Do retailers need to update customer persona development?

Source: Chico's - "How Bold Are You?" video
May 03, 2018

Chico’s over the last year has developed two buyer personas: Joy, its primary customer, and Catherine, a secondary customer, that help drive its advertising, product selection, customer service efforts and e-mail strategy.

The company used qualitative and quantitative research to come up with the semi-fictional representations of the apparel chain’s two typical shoppers.

“Not only can I picture these two women and what their lives are like, but so can everyone in our marketing department,” said Shelagh Stoneham, Chico’s SVP of marketing, at the Email Insider Summit, according to MediaPost.

She added, “We know these women well enough that we can tell stories about them and share them with everyone in the company. We know them as well as we know some of our friends.”

A persona, according to the Buyer Persona Institute, “tells you what prospective customers are thinking and doing as they weigh their options to address a problem that your company resolves.”

Some marketers, however, believe personas have failed to evolve for modern retail and its extensive shopper touchpoints.

In a column on Business 2 Community, Juli Durante, marketing team lead at SmartBug Media, writes that some personas are overly quantitative and lack “actual stories or personality and, thus, don’t help inform any kind of marketing or sales content.” Others are overly qualitative and “miss the basic demographics, so you don’t realize that you’re actually trying to sell a sofa to an apartment-dwelling Millennial, not a family-oriented Gen X-er.”

In an interview last year with Forbes, Scott Levine, SVP strategy at Kern, an Omnicom agency, said traditional personas are stagnant, while buyers’ mindsets continually change through the shopper journey. The personas fail to capture the elements of awareness, consideration, inquiry, purchase and loyalty. “The journey has become more complicated and yet, this hasn’t been taken into consideration when thinking about consumer personas,” he said.

Some marketers find qualitative research, including one-on-one interviews, less valuable in developing personas when expansive data is available through Google analytics, social media, user-generated online reviews and other areas. Artificial intelligence also promises to help quickly analyze online behavior and reams of customer data to build more relevant personas.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: How should retailers adjust their methods for developing buyer personas? Will emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence replace the traditional persona-building process?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"The deeper and more current the persona, the more useful it can be. It should not be a poster on the wall or in a deck that lives in a file drawer!"
"No no no! Focusing on buyer personas is pretty much like relying on horoscopes."
"The best brands are already taking advantage of personalization. AI is already supporting persona-building processes."

Join the Discussion!

17 Comments on "Do retailers need to update customer persona development?"

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Bob Phibbs

This is a ying and yang problem. Unless you have someone in mind you don’t know how to talk to them — the more specific you are, the less you take note of variations. I use buyer personas on my website for when I write a blog — either to a C-level exec, a brand in general or an indie. That helps shape the way I want to talk to them. The funny thing is after the fact, all three personas read the blog anyway. AI will help generalities narrow as they can use so many more data points to correlate. Until then, it is always best to have someone — albeit not a precise individual– in mind when you are communicating so you come across as authentic.

Anne Howe

Personas need to be mapped to journeys and to how the decisions are made along the waypoints. It’s a real bonus to use EEG and other technologies to truly uncover some of the subconscious emotional drivers. The deeper and more current the persona, the more useful it can be. What it should not be is a poster on the wall or in a deck that lives in a file drawer!

Cathy Hotka

I’ve been privy to some of the work that a major marketing firm is doing with several well-known brands. They’ve urged them to consider a number of different personas, reflecting the various motivations that drive customers to purchase their products. In the age of multiple channels, one size does not fit all.

Peter Fader

No no no! Focusing on buyer personas is pretty much like relying on horoscopes. Retailers should move far away from them and focus more on the gritty reality of their actual customers and the vast differences across them.

As long as retailers focus on personas, they will continue to get steamrolled by Amazon.

Chris Petersen, PhD.

Personas were valuable in the mass marketing era as a means of developing media strategies and messaging. Retail has transformed to a state of “phygital” retail where customers transcend boundaries of time and place. They are more likely to use their mobile phone than mass media. Customers expect personalization and seamless integration.

Winning the future requires integrating individual customer data across all channels to identify and best serve customers at many touch points.

Future success will be about AI analytics to identify profitable customers and to leverage shopping patterns to create lifetime value. I’m not sure that Amazon has any “buyer personas,” but they certainly have all the details and predictive analytics based upon all customer interactions, especially Prime members.

Neil Saunders

When researched and developed properly, personas are a useful shorthand for understanding customers. However, consumers are now more fragmented than ever and the mass markets of old have disappeared, so it has become increasingly difficult to develop identities that cover all bases. So long as retailers realize the limitations of personas and do not become slaves to them, I still believe they are a useful tool.

Lyle Bunn (Ph.D. Hon)

Persona marketing has become a blunt instrument of consumer distinction that is too broadly applied to a shopper base. In helping to guide marketing plans and media planning/buying its influence on marketing messaging and creative has failed to exploit data analytics and the micro-marketing that deliver brand affinity and loyalty. It is time to update personas, yes indeed, while broadening the base of personas and aligning these with marketing investment toward that “audience of one” that is so enabled by digital detection and messaging.

Art Suriano

There is no doubt that AI is multiplying and all businesses, not just retail, are jumping on the bandwagon. The problem is AI is far from being perfect, and it is hard to say if and when it ever will be. The simple misunderstanding of a word can cause significant problems. Presently, it lacks the ability for complete personal individualization, something considerable today. The advantages are apparent; it’s less expensive than using humans and data can be analyzed quickly. So there are tradeoffs. My suggestion is to use AI as a base and for retailers to reach out to their customers with live opportunities to learn more about them and their needs when looking to make important decisions about their business. AI will get better as time moves forward, but I don’t see it ever replacing everything humans can do.

Ricardo Belmar
Ricardo Belmar
Retail Transformation Thought Leader, Advisor, & Strategist
5 years 1 month ago

One of the keys to successfully using buyer personas in retail is treating them as dynamic and not letting them remain static. Customer tastes are changing rapidly and retailers will need multiple personas mapped to customer journey maps. All of these materials will need constant updating and refreshing with available data on demographics and other sources. This is a great area for AI to be applied! Chico’s seems to be doing a good job applying their personas in advertising and marketing as you get a very clear sense who they are targeting. But even they need to keep evolving the personas as their customer evolves.

Shep Hyken

The power of creating personas is that it gives customers the right content that is meaningful for them. This has proven to be successful, when done properly. The best brands are already taking advantage of personalization. AI is already supporting persona-building processes.

Kevin Simonson

Thanks Tom, great stuff as usual.

Okay, so, regardless of whether AI replaces the process, there are several persona fundamentals to consider. One of the questions we ask our clients to consider when building out ideal customers is:

Who is the kind of person that, if they had this product, and you took it away from them, would feel some sort of pain?

This question helps us build out specifically who that person is in terms of their needs and media consumption, what kind of similar brands they’re shopping with, and so on. Then we use that to build out the company’s initial audience. We help the brand match messaging to the language of this customer profile. Which helps us establish a strong starting point for the website and other marketing materials going forward.

The goal is being highly customer oriented with your messaging. Focusing less on describing your product, and more on hitting specific triggers for the customer.

Hope that adds to the conversation.

Ralph Jacobson

I have found that organizations find it relatively easy to create the more obvious persona, while large portions of these organizations’ target audiences go undefined with major gaps in shopper/consumer/influencer persona identification. The need is for a cross-functional team, not just marketing, to work through all potential persona definitions. The more you define, the more you will attract to your brand.

Joan Treistman
I disagree with those who say buyer personas should not be used and agree with those who advise being circumspect and contemporary in developing viable profiles for target audiences. Demographics are no longer the end all be all they were and successful marketers are looking at ways to reach their consumers in terms of selecting media channels but, importantly, with the right messages. You can’t do that without knowing who you are trying to reach and what will resonate with them. We have wonderful opportunities to incorporate useful approaches to understanding buyers. Qualitative and quantitative research is an umbrella for many techniques that should be sorted for appropriateness for the retailer or brand in question. In the past few years I’ve employed omnibus research along with communities as well as focus groups and surveys. It’s definitely not one-size-fits-all and it means being committed to finding out where the prospects are and how to best reach them. And in that pursuit marketers have to be open to recognizing that defining a prospect may have to do… Read more »
Doug Garnett

The idea that Chico’s would land on two personas is quite concerning. The world of consumers is far more complex and, for the purposes stated here, Chico’s needs a set of six to 10 personas so that no single view of their customers drives away other customers.

Let’s remember, it’s unlikely that one persona can reflect more than 20 percent or 30 percent of customers.

Burger King made the error of hyper-focus in their advertising work — focusing on their largest segment in a way that offended their next smaller segments. My suggestion is that this was a major part of why they lost their second-place fast food ranking.

Peter Charness

There’s a gap between “who” you buy for, and how you promote what you’ve purchased. With regards to promotions, the concept of an AI driven one-to-one promotion/recommendation strategy makes intuitive sense and some day may come to mainstream fruition. Relative to the merchants making product selection decisions, one-to-one is not even conceptually clear, (especially for product sourced 6 months out), but the “right” number of personas by channel and by location to allow for focused assortments does. 2 personas does seem light, just as 30 seems like too much of a good thing.

Patricia Vekich Waldron

The danger of personas is that they are stagnant. We all have different intentions and needs at any point in time depending on our needs, wants or aspirations.

Cynthia Holcomb

In my opinion, personas send the wrong message to the internal design, marketing, retail teams, etc. of a retailer. In the old days, it was all we had. Personas are a vanilla, anecdotal, low intelligence representation of a very complex question, privy to a host of “subjective” human-based interpretations and executions ranging from product to marketing. In 2018, Chico’s might consider taking the time and resources to deep dive into the customer preference intelligence right before them, in real time, to understand their customers as individuals.

"The deeper and more current the persona, the more useful it can be. It should not be a poster on the wall or in a deck that lives in a file drawer!"
"No no no! Focusing on buyer personas is pretty much like relying on horoscopes."
"The best brands are already taking advantage of personalization. AI is already supporting persona-building processes."

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