The Perils of Penny The Pen Portrait

Bringing to life your target consumer or customer in a way that’s useful and meaningful to your marketing efforts, whilst also acting as an empowering guide in the business is a big question. It’s one we face a lot on many projects from research, positioning and often business strategy too.

It’s an really important question too. Bringing to life consumer segments effectively can focus the business and aid execution and commercial delivery. But too often we reach for the ‘Pen Portrait’ solution – you know, ‘Penny’ or ‘Ethan’, ‘Sanjit’ or ‘Olivia’.

The principles of targeting are well established (if debated and not always agreed with) but whatever your view on it, it’s always a big mistake to confuse ‘targeting’ with ‘micro-targeting’ which is what frequently happens. Targeting can be empowering, but micro-targeting can give the perception of being focused whilst actually restricting your commercial potential. So it’s important to tread carefully…. we see five traps that can catch the unwary marketeer:

  • Too personalised or over specified. This is trap we most often see. By making something very individual (‘This is Dan, he’s 28, lives an apartment in Greenwich with his partner…’) the receiver’s decoding of the targeting becomes personal (He’s not like any Dan I know) and may have the opposite to intended effect – making it unrelatable. The idea of the Pen Portraits here is find a central representation of the target group, but in making it too personal the opposite happens and the target narrows and becomes too singular – when you go out looking for the target you can’t find them.
  • Too broad. Breadth is, counter-intuitively, important in targeting. You want to find a meaningful commercial prize to aim at after all. But too broad becomes useless. Millennials anyone? Yes, that’s right! Let’s assume every one of the 14 million “millennials” in the UK share the same attitudes, characteristics and behaviours. It’s lazy and worse, largely useless in helping a brand.
  • Too stereotyped which may have initial appeal inside the business, but when you actually try and recruit, you find it’s hard to find your targets. The hidden biases inherent in identifying may have some very broad-brush recognition from the audience but in the detail they’re not there – in reality, people just don’t fit the mould.
  • Too unrelatable – a big challenge when you have a business that isn’t particularly customer or consumer orientated. Leadership can often feel that they represent the customer. You need a strong argument and commercial case to dislodge these deep set opinions. And some bravery too – hence, teams often roll with it a bit or don’t nip the problem in the bud at source.

There isn’t a perfect answer but equally, there’s no doubt that building up a set of target audience typologies is useful for helping the business (and decision makers in particular) be clear on who we’re going after, who we’re not, and why. But what’s important in the Pen Portrait is likely to vary by category and you may need different elements depending on your category or brand situation. For example, although broad, life stage may be discriminating for you. Or, perhaps, you want to target everyone but only on specific occasions or moments.

We’ve bags of experience working out through research who to target and how to best bring them to life and set them to productive work in a business. If we can help you with your targeting, drop us a line.


David Preston is founder of The Crow Flies, a research, strategy and innovation company that helps brands find a direct route to long lasting success.; +44 (0) 1283 295100;; @crowflieshigh. © The Crow Flies, 2022