Do You Know Your Customers? Sociological Imagination in Marketing

Customers are the lifeblood of any organisation. Marketing is, very simply put, the process of creating customer satisfaction or in the words of Philip Kotler, “customer satisfaction engineering”.1

To be able to market well it is as such extremely important to know who this other person is and understand their needs and wants. In the words of my former marketing professor Rhett Walker, you need to find out what “rattles their cage”.

Marketers mainly do this by using simplified quantitative models of social reality. They like to know where customers live, who their customers are, how they purchase and use stuff and why they buy stuff in the first place. Like a baby playing with blocks, they match the segments with their products and services, making sure not to put a square peg in a round hole. Selling ice to Eskimos is clearly a case of segmentation gone horribly wrong.

It is tough to make sense out of the myriad of variables available within the four broad types of segmentation. But people’s drive to simplify the complexity of social reality knows no bounds. Some companies have developed excellent tools to help marketers to segment their market in easy to understand chunks, such as the Roy Morgan Values Segments and the VALS  (Values, Attitudes and LifeStyles) system. Unfortunately, these systems are propriety, and it is difficult to assess their validity, but that does not diminish their popularity. You can even do the VALS survey online and find out what your primary and secondary type is. It only takes 39 simple questions to classify every human being into neat categories.

Sociological imagination in marketing

These systems certainly serve a purpose, but they can be no replacement for a real understanding of human beings. To be a successful marketer requires sociological imagination which is the ability to recognise relationships between patterns in society and the actions of individual people. The quantitative sociology of segmentation cannot lead to an understanding of people, it can only describe them. Understanding is much harder to obtain. In the words of C. Wright Mills:2

“Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both”.

Sociological imagination in marketing is a quality of mind, rather than analysing a set of data. Unfortunately, this type of knowledge cannot be summarised in beautiful diagrams nor can it be scientifically tested with statistical models. Sociological imagination in marketing is a narrative that grows through debate and life experience.

To truly understand customers you need to look beyond the source of revenue with a multitude of labels, but understand them in a qualitative sense. You need to find out what rattles their cage.


  1. Kotler, P., & Levy, S. J. (1969). Broadening the concept of marketing. Journal of Marketing, 33, 10–15.
  2. C. Wright Mills (1959) Sociological Imagination. Oxford University Press, London.

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