Is it time to revisit your ABCs?

10th January 2018

The social grading classification system was launched by the National Readership Survey in 1956 and to quote them “has been the research industry’s source of social grade data for over 50 years”.  Quite right.  We are all too familiar with the ‘BC1’ or ‘C2D’ letter sequences on research briefs.  But are we so familiar with it that we just use them without really thinking about the relevance and usefulness of the classification as a whole?

Let’s think about it, why are we using a framework that is over 60 years old?  Rewind 60 years and Britain was a very different place to what it is now; an industrial nation where the head of the household was likely to be a man who was probably the sole breadwinner and social mobility was static.  Hence, classifying social grades was somewhat easier.

But today’s society & job landscape is much more complex; dual-earner households are now the norm in the UK with over two-thirds of couple households both in work (Source : ONS).  We have seen a rise in ‘multi-jobbers’ who are supplementing main incomes with secondary jobs.  By relying on the narrow definition of chief income earner the SEG system isn’t reflective of the true disposable income & spending power of households.

And on the point of spending power, SEG only takes into account occupation which doesn’t always correlate with income.  These days it is likely that a ‘C2’ plumber or plasterer earns more money than some ‘C1’ bank clerks…hell, even a ‘B’ qualitative researcher!

So, why do we use it?  Because it is simple.  Because it is established.  Because it is understood.  And, because it has become a short-hand for marketers to define a target audience and their lifestyles and social & cultural status.  I say ‘A’…you might say ‘a University educated, high-earning senior professional’…and go on to project ‘who lives in a big house in a decent area, and well-informed on cultural & political affairs’.  But these are, at best, generalisations based on experience or implicit assumptions.  Moreover, this was never the intention behind the system.

Researchers are always striving for richer insights & more meaningful narratives.  So, maybe it is time to look beyond the letters and think about the attitudes & behaviours of the target respondents that we want to talk to.

Of course, there are projects which require recruiting consumers with a certain amount of purchasing power & disposable income, notably luxury brands or high ticket items.  But in the case of mass-market FMCG brands, surely it is more useful to know that your participants all shop in a similar way and share similar views on the role of branded vs. own label goods in their baskets than knowing the job of the chief income earner in their home?


Laura Morby