Hallmark Cards prides itself on its ability to translate societal trends into greeting cards. So a few years ago, when Hallmark's marketing group looked into its demographic crystal ball and saw 78 million baby boomers hitting age 50, the company created boxes and boxes of friendship, birthday, anniversary and thinking-of-you cards, all designed to subtly flatter the aging boomer's flagging middle-aged ego. Shipped to Hallmark stores in 2000, the Time of Your Life line of cards was displayed in its own section and featured active midlifers looking youthful as they frolicked on beaches and dived into swimming pools. "We had done a lot of research showing that baby boomers don't want to get old, but that if it's going to happen, they want to emphasize the positive side of aging," says Rachel Bolton, a spokeswoman for Hallmark. But Hallmark missed one tiny yet telling psychological detail: no self-respecting boomer wants to be seen shopping in the "old-people's cards" section. Faced with a choice between regular greeting cards and the 50-plus corner, potential customers avoided the cards as if they were a window display of geriatric diapers. In 2002 the Time of Your Life line was scrapped.
Knowing your customer well enough to avoid costly business goofs has always been an elusive goal of marketing strategists. Standard demographic data--age, gender, employment status, income, place of residence--are usually insufficient to forecast consumer behavior with any precision. That's why during the past five years market researchers have been developing more sophisticated tools to get inside consumers' heads. It's no longer enough for companies to know you are a 35-year-old white male making $45,000 a year and have a wife, 2.5 kids and a mortgage. To predict accurately what you'll buy and what you won't, marketers these days are more interested in whether you donate to Greenpeace or if you believe in creationism. Says Dawn Iacobucci, a professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management and editor of the Journal of Consumer Research: "Companies need to know what's on your mind. What's in your heart? What do you really want to do with your life?"
The answers, marketers hope, can be discovered through an emerging quasi-science known broadly as psychographics. Market researchers supplement conventional marketing data with informed assumptions about personality traits and human behavior gleaned from other disciplines, including psychology, sociology and probability theory. Using computers to organize and manipulate vast storehouses of such consumer information, they believe they are getting much better at sorting people into categories of like-minded individuals. And once the sorting is done, they are getting better at predicting how people are likely to behave.