In his seminal article from 1918, The Taboo of Virginity, Sigmund Freud formulated a thesis called ‘der Narzissmus der kleinen Differenzen’, or the narcissism of minor differences. Largely built upon the previous work of British anthropologist Ernest Crawley, it stated that the minute differences in people who are otherwise alike form the basis of feelings of strangeness and hostility between them.

Such hypersensitivity to details of differentiation, displayed between individuals and groups similar even to the point of being doppelgangers, is often rooted in a want to maintain self in a group setting, that is to say, to not be like everyone else (even if such a want, ironically, tends to be universal).

According to Freud, and others who have continued his work, this narcissistic inclination causes issues from the local to the global, from feuds and ridicule between communities with adjoining territories to racism and international aggression. ‘They’ are different from ‘us’ – and particularly ‘me’ – yet all the same.

It is easy to spot the logical contradiction in theory. In practice, not so much.

In everyday marketing, narcissism of minor differences continuously creates barriers that require logical leaps of awe. While theorists and practitioners alike are happy to, rightly so, loudly promote inclusivity, they are simultaneously obsessed with what is divergent rather than what is shared (much like how, one might note, they often obsess over what changes rather than what remains unchanged).

As a result, macro truths are replaced by micro insights and far too much marketing strategy becomes focused on irrelevant or imagined but ultimately nonexistent differences. The need to find them is so deeply rooted in our collective family tree that we fail to see how all branches eventually attach to the same stem.

Of course, there are differences that are significant, as heterogeneity undoubtedly exists within markets. Small households buy smaller packages of milk than do big companies, for example. But by limiting potential buyers, one also limits potential penetration and, as a result, potential growth.

By breaking down the category into who bought from it in the past, we easily forget who might buy it in the future. People change. Preferences change. Needs change.

The meat substitute Quorn originally targeted vegetarians, which represented 7% of UK households. Eventually, it changed its strategy to instead appeal to healthy consumers, which represented 70% of UK households. It remains arguably the most growth-enabling move the brand has ever made.

Similarly, it is indisputably true that people have different preferences. But buying behaviour obeys what in Ehrenberg-Bass lingo is called the law of buyer moderation. In effect, it means that purchase patterns follow regression toward the mean. In a given time frame, some people who have bought a lot from the category will buy less, some people who have bought little from the category will buy more, some people will stop buying from the category altogether, and some will begin.

By breaking down the category into who bought from it in the past, we easily forget who might buy it in the future. People change. Preferences change. Needs change.

To illustrate, online shopping has long been considered a young person’s game. Though this is not entirely true – the figures very much vary depending on what study one happens to be reading at the moment – many brands have been focusing their ecommerce efforts on millennials and Gen Z.

And now here we are, in the middle of a pandemic. Everyone is in some kind of lockdown or another, but the older you are, the more likely you are to be locked down. As a result, ecommerce purchasing has recently gone up dramatically in older, previously untargeted age groups.

This may seem an unrepresentative example, and proponents of segmentation will inevitably argue that generational groups are not proper segments. Be that as it may, it is nonetheless analogous to consumer behaviour in general. Things happen in our lives, whoever we are, that make us buy more, less or stop buying entirely from a category, which is why it will remain an unsolvable challenge to predict precisely who will buy what, when and how much.

Of course, our narcissistic inclinations mean that the commonly proposed solution is not to do less segmentation but to instead take it to the extreme – mass one-to-one personalisation and segments of one.

Procter & Gamble’s marketing behemoth Marc Pritchard has gone on record about mass one-to-one marketing of diapers, saying it is “not reliant on mass marketing, it’s not reliant on mass advertising, it’s much more reliant on connecting with her – and then him, because dad becomes part of that process. I think that’s the future.”

The notion has been echoed by Keith Weed who, when he was the marketing boss at Unilever, declared that: “Unilever has an ambition to have a billion one-to-one relationships. This means being relevant, tailored, and personal – a huge shift from when brands tended to be built for the masses. Just think about how long it takes you to shop in a foreign supermarket where you don’t know the brands.”

Alas, ignoring the spectacular banality of the last sentence, (if you are unknown, you are unknown – it doesn’t matter if you are in a foreign supermarket, a local corner shop or online) the same fundamental misunderstanding about buyer behaviour underlies both statements as did ecommerce purchasing: if we only speak to consumers as they enter the category, it is already too late. Any notion of brand awareness or equity goes out the window. The only reason why players like P&G and Unilever can do micro-targeting is because they were built for the masses, and therefore known, in the first place. Most brands enjoy but a fraction of the same mental availability, rendering similar approaches futile.

Gartner predicts 80% of personalisation efforts will disappear by 2025. Hopefully a lot of unnecessary segmentation efforts will go the same route. Far from all are, mind, but it is always worth asking market research agencies to not only define differences but also to unearth similarities. More often than not, they will have a larger impact on the success of your marketing than disparities ever could, not least because it tends to be practically impossible to find someone within one segment who does not display characteristics from several others over time.

Well, unless you are a narcissist, as Freud would likely argue.