Categorically wrong? Why representative samples represent a growing challenge

The surprise outcomes of the Brexit and US Presidential votes have been a loud reminder of the difficulty of gaining a true picture of public opinion – and how those who seek to do so need to work hard to minimise sampling biases. In the research sphere, several speakers touched on this issue at the recent MRS conference ‘Customers Exposed’. We believe insights arising from this day have big implications not only for researchers but also the brands they serve.

The death of life-stage as a useful tool?

One repeated message was that some conventional life-stage groupings are becoming so blurred and outdated they now lack predictive or diagnostic power. For example, the much-documented upsurge in women deferring/deciding against motherhood means the classic ‘pre-kids’ label looks less meaningful – failing to acknowledge that the kids in question may not arrive until the woman’s in her 40s or won’t arrive at all! For brands, not listening closely to these consumers is especially dangerous given they are disproportionately likely to be affluent, high-spending homeowners.    


Meanwhile, young people’s struggle to get on the property ladder has seen huge numbers stuck in the ‘at home’ life-stage – well beyond the student-years age-group it sought to describe. A category that encompasses penniless 18-year-olds and late 20-somethings, perhaps earning £30K+, surely lacks applicability!     

Sweeping generalisations away

Another obstacle to a true account of consumers is how fast society is changing in terms of roles and identities. For example, UK fathers play a growing part in parenting – 86% contributing to grocery shopping/household chores. Here, retailers have been slow to shed stereotypes around ‘traditional dad’ and have missed chances to play to the subtly different way fathers shop vs. mothers e.g. being more impulsive at fixture and craving more guidance on ‘what’s good for the kids’.   

Similarly, definitions around gender and sexual orientation are evolving rapidly. 50% of teens now identify as ‘gender neutral’ and, though such statistics are hotly contested, there is no doubt that fixed notions of sexuality are dissolving. So, in a less binary world, brands could succeed by communicating in a more nuanced, representative way.