The importance of defining your ideal customer

Avatar, muse, ideal customer profile, customer persona – whatever you call it, putting a face to your ideal customer is not only a smart marketing tactic, but a strategic move for your entire organization.

The word ‘avatar’ (which is the term I’ll be using) is derived from a Sanskrit word meaning ‘descent’, referring to the descent of a deity to earth. A more modern meaning is ‘embodiment’ of any kind, both human and non-human. Perhaps the term avatar evokes visions of someone behind the controls of a video game, or maybe James Cameron’s blockbuster film of the same name. For business owners, the term avatar has come to represent an identity or profile that best describes their target market. Some of the most successful companies create avatars to help them better understand the way their customers think and act in order to more effectively design their products, communication strategies, and make operational decisions.

It’s important to clarify that not every customer will be exactly like your avatar, but every customer will want to be like your avatar in some way. They feel connected to them and they’re able to see themselves in your avatar. Therefore, avatars are aspirational beings – a sort of 21st-century demi-god of the business world. Please understand, however, that customer avatars are for internal use only, so they’re not the same as a ‘mascot.’ They aren’t the face of your company for external stakeholders and clients. Instead, they’re the face of your company for your internal team to help guide organizational decisions, both large and small.

Why create a company avatar?

Avatars help companies better understand their customers by stepping into their shoes. They help organizations put a face to their target market, shifting away from understanding your customer as a group of people, to understanding a single person for whom strategic decisions can be based. Reasons to create avatars include:

  1. Employee Education. Creating avatars makes it easier for employees to understand and remember the characteristics of your target market. After all, every employee (whether customer-facing or not) has a role to play in sales.
  2. Stronger Corporate Communication. The secret success of defining your ideal customer is that it allows your brand communication to speak to one person – an individual – thereby personalizing your messaging in the eyes of those customers. You’re able to speak more directly to them, demonstrate your understanding of their pain points, and offer solutions to problems in ways that your competition can’t. Building a branding and communication strategy that speaks to as much of the population as possible is strategically ineffective and a waste of time and money. It’s been said “when you speak to everyone you speak to no one” – so by speaking to your avatar, you’re more focused marketing efforts are more likely to be heard (and listened to) by the people that matter most. Marketing thought leader Seth Godin echoed the same message in his keynote address at PRINT 18 earlier this year. He argued that if those in business focus on communicating to the middle segment of the normal distribution curve (that big lump in the middle) they risk not being heard. “The normal people aren’t listening…so appeal to the weirdos.” It’s all about discovering and being specific about your target market and what makes them unique. Only when you totally understand them, can you speak directly to those “weirdos”.
  3. Focused and distraction-free. Creating a company avatar keeps your firm focused. Instead of becoming distracted by competitors’ initiatives (that may or may not be right for your business), you can approach new initiatives with your avatar in mind. They’re at the centre of your decision-making process and you can feel confident that you’re doing what’s best for your customers, and therefore your company. In other words, avatars help keep the longstanding promise that “the customer is always right.”

Asking the right questions

Understanding your ideal customer requires a deep, concentrated look into who they are beyond their professional personas. The end result of this development process is a detailed profile of an individual. However, the real magic exists in the work leading up to finalization when you’re asking the tough questions. You’re working to develop a deep, intimate understanding by seeing the world from their perspective. Marketing and entrepreneurial guru Marie Forleo helps small business owners not just understand their target market (which is often the first step), but also asks questions to uncover their motivations, deep desires and unique personalities. Forleo believes that the goal is to know your ideal customers so well that you can think like them, speak like them, experience their emotions and essentially be them – all with the intention of connecting more authentically with your customer base.

In order to gain this level of understanding, she suggests asking the following questions to build your company’s avatar:

  • What do your ideal customers have in common? List all common traits, both demographic (age, income, gender, marital status, etc.) and psychographic (values, beliefs, lifestyle, interests, etc.).
  • What emotions do they feel at the exact moment they’re about to buy your product or service?
  • What are they saying to themselves in their heads? What stories are they telling themselves?
  • What do your ideal customers secretly fear about their lives, whether it relates to your product or service, or in general?
  • What keeps them up at night?
  • What do your ideal customers secretly wish was true about their life situation, either as it relates to your product or service, or in general?

Forleo recommends asking each of these questions for every product or service you offer. Therefore, it’s likely that your company will have more than one avatar at the end of this process.

Avatars in action

How does global athleisure brand, lululemon, make decisions about new products, services and events and maintain consistency across hundreds of stores? You’ve probably guessed the answer – and their names are ‘Ocean’ and ‘Duke.’ (I know, I know, they’re as clichéd as you’d expect.) Ocean is described as “a 32-year-old professional single woman who makes $100,000 a year.” Other Ocean fun facts include: she owns her own condo, loves travelling, is fashionable, works out every day, and is engaged (to Duke, of course). Lululemon founder Chip Wilson hit the nail on the head when he described the company’s strategy: “If you’re 20 years old or you’re graduating from university, you can’t wait to be that woman…..if you’re 42 years old with a couple of children, you wish you had that time back.” She’s an aspirational character. She’s what lululemon’s ideal customers aspire to be in one way or another. Their avatars help educate employees from all over the world to make decisions that resonate with their customers – everything from new product development, to window merchandising, to which pair of yoga pants to feature ahead of others.

Avatars in print?

It’s one thing for a B2C lifestyle brand like lululemon to create avatars, but it’s entirely different to be involved in marketing for a B2B custom manufacturing firm. However different the world of yoga apparel and custom printing seem, the common denominator remains the same: we’re all in the people business. Our customers are all human beings who have thoughts, fears and ideas that influence their interactions with brands, for better or for worse. Think about the value in answering: “What keeps your customer up at night?” In other words, by gaining a deep understanding of the individual you’re selling to, how can you make their life a little easier through your product or service? In what ways can you add value to the lives of your customers? And how does this knowledge shape daily interactions with them – from initial phone greetings to experiences with shipping and invoicing? We’re all in the business of selling to people, so there’s value in taking time to define your ideal customers, and then view your business through their eyes to drive strategic decision making.

To summarize, creating avatars has a number of benefits including more authentic communication and simplified decision making – both of which any business would be happy to improve. Yes, it takes resources, but there’s a strong case to show that it’s time and money well spent. By asking meaningful questions, you can uncover the commonalities and aspirational qualities that make up your ideal customers – and then keep them at the centre of everything you do.

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Diana Varma is an Instructor at the School of Graphic Communications Management at Ryerson University and the Owner of ON-SITE First Aid & CPR Training Group, a health & safety company that provides training to the Graphic Arts Industry.