The data analysts from Cambridge Analytica supposedly influenced the US presidential elections with psychographic targeting. This communication system has been common practice in marketing for years now. But the methods are becoming more sophisticated, as the case of the MINI Countryman shows. Time to take stock.

I come back from my holiday and start telling people about it. I tell my parents how nice the weather was. I talk about the unusual shops I came across to my colleagues. My friends get the lowdown on the nightlife. The same holiday, told in three different ways. And everyone gets told the story they want to hear. This is pretty much how psychographic targeting works: the individual user receives precisely the message that corresponds with their current mental disposition. Psychology is regarded as the doctrine of human experience and behaviour. This is why in psychographic targeting, the surfing behaviour of the users is firstly analysed. This happens via cookies.

Someone who is currently interested in extreme sports should be addressed differently to someone who is virtually browsing esoteric guidebooks. If you observe a person’s search history over a longer period, you will start to see patterns in their behaviour. If you compare these patterns with the behaviour of other users, groups can be formed. Svenja, Olaf, Bernd and Inge represent such groups. Or to put it another way: target group models that the MINI brand worked with when the Countryman was launched onto the market at the beginning of the year.

Svenja could just as easily be a woman or a man, in exactly the same way that a user like Olaf could be a man or a woman. And the age doesn’t play a role at this stage either. Sociodemographic information no longer suffices as target group models for creation and media control. It is far too unprecise and therefore only forms the basis of psychographic targeting. Wolfgang Bscheid is Managing Director of the Serviceplan subsidiary Mediascale. He has integrated the method of psychographic targeting into the Serviceplan Group.

Sociodemographic planning is, for Bscheid, like “an initial trim or pruning”. An example: logically, in Germany it makes sense to advertise your car to people over 18 because it is only from this age that a driver’s license can be used without restrictions. And a premium car brand is best off appealing to people who have a

high net household income. So far, so logical. But the description “30-year-old software specialist” doesn’t say very much about the personality of the person. A media planner wouldn’t put a computer nerd who still lives at home with his parents in the same category as the CEO of a promising start-up company.

“Everyone’s seen the picture of the Porsche parked outside an Aldi,” says Dennis Hofmann, Strategy Director at Serviceplan Consulting Group Hamburg. “Why? – Because it implies the question: where is the congruence? How do Porsche and Aldi both apply to one personality? Sociodemographics don’t help us here,” says Hofmann. Svenja, Olaf, Bernd and Inge are described as personas.

These are brand-related behavioural frequencies that have been given random human names to help us visualise them better. Olaf, for example, acts emotionally, is performance-oriented and extremely spontaneous. He is an alpha-type and acts logically. You can show Olaf a car whizzing along a winding mountain road. Svenja, on the other hand, is a lot calmer and more thoughtful. She would be open to an advertising visual that emphasises the safety of the car, showing, for example, that it received five stars in the NCAP crash test. The fact that these cumulative behavioural frequencies are given personal names also helps the creatives at Serviceplan Campaign. If you are designing advertising messages, you always have an idea in your mind of the people these messages should make an impact on. If you can visualise your target group, you have automatic guidelines for your own creativity. When the MINI Countryman was launched onto the market in February, it was accompanied by a whole host of digital visuals. Serviceplan Campaign designed over 200 images that were delivered to the people behind the personas using the psychographic targeting system. “If you compare the campaign for the MINI Clubman from 2015 with the campaign for the MINI Countryman from 2017, we have four times the amount of visuals now,” reports Marc Lengning, who manages the MINI brand internationally.

Rolf Schröter

Editor Werben & Verkaufen


By its own accounts, Serviceplan subsidiary Plan.Net reaches around 87 percent of all online users in Germany with its campaigns. And another Serviceplan subsidiary Mediascale places cookies on users’ devices that track surfing behaviour. All in accordance with data protection regulations. They don’t record any personal details, but movement profiles on the internet and end device identifiers. These volumes of data are statistically evaluated overnight by the mainframe computers of the Serviceplan company Facit Digital and classified according to psychological criteria.


The launch of the second generation of the MINI Countryman was the most important market launch for MINI in 2017. It’s the first MINI model in the larger Golf class, which also includes the Mercedes-Benz GLA. The psychographic control of the display advertising was only one aspect of a big launch campaign including TV commercials, print ads and radio advertising. But it marks a decisive moment in the contact between the brand and target group, namely the point in time in which the recipient of the advertising message has become active and in an ideal scenario, could be converted into a lead, i. e. a consensual human contact.

Four stages of visual creation


Focus on the design of the car.


Car and person shown together in a relevant context, for example in a mountain landscape, by the coast or in the city.


Pictures without a car. For example, a steaming cup of coffee.


Person and car in typical situations, for example a family loading a car.

So psychographics don’t lead to less, but in fact more targeted creative output. The sociable Bernd & Inge would perhaps be shown an image in which the doors of the Countryman are open and a family can be seen sitting next to it. Car lovers like Olaf wouldn’t like that at all; after all, in his opinion the car only looks cool when the doors are closed. But Olaf doesn’t get to see this visual anyway. Plus, the creative agency can design specific visuals for different communication purposes. As an example, Ulrike von Mirbach mentions the awards the brand has won this year – ranging from the Wertmeister (Value Champion) award to the Readers’ Choice Award of AMS magazine, down to various design awards. Von Mirbach manages MINI’s marketing in Germany. “I don’t need endless press releases about all the prizes we’ve won,” she says. “I want to direct the right message straight to the people who are interested in MINI and are open to finding out about certain topics.” The psychographic model provides advertising in doses. “People no longer have to fight their way through the jungle of messages,” says von Mirbach. “In our communication we emphasise different aspects of the brand in stronger ways. This enables us to address people more personally and in a way that has been adapted to them. The visuals were fed as display advertising in real time via Serviceplan’s ad server NE.R.O.®. As soon as the system registers, for example, that an Olaf-type person is sitting in front of their end device, they will automatically be shown a visual on their computer that applies to them. Individually suitable creation, served in a targeted way.

But how did the MINI team come up with Svenja, Olaf, Bernd and Inge, of all people? Behind all these personas are campaign specific purchasing target groups, i. e. a cluster of statistical twins. From MINI’s perspective, they are a promising way of increasing the conquest rate, i. e. to bring new buyers to the brand. After all, with the Countryman, MINI has penetrated the new, larger segment of compact cars.


Online advertising is delivered by the data management platform (DMP) NE.R.O.®. NE.R.O.® is short for Net Reach Online. Alongside Xaxis by Group M, it is the biggest agency targeting system in Europe. Plan.Net also merges external data into NE.R.O.®, for example from the Scout Group and the Otto Group. Under the brand name Value-Matrix, Serviceplan meanwhile also offers detailed planning of TV environments according to psychographic filters.


(from the year 1961)


Striving toward making an impact.


Striving toward optimisation.


Striving toward joint experiences.



Rational: Decisions made with the brain


Emotional: Decisions made with the gut


Action-oriented: Routine decisions


A person’s personality has five dimensions:

O OPENNESS Approachability/receptiveness

C CONSCIENTIOUSNESS Meticulousness/perfectionism

E EXTRAVERSION Sociability/sense of community

A AGREEABLENESS Willingness to cooperate/ empathy

N NEUROTICISM Fragility/vulnerability




Bernd & Inge





From our perspective, that is strategically very exciting – but also challenging,” says Strategy Director Dennis Hofmann. “After all, there’s often a difference between what people find attractive and what they really want.” So it’s about building a bridge between lifestyle messages and purchase-initiating arguments.

Theoretically, it would be possible to define countless different statistical clusters from the masses of data on German surfing behaviour. But what are the specific psychological basic assumptions behind Svenja, Olaf, Bernd and Inge? Or to put it differently: who developed the psychological algorithm that NE.R.O.® was fed with? He is called Joost van Treeck, has professor and doctor titles, previously worked at Jung von Matt as a strategic planner and is meanwhile Dean of Business Psychology at the Fresenius University of Applied Sciences in Hamburg. “I don’t pigeonhole people,” says van Treeck, “but analyse their movements.” As a basis for his research, he doesn’t just use the cookie data, but combines behavioural data from the network with movement profiles of ad server operators and panel data, i. e. responses from surveys. “It’s a mammoth task, but it works,” says van Treeck. But the real foundation of the Hamburg-based data professor’s work are basic psychological models, i. e. scientific approaches, to classify people’s behaviour.

The more data is sorted into these basic models, the more refined the characteristics become. Using market research, expert knowledge and focus groups, Joost van Treeck distils three different statistical clusters that portray specific psychological behavioural patterns. This is where Svenja, Olaf, Bernd and Inge came from.

But people who are only Svenja, only Olaf or only Bernd & Inge don’t exist. “Every person can have different psychographic attitudes depending on their current situation,” explains Joost van Treeck. “An emotional person can become a rational-thinking person shortly before they make a purchase.” Along the lines of: Olaf in the morning, Svenja in the evening. This is why, according to van Treeck, psychographic targeting has to work in real time. But wait a moment: does psychographic target group modelling not already exist in the form of the Sinus Milieus? Don’t these segmentations work in exactly the same way? – No. Target group models like the Milieus of the Sinus Institute, the Semiometrie model by Kantar TNS and the Roper Consumer Styles by the GfK are based on value patterns. That means they often don’t analyse the (frequently erratic) behaviour of people, but their fundamental attitudes.

So they are also relatively stable over longer periods. “An adult doesn’t change their value orientation overnight, not even if their current life situation changes after having a child or switching jobs,” says Jan Hecht, Associate Director Research & Consulting at Sinus in Heidelberg. As I said, psychology is regarded as the science of human experience and behaviour. And while this MINI-style psychographic targeting refers to the current behaviour, value-based models like Sinus explain the fundamental experience. Although a values-based campaign management à la Sinus or Semiometrie is also possible.

What can psychographic targeting do for me? Big 3/ 5

Ms von Mirbach, what differentiates the classic target group descriptions you have previously worked with from the new method of psychographic targeting?

“The classic target group descriptions are sociodemographic classifications and the Sigma Milieus. (Note from the Editor: the Sigma Institute, established by former  Sinus employees, has specialised in the automobile industry. The Sigma Milieus work in a similar way to the Sinus Milieus.) From our data we can roughly estimate who our future buyers will be. We know their average net household income and know how many cars they have, of course all on an anonymous basis. And these are the people we address. But we also work with role models. After all, buyers want to be inspired. This is why we also have a big focus on creative, urban people, who are currently taking on this role model function for MINI buyers. So we have different groups that we deal with and we have to keep asking: what is suitable for whom? If I’m creating a purely sales-oriented campaign for a special model, I communicate more with the group of potential customers. If I’m creating a launch campaign, like the one for the MINI Countryman, I try to appeal more to the urban creatives because that’s where the brand’s focus lies. We have previously worked with this classic segmentation. Now we can move beyond its limits. We can not only describe the external character traits of a group of people, but also what drives and motivates them. That helps us a lot to appeal to people in a more targeted way and with less waste coverage. And the recipients are only shown content that is relevant to them.”

This article was published in Werben & Verkaufen 34/2017.

Other articles in this chapter

This page is available in DE