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John Murphy: why brands need to shift their focus to the growing power of single consumers

It’s been creeping up on us for a while….but it’s now a legitimate ‘phenomenon.’ We have entered a period in social history where, for the first time, single people make up a significant proportion of the population. And brands are finally beginning to sit up and take notice.

Quite how much credit they deserve for that is debatable, because to be honest, they haven’t much choice about it, as solo living slowly but surely becomes the norm, rather than the exception, in many markets.

Across the world more and more people now live alone, for reasons ranging from the new post-adolescent life-stage to declining marriage rates and urbanisation. Interestingly, with technology giving us all a virtual presence, solo dwellers are no longer seen as the lonely, bored Billy-No-Mates they once were.

Single living is a lifestyle embraced by 29 per cent of the world’s households, and as the numbers rise year on year brands in every sector – from consumer goods to leisure – are forced to react. Take Solos Holidays, one of the oldest and largest British companies offering guided getaways for solo travellers. A few weeks ago it introduced an American arm, Solos Vacations, that offers escorted trips through Solosvacations.com. Clearly someone at Solos read Visa’s recent research which showed that guided tours among solo travellers are up almost threefold in just three years.

Cruise companies are also getting in on the act by finally beginning to treat singletons among their (largely boomer) customer base with a bit of respect. Witness Grand Circle Cruise Line which no longer charges single supplements and also Norwegian Cruise Line which now offers Studio Staterooms, ultra-compact lower-cost rooms just for solo travelers.

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And it’s not just travel companies picking up on this emerging paradigm shift. Food brands & retailers are starting to package their goods in geared-for-one sizes for millennials who want grab-and-go, snack-like items. Green Giant even offers a ‘Just for One’ line of vegetables, while brands like DiGiomo and Celeste are selling frozen pizza for a single order.

Restaurants (take Soho’s Spuntino, below, where lone diners are welcomed) actually court single diners by making the solo dining experience more appealing. And those who have found such gastronomic experiences a little TOO appealing, can sign up to Nike’s ‘Run Club’ which epitomizes the way in which brands are increasingly trying to create a platform that brings single people together.

But brands will come unstuck if they make the mistake of taking a one-size-fits-all approach to consumers navigating life independently. Their needs and mindsets are as unique as any other demographic group, and singletons are widely diverse across age, income and preference brackets.

The Financial Times illustrates the difference with descriptors such as ‘suddenly singletons’ (well-paid divorced professionals) and ‘struggling singletons’ who are unemployed. The distinction highlights precisely why marketers and agencies need to think of singles as just as diverse a group of consumers as the boomers.

Of course, like all consumers, singletons want ways to lighten life’s daily burdens, be it with handling laundry, chores at home, offering membership benefits, or other things that may have slipped their mind.

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But for many, staying single is about a desire to delay adulthood. Brands targeting those consumers need to make anything they’re doing look as fun as it can, especially if it’s something people can share with friends or use to meet new people, such as a communal table or bar stool at a restaurant serving single diners.

In many ways, it’s a case of ‘plus ca change’… seeing consumers as people first and a demographic second. Because getting the simple stuff right makes much more difference – both to the relevance of the communication and to the bottom line – than a fancy, poorly-thought-through ad.

John Murphy is a cultural insight consultant at research and insights consultancy Simpson Carpenter

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