The family most brands market to consists of a white, heterosexual married couple with children. They're upper-middle class, and they live in the suburbs. The wife shoulders household responsibilities like cooking and cleaning, while the dad is a bumbling slob who spends all his time watching the game.

But would you believe me if I told you that men use paper towels as much as women do?

You should. It's 2014. Times have changed, yet most marketing messages have not. If you choose to focus all of your messaging on that unrealistic image of the "traditional" family, you could be missing out on connecting with your real audience.

What Marketers Are Missing

Despite the growing number of movies and TV shows portraying the "new normal," most brands are still speaking to this traditional image of a family--regardless of whether it actually mirrors their audience's reality.

While there are plenty of Cleaver families still out there, we are a melting pot of cultures and lifestyles. People get divorced (or never marry at all). Dads stay home to take care of the kids while moms go to work. People raise children as single parents or take on the responsibility of raising children from a spouse's previous marriage. They fall in love with someone of the same sex or a different race.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of identified gay and lesbian families increased by 314 percent between 1990 and 2001. Census data from 2010 reports that roughly one in 10 heterosexual married couples is interracial. Seventeen percent of children live in blended families, and 42 percent of adults have at least one step-relative.

For marketers, these cultural shifts are important to note, especially in creative messaging. Here are a few things to keep in mind when starting a new family-targeted campaign:

  1. Research your consumer. This is a given, but perhaps you've been relying on outdated information or inaccurate assumptions. Figure out who your target audience is and what their family life is actually like. Don't force the message. Whatever direction you take needs to be relevant to your brand and your overall marketing strategy.
  1. Break out of your comfort zone. Start brainstorming more ways to reach your audience. Acknowledging today's family is new for many brands, so your strategy will be completely different than what you and your marketing team are used to. You may even want to bring on new talent to get some fresh ideas and shake things up.
  1. Study past campaigns. Learn from brands that took a gamble on something different. What worked and what didn't? A couple of good examples include J.C. Penney's Father's Day ad featuring gay dads and Tide's stay-at-home dad spot.
  1. Test your message with real people. Once you come up with a campaign designed to resonate with your new audience, test it. Just because your team thinks it's great doesn't mean your audience will. You need to know how real people will react before you release your campaign on a broad scale.

The decision to target the new American family in your ads is never an easy one. Sure, you want to connect with your audience in a more authentic way, but it's hard to predict how a campaign will be received.

Chances are, your ad will alienate some consumers. But the important thing to remember is that most people don't relate to the traditional image of a suburban mom and dad with 2.5 kids anymore. In the changing consumer landscape, maintaining the status quo might be riskier than forging a new path.

Published on: Nov 17, 2014
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.