Is Personality-Based Marketing a "Dark Art"?

Marketing can often feel like smoke and mirrors. For those of us not in the know, the way that this industry operates is shrouded in a world of mystery. Concerns about how much marketers actually know about each of us and, more so, how they use that information are natural.

One increasingly popular approach is personality-based marketing. If you’ve heard of this strategy, you might have felt the familiar pang of worry. The idea that marketers somehow have an exact profile of your character and use it to manipulate you is enough to get anyone’s back up. But is that really the case? 

Today, we’re looking at what personality-based marketing is, why it works, and the controversy surrounding it. Spoiler: it’s not as nefarious as some would have you believe.

Personality-based marketing, explained

Also known as psychometric marketing, personality-based marketing is exactly what it sounds like—marketing companies tailoring their approach to you based on your personality.

 As Joe Amaral, COO Elevated Digital Marketing and co-founder of three software and marketing companies, explains, “personality-based marketing is a strategy based on the psychological traits of the consumer or target customer, as opposed to their interests or demographic data. By understanding what makes people tick, what motivates them and how they make decisions, businesses can create more personalized and relevant marketing messages that resonate with individual customers on a deeper level.”

Contrary to popular belief and unwarranted fear-mongering, this is nothing new. Segmentation is actually a fundamental principle of modern-day marketing. This approach involves splitting the target audience into distinct groups based on their individual characteristics. Previously, this may have been confined to demographic data such as location, age and gender. However, thanks to the mass availability of data, marketers now have access to more information about our behaviors and psychological traits than ever before.

That is where psychometric marketing comes into play.

“It is a growing way to differentiate your marketing strategy from how other businesses might be targeting their target audience,” says Amaral. That's good news for marketers who want their products and services to stand out in a crowded marketplace.

However, like most approaches, personality-based marketing is only one component of a well-rounded marketing strategy. “It is hard to parse out the prevalence as it is used in conjunction with other more traditional marketing practices,” Amaral says.

Why personality-based marketing works

To understand why personality-based marketing works, we first need to look at what your personality is and where it comes from. Research suggests that only 50% of your fundamental personality is derived from genetics, i.e. passed down from your parents. You get the rest of your personality traits through nurture. It is shaped by your direct environment, the experiences that happen to you, and your early childhood development.

Of course, your personality type determines a whole lot about you as an individual, not least your ability to make decisions. For instance, those who score low on the Neuroticism scale of the Big Five personality system are confident decision-makers and may be more likely to make quick decisions than others. People who are prone to anxiety, on the other hand, often have decreased activity in the prefrontal cortex, where decisions are made. This means that they are more likely to mull things over and take longer to come to a conclusion.

This is exactly the type of information that can prove invaluable to a marketing professional.

That is just one example of how psychometric marketing may work. However, armed with even the most basic details about your personality traits, marketers can adapt the messaging they give you so it feels like they are speaking directly to you. For instance, they may use a specific style of phrase when targeting you or advertise products or services to you that people with your personality tend to prefer.

The scope for how this is used is vast and psychometric marketing is very much in its infancy. We have yet to see what the depths of personality-based marketing could mean for the commercial world and, indeed, the average consumer. For that reason, some psychologists warn that there may be ethical and privacy issues concerning this new-wave marketing practice.

The controversy surrounding personality-based marketing

 “There are ethical concerns regarding the extent to which companies should use personal data to target consumers based on personality,” explains Niloufar Esmaeilpour, an MSc, RCC, SEP from Lotus Therapy & Counselling Centre. “Issues of privacy, consent, and the potential for manipulation are at the forefront of these concerns.”

Put simply, we, as consumers, should be worried about two things: how marketers gain information about our personalities, and how they intend to use it. Let's break it down.

Data and privacy: How do they know who you are?

We can’t talk about this topic without mentioning the infamous Cambridge Analytica and Facebook case. In the early 2010s,  Cambridge Analytica, a UK-based analytics consulting firm, got its hands on the data of 50 million Facebook users, including the social connections between people and shared preferences. It was then able to run targeted political campaigns tailored for each user based on their personality traits and psychological profiles.

When the news broke, it triggered a mass uproar among Facebook users and highlighted the fact that our personal data is not as secure as we may like to believe. Consumers who had not explicitly chosen to share their data were still victims thanks to a loophole that allowed marketers access to their information through their connections. The upshot was mounting pressure for businesses—such as Facebook and Google—to crack down on gaps in their privacy agreements.

As a result, there is now far less room for this type of data exploitation. Any information that a business uses should be acquired with the complete and explicit consent of consumers. A growing slate of data privacy laws seek to protect consumers from having their personal information shared or sold without their knowledge, and there are hefty penalties for companies that do not comply.

Ethical considerations: How do they use the information?

When marketers have the data (legally) at their fingertips, what happens next matters, too. This is where the ethics of personality-based marketing can get muddied. If a marketing professional wants to, could they exploit weaknesses in a person’s character for their own gain?

It's definitely possible, explains Esmaeilpour, but marketers have a moral obligation to avoid this pothole.

“Comparing personality-based marketing to other segmentation strategies, its potential harm hinges on the depth of personalization and the specific vulnerabilities it targets,” she says. “While traditional segmentation based on demographics or geographic location might seem broader and less intrusive, personality-based marketing delves deeper into psychological aspects, potentially making it more potent and, for some consumer groups, more harmful. It is the responsibility of marketers to navigate these challenges carefully, prioritizing consumer well-being and privacy above all.”

Interestingly, the general public don’t share these same worries. A massive 83% of consumers are willing to share their data if it means that they get a more personalized advertising experience instead of generic, mass-marketed spam.

From this perspective, you might say that psychometric, or personality-based, marketing is a mutually beneficial approach—giving both marketers and consumers exactly what they need.

How much information do they have on you anyway?

It’s worth noting that the information a marketing company has on you is limited. Rather than gaining a complete outline of your personality makeup, it’s far likelier that a marketer creates a more generalized “avatar” of people with your specific traits.

As Amaral puts it, this is “a collaborative process by which you would thoughtfully discuss with other key people in your organization who would buy your service/product and why. What does your product inspire in people? What does using your service make them feel?”

For example, if you are trying to sell an eco-friendly product with minimalist design, you might figure out that introverted, sensitive, practical women with high disposable incomes would be the most likely to buy it. So, you might look for people who fit that profile. The personality traits become just another part of the demographic information that goes into targeting, such as gender and income.

A far cry from being a sinister infringement of your privacy, this process simply allows marketers to better understand their target audience, with personality being one of the elements they consider.

 “It is my opinion that it is actually helpful, not intrusive,” says Amaral. “To elaborate on the idea, if you were a middle aged woman who was energetic and youthful wouldn’t you feel more comfortable going to a MedSpa where the office and staff projected that aura? I think there are many great business examples where consumers feel as though the brand touches on part of their identity, and becomes a part of how they connect with others.”

The takeaway

With great power comes great responsibility. Like all forms of marketing, a personality-based approach leaves room for some forms manipulation. However, there is also a growing demand for personalized marketing both on the side of marketers and consumers. The stats show that we all want this to be a seamless process. With that in mind, the idea that psychometric marketing is a “dark art,” is something of an exaggeration. It is not inherently bad.

When used ethically, this approach helps oil the cogs of the marketing machine. It allows marketing professionals to streamline their strategy and target audiences based on their exact set of needs and interests that aligns with their personality. While it is human nature to shy away from the unknown, we might just find that personality-based marketing is the future.

Charlotte Grainger
Charlotte Grainger is a freelance writer, having previously been published in Cosmopolitan, Men’s Health, Brides Magazine and the Metro. Her articles vary from relationship and lifestyle topics to personal finance and careers. She is an unquestionable ENFJ, an avid reader, a fully-fledged coffee addict and a cat lover. Charlotte has a BA in Journalism and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Sheffield.