Target Marketing: Turning Birds of a Feather into Sitting Ducks

Article excerpt

Some call it "target marketing," others call it "database "marketing" or "targeting by taste." Whatever it is called, there is a startling change taking place in the way wholesalers and retailers try to get their products into the hands of consumers.

No longer are they content to advertise in the mass media-spending millions of dollars for messages that may fall on deaf ears-and hope that customers will find their way to stores where items are displayed. Manufacturers and many retail outlets now want to target customers directly and lock them into consistent buying patterns.

The way to do this, of course, is to use precise lists for mail or telephone solicitation or to identify customers loyal to your brand and somehow manipulate them into buying your products over and over. The only way to succeed at this is to know everything possible about your customers-their age, income, ethnicity, family size, credit cards, and buying habits.

Some target marketers, like the Quaker Oats Company, want to know their customers' political and social views. In its current massive direct-marketing campaign, Quaker Oats asks customers, including many children, their views on drug testing, school prayer, and gun control on the theory that their responses indicate whether they are traditionalists or open to new ideas.

Kids and adults who ordered the Cap'n Crunch Dick Tracy wristwatch radio through a Quaker Oats offer in cereal boxes last summer were sent an intrusive questionnaire that asked about those three political issues, as well as street address, income, what credit cards the family uses, the names, ages, and preferences of smokers in the household, and who has what diseases in the family. It also asked the wristwatch-radio users to agree or disagree strongly or moderately with the statement: "My dog is like my baby." (Quaker Oats makes Ken-L Ration and Gaines dog food.) The company plans to use the data to market other products directly to the family, on the basis of its preferences. It will then track the purchases so that it may be able to reinforce patterns by marketing the identical products and allied products in the future. Customers will receive different levels of discounts, depending on their family characteristics. Quaker Oats will "overlay" television, radio, and newspaper advertising and monitor the varying responses, thus completing the manipulation of the buyer.

Orwellian Innovations. When women reach the cash register at Casual Comer or August Max clothing stores, the clerks ask them for their telephone number, which is then entered into the cash register. We are conditioned to provide information like this innocently, because we have been led to believe that it will help the merchant track us down if a check "bounces" or a credit card transaction is erroneous or invalid.

But the stores have other uses in mind for the information. They are gathering telephone numbers from cash customers as well. The stores are using new computer software called REACT, which links the telephone number with the customer's identity and address, age, income bracket, type of dwelling, and previous purchases in the store. All of this information-on 55 million persons-has been stored in the retailers' in-house computer system.

Combining this information with a description of the current purchases permits the stores to court customers by mail, by telephone, or in the store for purchases to which the customer is known to be vulnerable. REACT is a "computerized tracking system" that "allows retailers to turn every single customer into a loyal customer," according to Direct Marketing Technology in Schaumburg, Illinois; and Retail Consumer Technology in Connecticut, which developed the software for $15 million. One of REACT'S officers used the term "targeting by taste."

The REACT people stress that information is kept confidential by the stores and that providing the telephone number is purely voluntary. …