It feels quite complex to be human these days. As a matter of unconscious habit, we change our values, behaviors and desires all the time — sometimes suddenly, in response to an event, a trend or a news story, and sometimes at glacial pace as we move through phases in our lives. When significant events beyond our control, like the pandemic, reduce or remove some of our rituals, the nature and degree of these changes become more extreme.

Our representation of ourselves is increasingly Liquid in how we show up as consumers, employees and citizens – and these fluid shifts are likely to stay with us for a long time, if not forever. At the same time, most of us (53%) find it critical for brands to provide timely, relevant and personalized interactions, and just over a third of us (36%) will even switch providers when we feel that there is a lack of personalization. The point is that we will each fit into numerous demographical boxes over the course of our lifetime and that we simultaneously expect personalized products, interactions and unforgettable experiences. So how can organizations get to know us properly and use what they learn to shape the services, products and experiences we actually need?

We coined the phrase “Liquid people” in Fjord Trends 2020 to describe a new way to understand people. The trend implores organizations to look at their customers or users as whole people, to get to the heart of who they are and what inspires their choices and, crucially, find ways to feed that knowledge into the process of designing offerings for them. This is especially critical today when more and more companies are reimagining their entire business through the lens of experience to drive growth, durability and long-lasting relationships with customers.

Accepting that we’re on to something with Liquid people – in fact, 77% of CEOs said their company will fundamentally change the way it engages and interacts with customers – marketers need a different way to understand and address people, and Expressive Segmentation provides them with the insight they need to do it well.

The limits of market segmentation

Traditional segmentation is invaluable for finding out what the market has to tell you, but it’s less useful for making design decisions. By itself, it can’t account properly for people’s fluid lives. Here’s an anecdote from a colleague that helps explain it:

Pre-pandemic, our colleague traveled extensively for work, but living in a remote suburb of Chicago, where on-demand taxis and ridesharing are not readily available, she has relied on the services of a lovely taxi driver named Dan, who’s taken her to and from the airport for years. When she hasn’t seen him for a while, Dan always says, “hope you’ve enjoyed your time off.” When she doesn’t travel for a few weeks, he says, “enjoy your time off.” Of course, when she’s not traveling, she still working. In fact, she has a full and colorful life, but Dan views her only through the lens of her relevance to him: he sees her as a person who goes to and from the airport.

Similarly, traditional market segmentation defines people in isolation of the rich context that informs their lives and their choices. It assumes that brands are relevant to people regardless of context and, as hard as it may be to hear, they aren’t. People make a brand relevant to them in a context that matters to them. They and their context are the heroes of the story — not the brand.

While traditional segmentation provides general truths about certain customer groups—for example, many Airbnb guests may dislike hotels—it does not account for the context that drives these specific consumer preferences. In the age of Liquid people, context matters more than ever because it informs every decision a person makes, and Expressive Segmentation can help us to unpack that complexity.

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What does Expressive Segmentation tell us?

Expressive Segmentation is a human-centered way to compose a holistic understanding of what makes people tick. It’s what design can do to turn two-dimensional research data into something infinitely more useful for decision making.

Let’s say a cosmetics brand uses market segmentation to learn about their customers. They learn that working women in their 20s and 30s within a particular income bracket tend to buy shampoo at a certain price point every two months. While that may be accurate, it falls short of identifying nuances about those women and the contexts that shape their decisions.

Expressive Segmentation takes into account those women’s underlying priorities and preferences, unpacking the various contexts that drive their behavior. For example, some portion of these women might purchase this brand because they are among the 58% of Gen Y/Z consumers that value purpose-driven brands more than profit-driven brands. In parallel, the remaining portion of these women might purchase this brand for entirely different reasons—perhaps because they lean toward being thrifty most of the time, but occasionally treat themselves to a luxurious beauty product.

With the benefit of this rich insight, the brand’s marketers can shape products, services, experiences, and content strategies that are relevant to those customers in their different contexts.

What this means for brands

The strategic view is that Expressive Segmentation provides businesses the information they need to be able to make decisions and create experiences that will resonate, confident that what they’re doing will be well received by the people that matter to them. It identifies new sources of growth, and it enhances their ability to execute.

The more methodological view is that Expressive Segmentation provides direction not only on how to interact with customers or users, but also how to build relationships with them and how to consider what to offer them. It’s a great tool for innovation, for informing content, product and experience, and for knowing when and how to surface the right resources for people.

The value of Expressive Segmentation is that it gives businesses far more ways to be meaningful and relevant to the people they serve. This is especially important as more and more brands embrace experience as the way forward and a meaningful path to growth.

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How we do it

The short version is expressed by this simple equation:

Quantitative segmentation       +       Qualitative context       =       Expressive Segmentation
(What people are likely to do)           (Why people do it)

Expressive Segmentation gives our clients a much richer view of who their customer is by marrying traditional segmentation (quantitative) with human-centered, contextual research (qualitative). By learning both about market potential and about how customers think and what drives their behavior, you gain an integrated set of insights that enable organizations to make strategic decisions with confidence.

The two tracks of work — quantitative segmentation and qualitative context — progress in parallel, and intersect at certain strategic points, resulting in a unified piece of work detailing the market and why people are doing what they’re doing. We often talk about the art and science of Expressive Segmentation: it demands meticulous, structured thinking but is fundamentally a creative process built on emotional understanding. It speaks to the world we’re now in, where creativity’s credible contribution to business is recognized and respected.

The holistic customer insights driven by Expressive Segmentation not only allow organizations to make strategic decisions with confidence, but also enable the execution of these strategies in a highly targeted manner by providing a plethora of actionable data points for all facets of the organization. This leads to above-average results.

Examples of how expressive segmentation works:

Company Situation Outcome
Large jewelry and accessories company  This brand has a strong market position, and is seeking core growth and transformation by evolving the current experience for target consumers, providing new offerings, and expanding into new channels. Expressive Segmentation reveals patterns in the dynamics between customers (say, parents and children) who frequent the client’s store, leading to new insights into purchasing decisions and customer experiences.
Financial services company This brand seeks to expand its presence in the U.S. Small to Medium Business (SMB) market, but needs to overcome limited understanding of which customers to pursue within this space, how to motivate them to purchase, and what kinds of offering they are interested in. Expressive Segmentation discovers that SMBs in target areas think about benefits fundamentally differently from the company, and this new understanding leads to hyper-targeted outreach efforts with engagement metrics two-three times above the industry average.
Accommodations company   This brand seeks to better understand its partners’ goals and intentions, in an effort to serve them better. Expressive Segmentation finds that the intentions driving partner behavior are fundamental to the partners’ approach, which enables the company to reimagine its experience around this new understanding.

What it means for design

One of the things that sets design apart is the fact that it centers around people — always. Expressive Segmentation is the realization of a set of human-centered design skills, which enables design teams to uncover entire groups of customers who have long been invisible to clients, to explore their motivating factors and to set out how best to facilitate meaningful interactions with them.

As designers, we embrace people as complex, and we come up with human-centered solutions that work because we understand people. Expressive Segmentation uses the best of design’s empathetic capabilities to lift data about people’s complexities off the page and craft it skillfully into relevant offerings and lasting relationships.

Martha Cotton

Managing Director – Interactive, Fjord Co-Lead, Global​


Abdul Zamerli

Senior Manager – Accenture Strategy

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