institution because they look like students known to be successful, and this knowledge is used to make informed admissions offer decisions.

However, this is a case where a segmentation can cross a line and become discriminatory. Suppose that the students who succeed at the institution tend to be rich, white, female, and from high performing high schools. By benchmarking future admissions offers against them, an algorithmic bias is created. Fewer minorities, males, and students from urban districts will be extended admissions offers What turns out to be a good model from a business standpoint ends up perpetuating a bias., and places certain demographics of students at a further disadvantage.

There is a burgeoning field in research known as “predictive analytics.” It allows data jockeys to use past data and artificial intelligence to make predictions on how consumers will react. It is currently mostly being used in media buying. Our view is it helps in media efficiency, but only if the future world can be counted on to behave like the past. Over-reliance on predictive analytics will result in marketers missing truly breakthrough trends. We don’t have to look further than the 2016 election to see how it can fail; many pollsters were basing their modeling on how voters had performed in the past and in the process missed a fundamental shift in voter behavior and made some very poor predictions.

That is perhaps an extreme case, but shows that segmentations can have unintended consequences. This can happen in consumer product marketing as well. Targeted advertising can become formulaic. Brands can decline distribution in certain outlets. Ultimately, the business can suffer and miss out on new trends.

Academics (most notably Kahneman and Tversky) have established that people naturally apply heuristics to decision making. These are “rules of thumb” that are often useful because they allow us to make decisions quickly. However, these academics have also demonstrated how the use of heuristics often result in sub-optimal and biased decision making.

This thinking applies to segmentation. Segmentation allows us to make marketing decisions quickly because we assume that individuals take on the characteristics of a larger group. But, it ignores the individual variability within the group, and often that is where the true marketing insight lies.

We see this all the time in the generational work we do. Yes, Millennials as a group tend to be a bit sheltered, yet confident and team-oriented. But this does not mean all of them fit the stereotype. In fact, odds are high that if you profile an individual from the Millennial generation, he/she will only exhibit a few of the characteristics commonly attributed to the generation. Taking the stereotype too literally can lead to poor decisions.

This is not to say that marketers shouldn’t segment their customers. This is a widespread practice that clearly leads to business results. But, they should do so considering the errors and biases applying segments can create, and think hard about whether this can unintentionally discriminate and, ultimately, harm the business in the long term.

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