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JWPM Consulting

Pyschographic profiling

09 April 2020

A key principal of psycho-graphic profiling is characterising people by observing their beliefs, attitudes and behaviors as this influences the products and brands they buy.

An example of psycho-graphic profiling at work

Back in the eighties (last century) I was a young executive in an advertising agency, and attended an internal training session.

The Account Director on the automotive account was presenting about the principles and methods of psycho-graphic profiling.

He explained the type of person who buys Miele, and Gaggenau household appliances (for example) is likely to be different from a person who buys Whirlpool and Electrolux. The football team they support, the car they drive, the clothes they wear, what they read, music tastes, how often they dine out - are all influenced by the type of person they are. While this tendency is modified by individual circumstance (there are always exceptions to any rule) psycho-graphic bias is very strong.

The automotive group in our agency had developed some fairly sophisticated profiles of car buyers, which was used to develop the campaign strategies for each model in our client's range.

Of the different car buyer personas described, I was particularly intrigued by a group of people dubbed "The Yellow Renault Set"

Renault is a French car imported into Australia for around 50 years (although Renault briefly manufactured some models in Heidelberg in Melbourne during the 1960's to early 70's). One of these cars was the Renault 16. Which was often painted yellow.

The account director explained that the typical profile of the Renault 16 driver was school teachers and tertiary academics. Typically male, had spectacles and beards, and perhaps even leather patches on their elbows.

Why Yellow Renaults? What was in their psychological make-up that predisposed them to buy that car?

The Account Director explained there were two key characteristics...

  • Self image: School teachers and academics see themselves as different. Mainstream cars such as Ford, Holden, Mitsubishi, Toyota etc. didn't appeal to them. French cars have a unique aesthetic. French cars are after all - different. This appealed to their academic identity; the Renault was a 'thinking-person's' car. To be fair, Australian cars up until the introduction of the Commodore in 1978 were pretty bloody ordinary compared to almost any European car.

  • Income level: Secondly, an expensive European car was outside their budget and also strongly associated with Doctors, Lawyers and business executives. The Renault was an affordable and differentiating compromise.

The explanation for "why?" no doubt lacked rigor, but the correlation didn't. The finding came from independent market research.

A couple of weekends later I attended a family gathering. A family member had recently re-partnered, and he was being introduced to the broader family group.

We were told that her new partner was a University Lecturer in his late fifties.

Blow me down if he didn't arrive driving a Yellow Renault.

Pyscho-graphic profiling as an improvement over demographic profiling

Prior to the introduction of psycho-graphic profiling, marketers of course understood that not everyone would buy their product or service and therefore buying advertising space would be more cost efficient through consumer targeting. Methods to discriminate between target audiences would be sex, age, racial or ethnic profile, religion, and geographic location. This is called demographics.

And it's not a blunt method because clearly there are strong correlations between people types and their circumstances and demographic profiles.

However, it was noticed that some products appealed to consumers crossing over many demographics. You will always have overlap but sometimes buying crossed many demographic boundaries but was still confined to a distinct market segment.

What did these people have in common?

Personality profiles and emotional triggers

After investigation, it was realised that a more powerful method to profile potential buyers would need to take in to account understanding their personalities and their emotional triggers. This would provide several advantages over demographic profiling...

  • Psycho-graphic profiling can be applied to selecting advertising media - the type of media a person consumed was just as much a personal choice as their product purchasing behavior
  • The personality profile can be used to craft the advertising messages and creative strategy
  • Product development can guide improving the product appeal to an identified profile. For extant products, a psycho-graphic profile can guide the sales targeting.
  • Pricing can be reduced to appeal to price sensitive types or increased for others for whom price is a low priority.
  • Distribution can be planned based on knowing where these types are likely to live.

Demographic data was used to guide these decisions before, however psycho-graphics provides the opportunity to base these decisions on more tightly calibrated criteria and at an emotional appeal level. In essence, psycho-graphic profiling allowed targeting and message crafting to be aligned to how people think rather than based on where they lived (although often they can be correlated).

In marketing and selling, emotion always wins out over logic.

A Ferrari is not a very useful car, but as a means of satisfying some deep inner need, for the few that can afford it, it's perfect.

Psycho-graphic profile models

There are literally hundreds of psycho-graphic profiling models, here is one that I have drawn-up from memory that should be used to illustrate the concept rather than be relied upon. The model (or one very similar to it and more fleshed out) was utilised by the advertising agency I worked for in the eighties and was adopted globally. Its purpose was more to be a starting point for developing a more refined model suited to the product/market application, but where clients didn't wish to invest in a customised model - it acted as a fall back to provide a basic profiling tool.

The above Pyscho-graphic model maps two basic dimensions - vertically disposable income and horizontally it forks into "inner directed" and "outer directed."

Outer directed: Outer direction implies that reality is outside of ourselves, in social norms, expected behaviors and societal structures. We have to conform to these forces.

Inner directed: Inner direction implies desires, convictions, principles, and beliefs. Inside we know what is right. As such, we need to follow conscience.

Of course, there is a little bit of each in all of us, and this is modified by circumstance. However, with disposable income comes the opportunity to make more choices and be less constrained by day-to-day survival. Hence, at the lower end of the model people tended to be constrained by circumstance and hence the need to distinguish between inner and outer direction was obviated. This was after all a model for predicting purchasing behavior and nothing else.

Political parties and pressure-groups use psycho-graphic profiling to great effect.


Today, most people would look at this model and be offended by its obvious stereotyping. Back in the eighties we would have guessed these people would tend to fit in the "activists" and "reformers" category.

However, wealth inequality is real and the way people view the world and how it impacts decision making varies and as marketers we must understand these differences to effectively and efficiently promote products and services. After all, as marketers we are rarely tasked with changing the world, our role is to understand how it is.

Stereotyping is not just inevitable it is essential for effective marketing.

For recruitment purposes, the close cousins of psycho-graphic profiling are psychometric testing and personality tests. These seek to understand the candidate independent of interview presentation and are used to assess suitability for job roles and fit with team cultures.

Particularly in consumer marketing, Advertising agencies work closely with market researchers and psychologist to better understand the psychological profile of who they are attempting to sell to before crafting promotional campaigns.

Outliers - not all Yellow Renault drivers were school teachers and academics

The problem with advertising and marketing and the development of any system that attempts to define a target audience is the person who put's up their hand and says "My friend Jim drove a Yellow Renault - and he was a Surfie who worked part time in a liquor store."

I always have trouble with people who don't understand the concept of probability, so I respond with "tell me. If you saw a Yellow Renault coming down the road (back in the eighties) which person driving would you put money on? The school teacher/academic or another Jim?"

Target marketing is about backing the right horse. Psycho-graphic profiling is the form guide.

Psycho-graphic profiling is not an exact science; it's about picking the most likely potential buyer.

Often, target markets for products are segmented and have more than one customer profile. Usually two maximum three audience segments covers 90% of the market.

As it turned-out, Jim's dad was a school teacher.

Understanding the type of people you are targeting is a fundamental principal of marketing. Psycho-graphic profiling is a tool to make this process more efficient.

Further reading

Brand personality
Ethnographic research
Market segmentation

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