Segmentation: A perpetual student challenge?

Regardless of the specific class I’m teaching, if I have to address the topic of segmentation, I include the same slide (or a slight variation of it) as a “conversation starter”—a full-screen image of a crowd of people that features what I think is a fairly straightforward question.

Image of crowd of people with "Why not just sell to everybody? Wouldn't that be a lot easier?" superimposed
An example of the slide in question from this semester.

This typically seems to start the conversation moving in a direction that I like–students correctly acknowledge that “everyone” isn’t going to buy your product, that “everyone” isn’t going to see your message, etc. This also provides a transition to explaining that segmentation is an important foundational strategy for most marketing and advertising efforts—that is, defining who it is you are selling to gives you a much clearer idea of how to talk to those very people, how to best reach them, and so forth.

From here, I will talk about the four broad categories of segmentation variables (namely, demographic, geographic, psychographic, and behavioral), and how good marketers will “mix and match” from these variables to try and describe target buyers. This also provides a nice spot to discuss buyer personas, especially in advertising classes, as I find that it’s a lot easier for students to “talk to” personas when developing campaigns and brand personalities than to think somewhat abstractly about broader, faceless segments.

Even though these ideas are fairly simple and relatively logical, and although most students express confidence in understanding them, student work nevertheless routinely betrays what I think must be some discomfort or apprehension towards the process of actually doing segmentation. Take, for example, an actual student assignment that I received; students had been assigned a fictional brand of antimicrobial yoga mats to develop at least one target segment for. The single segment that had been identified was as follows:

Men and women, age 15+

Income range of $30,000 to $100,000

Goes to a yoga studio


You don’t have to be a marketing expert to know that this is practically useless as a description of a target segment, given that demographically it describes about half of all American adults (…as well as whatever 15-to-18-year-olds happen to be banking more than a weekly allowance). The psychographic element is only marginally useful, as virtually no one is going to admit to being health-averse, and most people are health-conscious at least to the extent that they don’t want to die! Developing a meaningful persona from this segment would be impossible—or, at the very least, the resulting persona would be so broad as to be essentially useless.

I don’t use this example to try and disparage the particular student group that came up with it—it was merely the most recent example of a phenomenon I’ve noticed for a while now. Whenever the task of segmentation is assigned, regardless of whether the product/service being used is fictional or real, students (in my experience) tend to be afraid to get specific… maybe it’s “FOMO” manifesting?

I haven’t yet quite figured out how to explain to students that defining segments does not preclude or prevent individuals outside of the segment from purchasing the product or service. I know for a fact that I would not be the face of the persona for, say, Febreze, or for Persil detergent, or for a Roth IRA from Charles Schwab, among many other things, and yet I happily use all of these products virtually every day (and I’m sure that these brand owners are delighted to have me along for the ride all the same).

If I figure out how to address this phenomenon successfully, I’ll pass it along; in the meantime, if anyone has any suggestions, I’m all ears.