Consumer Report

If you think you know your target market, think again.

He was Joe Average; she was Jane Doe. They lived in a traditional nuclear family and watched "Laverne & Shirley" for laughs. They thought disco was hip and computers were for nerds. And they believed there was such a thing as the right brand of dishwashing liquid or the correct kind of car. They were typical American consumers--and back in 1977, the world of business still believed in them.

But a funny thing happened on the way to 1997. We discovered we were not a nation of typical citizens with common market needs and a one-size-fits-all identity. We were large-sized women and single dads, ethnic minorities, yuppies and slackers, affluent seniors, savvy teens, gourmet coffee drinkers, self-made millionaires and burnouts seeking lives of voluntary simplicity. Instead of assuming that one "head of household"--presumably a man--was calling all the shots on purchases, businesses learned to recognize the considerable economic muscle of women and children.

As we discovered this diversity, we also found the technology to differentiate ourselves. Enter the age of target marketing, with computers to track our incomes, lifestyles and spending habits. Though niche marketing had already dawned in the '70s, in the '80s and '90s, it not only changed the landscape of American business, but it also changed the way consumers viewed themselves.
Joe Average and Jane Doe are now history. In 1997, the typical American consumer has a name, a life and a laundry list of particular needs. And in the future, say experts, consumers will demand even greater recognition of their individuality.

None of this is to say that broad societal trends have been absent these past two decades. On the contrary, Americans are now older, wiser, hipper and more exacting than ever, thanks to the forces of time and technology. As we look back on the past 20 years of consumerdom--and forward to the decades to come--it's clear that the only constant will be change. Welcome to the kingdom of the new, improved American consumer.

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This article was originally published in the May 1997 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Consumer Report.

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