CHICAGO — Businesses need a robust strategy to reach their intended audience — an objective that traditional target marketing tactics can no longer achieve. To engage the fastest-growing market segments today, brands need to move beyond pooling people into a single buyer persona. Businesses must recognize millennials and Gen Z are diverse, informed and conscious of how their purchasing impacts the world around them. To successfully appeal to this massive market, it’s not enough to define our audience; we must befriend them.

Defining a clear target market is pivotal in the early stages of business development. Brands need to know their customers intimately — and one-size-fits-all marketing exercises are not the answer. Funneling people into faceless buyer personas is an antiquated approach that risks alienating a large number of individuals, cautioned Eve Turow-Paul, author and founder of the Food for Climate League. On the other hand, connecting with the right audience can drive revenue, put marketing dollars to better use and gain genuine growth opportunities.

In her research on the psychological and cultural factors behind leading food trends, Ms. Turow-Paul found “the human experience has become homogenized,” even among groups that have traditionally been segregated. Consumers do not fit into neat little boxes labeled with race or socioeconomic status, she explained. For example, organic food initially was sold only to wealthy elites, even though low-income populations were equally interested in the products. Similarly, vegan brands bypassed marketing to Black vegans, who make up the fastest-growing segment of plant-based eaters. Clearly, brands need better tools to build a three-dimensional, living, breathing conception of their intended consumer.

Rather than relying on ineffective caricatures, capturing millennials’ and Gen Z’s attention requires targeting the market through an empathetic lens, Ms. Turow-Paul advised. Since the pandemic began, Americans have struggled with rising stress, declining mental health and feelings of isolation. Approaching this market in an impersonal way does not invite a genuine connection. Instead, Ms. Turow-Paul counsels businesses to ask, “What is keeping this individual up at night? What are they worried about?” Some brands have answered by highlighting immune-boosting benefits to address shoppers’ health concerns; launching restaurant-style desserts to provide easily accessible indulgences at home; and elevating their give-back, such as Chobani donating proceeds of its special-edition yogurt to Feeding America.

The most effective brands have succeeded in creating a sense of community around these shared values — which is what consumers crave above all else. Actively listening to consumers allows us to break away from traditional marketing methods and creates pathways to communicating through social media, innovative packaging and humor. Thinking like their audience and speaking their language, some brands strategically poke fun at themselves. Liquid Death Mountain Water promises death to thirst and plastic bottles, while Swedish oat milk brand Oatly jokingly labels “the boring side of the package.”

Leaning in to the founder’s story is another powerful differentiator for brands seeking to make a human connection. When founders peel back the curtain and show their motivations, their team, their process, their imperfections and personal stories, they give the brand a relatable face that consumers want to befriend. This candid relationship allows businesses to be conversational rather than perfect. Humanized brands are ideally positioned to meet consumers’ thirst for connections — thereby earning their trust and loyalty.

Natalie Shmulik is the chief executive officer of The Hatchery Chicago, a food and beverage incubator.