Unless your target market is oversensitive idiots, you shouldn't talk to them that way.


A recent piece in the New York Timesexcellent Critical Shopper column asked "What Happened to J. Crew?" This kind of breathless inquiry often comes up when an iconic brand takes a nosedive. We asked the same about Abercrombie, American Apparel and Nasty Gal. These are brands that defined our youth, that spoke to us and understood what we needed at a delicate time in our lives. They meant more than we could explain. How could they just...abandon us? 

The answer is almost always that they didn't want to hurt us, they just didn't feel like they could talk to us anymore. Maybe we changed and they no longer knew who we were. Maybe the world changed and they grew up and moved on with their lives and it all just got really confusing and hard. So they just quit talking altogether, or they tried talking to some sanitized version of us that never existed in the first place.

The Times article complains about J. Crew's disastrous aim at the nebulous middle, an imaginary set of boring people who have no clue what they want. "It existed in a hinterland of chintz and misguided aspiration," the piece said about a particularly meh item at the brand's flagship store. "Curiously blank and directionless, neither sophisticated nor appealingly accessible." 

We've been saying this for a while, but it's more true now than ever—being safe is the riskiest thing you can do. Which is why brands come to us and ask us to make them sound edgy. "Like Reformation," they'll say, and then bristle when we suggest throwing an f-bomb into an email. Their qualm is always something like, "Oh, we don't want to exclude anyone."

Except yes, you do. If you started this brand out of passion (and we sure AF hope you did) then why are you trying to speak to the dispassionate masses? Who, exactly, are you addressing here? Oh, your product is for "everybody?" No, it's not. And even if it were, it's 2017. Who is still offended by anything?

Let's talk about defining your target market, a crucial step in any effective brand voice strategy. A lot of people think this is a matter of demographics. Sure it's good to know your ideal customer's age range and income tax bracket, but that is the very, very easy part. Most brands claim to be aiming at "millennials." That's a lot of people. You need to be more specific. 

Go deeper. Create a back story about what your people are doing with their lives and then figure out how your products are going to fit into that story. Are they partying in Tulum, taking selfies at Coachella, presenting at CES? Do they want to be Silicon Valley moguls, wellness gurus or ball players? Do they take life advice from Father John Misty or Bella Hadid? Do they caffeinate with Starbucks or Stumptown? What other brands do they like and how are those brands talking to them, serving them? What are they showing them that is really resonant? Don't copy it. Know about it. Consider it. And then do your own thing. Give your people a glimpse at the life they really want, and speak to them as if they already had it.

Maybe it used to be enough to not offend anybody, as long as you had a decent product at an accessible price point. Not anymore. Now, you need to take a strong position, and that means speaking directly, and personally, to your audience. Remember what you learned in high school—if you try to please everybody, nobody will like you. 


Do you really know your target market?