While Buying Beer Today…

I was shopping for beer today after several hours of planting and couldn’t help watching and listening to the people around me. An woman of around 60 was buying a bottle of wine and I noticed she had a tattoo on her all-too-grandmotherly wrist.  A small, pink star.  And then there was the stereotypical suburban dad buying a six pack of Warsteiner, a six pack of Alpirsbacher and a six pack of Hofbrau.  Overhearing his phone call it turned out he was a finance guy from 8:00 to 5:00 five days a week, but on the weekend he became the beer aficionado. Based on the kinds of information derived from traditional segmentation, these folks didn’t fit. And yet, they are the postmodern shopper.

The days of mass marketing may be coming to an end in many respects.  The advent of social media, incredibly rapid modes of communication and a postmodern view of socio-cultural ties that allow us to largely construct  our identity from moment to moment have changed the way we group, think and act. These days we’re the tribal people, not the demographic probabilities of a region or zip code. Over the past few years especially, what we do and why we do it is becoming of increasing interest to business. And while that may have always been true in a macro sense, the interest has now shifted to the multitude of grouping and sub-grouping to which we flock. It’s humans rather than numbers that they observing as we go about our daily lives and adapting their messages, products and services to fit the moment as well as the person.

For instance, how iron workers with advanced degrees in English Literature  react to a mountain of texts on their phones; why retired women are using their iPads to search for shamans to help heal their ills; how we do the grocery shopping, how we pamper the cat. And it is this sort of thing that is perhaps the most relevant to both the buyer and the seller.

Why does it matter? It’s in the math. 70% of purchase decisions happen in store. 68% of in-store purchases are impulse buys. 59% of purchases are unplanned. Looking at those numbers it speaks not only to the need to develop experiences that draws people in, but ones that keep them coming back again and again. This doesn’t happen when the only choices are shades of vanilla. It happens when you start to think of marketing as an ever-shift process that speaks to the mercurial nature of the human condition.

By Gavin

Good Clients, Bad Clients

A while back I was having a conversation over drinks with an old advertising colleague that had made the transition from the vendor side of things to the client side. As we talked, the conversation turned to the client/vendor relationship and what was most important in producing positive business results, good clients or good firms?  As I thought about it over the next few days, it occurred to me that perhaps this binary approach to understanding was flawed. It occurred to me that the nature of any conflict is built into the process, not a reflection of two separate cultural points of view. Simply, the best firms, the firms we admire and talk about, all have a method for developing good clients. But before we can discuss the methods, we have to define a few things.

Good Clients, Bad Clients

The first question is what constitutes a good client? What is it that makes a client “bad”? One answer is that a “bad client” is one who makes it difficult to produce good work for them.  Building on that, and perhaps more important, a “bad client” is one who makes it difficult because he or she doesn’t want to learn.

A good client is someone who understands the design process. They value what thoughtful design can bring to their business. They may not understand the details, but they understand that just as they trust their accountant to do solid finance work, they trust the creative team to do what they do best.

So how do we convert “bad clients” to “good clients”? Of course none of us values what we don’t understand. Until there is a clear, shared understanding of what design means, there are going to be conflicts.  What this means is that a good client understands and values good creative, from research to execution.  And who’s job is it to foster that understanding? Ours.  Every difficult client is an opportunity to build a relationship, rather than a transaction, and to create future advocates. As with all relationships, be they new or old, it begins with understanding the other person’s point of view.

Dualistic Thinking

There are many ways of coming to understand a client’s point of view. Understanding the process of how and what we communicate is a first step. The research and creative teams must articulate and balance “objective” with “subjective” elements to create both a powerful marketing experience and a story that impacts the client audience. This means balancing science and art. Subjective creative leaps are made that bridge different ways of thinking about the world.

The problem is, many people see objective and subjective thinking as binary, often leading to conflict. We are taught to think in sequences and compartmentalized knowledge. We develop habits of thinking that work for us in a given context and embrace world views that will bolster our positions within a group. In other words, our “rational” behavior is often anything but rational. When seeking to understand one another, we try to identify the way people think. We label ourselves as more objective or subjective thinkers, and then begin to identify with that label as if it represented some sort of camp or tribe.

In a business setting, people often have a hard time understanding and valuing subjective thinking and design. They understand or revert to data and numbers but have a difficult time trusting subjective leaps. Their preference is for objective thinking because subjective judgments are inherently unpredictable. And to be fair, their jobs are about producing quantifiable results for their business. Design is decoration and secondary to the business.

There are also people who believe they enjoy a very subjective view of the world. Just as “objective” thinkers may struggle to embrace the subjective elements of the design process, “subjective” thinkers may have difficulty valuing an objective view. Whereas objective thinkers may have a hard time coming to terms with the open thinking of creative, subjective people can be difficult clients when they gloss over or dismiss the findings researchers or business people provide. These clients often believe they are designers and have a rough time following the logic of good creative rooted in a balance or art and science.

The Making of Good Clients

A good client, like a good designer, comes to an understanding that design is a balance between two ends of the spectrum – objectivity and subjectivity. These clients  understand that design is more than an ability to draw or write, it is a process of balancing art and business that is defined by knowledge, precision and craft that takes years of practice.

The key to getting a client to understand this is by providing the balanced view of and rational for creative in general and their creative in particular. Step one is breaking through the duality we have created between objective and subjective understanding. Great leaps forward inevitably live at the murky, often indescribable borders between intuition and data.

Regardless of what we have been led to believe, truth, perception and reality are all  shades of gray. The dichotomies we create are useful, indeed necessary, but they are not reality – they are tools for organizing our minds. But the world works as a complex system of meanings. The trick is knowing when to let our dichotomies go. First we gather data and facts and measurements. These give us structure and simplicity. Then we makes our leaps – we think inductively, build hypotheses, create and explore. Having looked at a problem from multiple angles and with a wide range of thinking, we come out the other side with a new view of thinking that is informed, holistic and powerful. This is when we realize that, for example, while a computer is indeed meant for computing, it is also a fashion accessory, a baby sitter on a flight and (like it or not) a paperweight.  And that radically opens up the range and power of marketing and revenue.

Know the Role You Play

So, while all this sounds like an ad for a new age philosophy, what does it mean in practical terms?  How realistic is it in practice? It is realistic if we take a few moments to think about how we view ourselves in the client/vendor relationship.  We  must become guides, teaching our clients that good creative requires holistic thinking. We must also teach this to our own creative teams.

Asking members of a creative team, be it the graphic artist, the writer or the design anthropologist, to guide and teach may appear to be asking too much. There is a lone-wolf attitude that many people in these disciplines embrace precisely because they are holistic thinkers. But being inherently holistic in your approach to world view doesn’t mean that you have either the desire or the skill to articulate it. Doing so takes work.  However, if they want to be taken seriously and have a positive influence on the client, they need to be able to defend why it is they do what they do.

The first thing to do with a client is to think and collaborate. Clients expect you to ask questions, lots of questions, about their business, their customers and the world. Ask about the industry, the business conditions, competitive landscape, future prospects and strategy, customer profiles, communications objectives, and brand strategy. Ask how the work will be used, how it will integrate with other elements of the company’s business strategy and who will use it. Be willing to question some assumptions the client may have. Ask all the questions to get the answers you need in order to create effective communications. They expect you to dazzle them, though they may not admit it, with creativity, excitement and intelligence.  Once you have answers, you can develop a map rather than working in a vacuum and use it to explain the steps you go through in the creative process.

Think about how you can help your clients solve their problems and be open about it.  Be smart but take what a client has to say to heart (in other words, be smart but don’t threaten).  Prove the value of good creative to business. Demonstrate that you are more than decoration, demonstrate that you are an invaluable asset. Know their business, but also know individual objectives. Helping a client achieve his or her goals within an organization turns them from buyers to advocates.

But keep in mind that teaching someone about design is not simply handing them guidelines or pontificating. It’s more akin to discussing philosophy or teaching through example than it is about dictating. Clients will come to recognize that your role is larger and far more important than the preconceived notion they may have.  When this clicks, clients go from bad or neutral to good. All of this will lead not only to a better client interaction, but better work as a whole.

What’s the Point?

As we asked at the beginning, what makes a good client and a good firm? Which is more important? Ideally, one creates the other. The best firms bring out the good in clients and good clients create an environment for creative teams to do their best work. Good firms and good clients co-create each other. The point is to break down the traditional, transactional nature of the relationship and become comfortable as guides. And a new type of relationship takes root, defined by mutual respect and value.

By Gavin

Healthcare Options and Identity

We all know the perils in marketing healthcare. While there is a mythology created about the world’s best clinics, the fears people harbor about healthcare tend to drive the conversation – the wait at the office, the horror stories of infection, etc. Healthcare has responded over the years by giving a list of positive attributes about their offerings. Though a necessary element to be sure, this “promise of good” also serves to create a barrier between the people in the institution and the people using it. People are reminded that they are “foreigners” in another land, because we spend such little time thinking about the nature of identity and how it can be used to enhance an experience.

The ways that health is invoked in the formation of identity and subjectivity is central to understanding how people internalize your brand. This is because identity as it is constructed in relation to the choice of a doctor (or hospital, a pharmacy, etc.) touches on fundamental issues in social science; namely the workings of power in relation to social differentiation and senses of self and other. Heavy stuff, but the point is simple – healthcare isn’t about a commodity, it is about the people who use it and how they construct their notions of “self.”

It is the verb to identify and not the noun “identity” that opens the richest analytical perspectives. The verb makes identity a process that happens between people, not individuals and the institution. Social identity is a game of playing roles. Offering a list of services means little in this sense because the decisions about where to go and how to select a provider are bound up in interactions, metaphor and story telling. The lists healthcare providers supply differ little from one another and serve only to enhance the already enormous sense of distance between the healthcare worker and the person seeking attention. Identities work and are worked.

There is often an overlap between the people seeking treatment from the people in the medical facility, for people sharing a common problem. Between the two poles of identity politics, the collective social roles of doctor/patient and the personal, different balances are made between common diagnosis and treatment efforts and individual endeavors to rework a devalued identity.  In other words, the lines between healthcare worker (be it doctor, nurse or physical therapist) are increasingly challenged in an age where identity can be so readily reconstructed according to setting.

Whereas an older generation of social scientists was concerned with the relation between health and bioidentities like race, gender and age, we must now examine the ways that diagnostic technology actually creates social difference and social groupings. Maybe this is beginning to happen even in developing countries: In Uganda, people who have been screened for HIV are encouraged to join post-test clubs. Therapeutic technology can also form the basis for bio-sociality as in the case of support groups for people who have had mastectomies, colostomies, and transplants, or who are on lifelong antiretroviral therapy.

By describing patterns of social interaction morality, and meaning, they suggest the processes through which assumptions and consciousness about health assume significance. They are richly textured because the researchers have talked to many kinds of people and considered the multiplicity of domains in social life. The differentiated picture shows not only the uneven seepage of science and medicine into social life, but also the uneven effects of different social conditions on the possibilities for the formation of health identities.

What all of this means is that the age of commoditized healthcare, like the age of commoditized shopping, is at a crossroads. Smart brand teams will rethink the way healthcare is marketed, focusing less on a list of attributes and sterile claims, and more on the shared experience of the different parties in the healthcare exchange. The doctors in these systems already treat and administer to the “self.” It’s time for the system itself to do the same.

By Matt Cloud and Gavin

Basic Steps in Developing a Business Ethnography


What are the pain points a client has defined? What issues are we trying to better understand? Depending on the project, questions may be very tactical and specific or very strategic and broad. In either case, the first step is to clearly articulate what the overarching goal is.


Once you’ve defined the problem, it’s time to rethink it.  Frequently, what we see as the problem is in fact a facet of something else. For example, when researching something like an eBook the problem to be solved isn’t technology, it may be understanding why people read different material in different contexts.  It may be about displaying books for colleagues and friends as a means of gaining status.  The point is that the problem we see may not be the problem at all and we need to think about possibilities before we enter the field.


Where does an activity or practice take place? Defining the contexts we want to examine helps articulate the range of possibilities for observation. For example, if we’re studying beer drinking, we need to articulate all the possible contexts in which beer is purchased and consumed.


Who are the people we want to talk with? What are the social and cultural circles that will shape the event.  It isn’t enough to define a demographic sample, you need to think in terms of cultural, social, professional and environmental systems, determining not only who will be the primary participants, but also the actors that shape the context.


Put together a guide to help navigate the data collection and a method for managing the data (remember, everything is data and it is easy to become overwhelmed without a plan). Having a series of key questions and observational points to explore is the first component. But don’t just think about the questions you will ask, but also include opportunities for observation, mapping, and participation.


This is the heart of the process. Meaningful insights and moments of “truth” are slow to get at. Low-hanging fruit will be easy to spot, but the goal should be to find those deeper practices and meanings.  Because everything is data, from attitudes to mannerisms to artifacts, it is important to capture as much as possible.  Take notes, draw maps and sketches, take photographs, shoot video, and collect audio – the smallest piece of information may have the greatest impact


Hands down, analysis is the most difficult, but also the most rewarding part of research. A trained ethnographer will do more than report anecdotes. A trained ethnographer will bring a deep understanding of cultural understanding and social theory to the analysis process. This goes beyond casual observation and starts to pull together the web of significances and practices that get to the underlying structures of why people do what they do. Analysis should always work within a framework grounded in the social sciences. Analysis takes time, but the results will include modes of behavior, models of practice, experience frameworks, design principles, and cultural patterns. Once the data has been analyzed and crafted into something meaningful, the research team should be able to provide a rich story with a clear set of “aha” findings.


The findings and insights generated through ethnography should be shared not only with direct stakeholders, but across an organization because of their depth.  Ethnography usually produces insights that can influence a wide range of people throughout an organization. Because of the complexity and the richness of ethnography, these stories can influence, inspire, engage, and change the way people think about a problem.


Finally, it isn’t enough to simply hand off results.  As compelling as we may find our insights, that doesn’t always translate into someone seeing immediately how to apply them.  Once insights and findings are shared, an ethnographer needs to work with others to craft those findings into action plans, product ideas, etc.

By gavin

Pet Experts and the Culture of Animal Companions

As consumer pet ownership continues to increase and pet owners are continually striving to create better lives for themselves and their pets, the potential to serve these consumers is presenting some remarkable opportunities.  However, in this market environment, the space is flooded with products and services.  So how can a marketer truly begin to understand how today’s pet owners purchase and consume products or services?

Tied to this is the question of how they conceptualize their pets, as well as how they understand and construct meanings around “experts”.  On the surface, both of these issues seem to have common sense answers.  But if asked to define what it is that makes a person’s hunting dogs different from the beagle that lives in the house and the distinctions become exceeding difficult to articulate.  Ask them where they learned about the flea and tick treatments they use and it’s very likely they will discuss their groomer just as often as their veterinarian.

First and foremost, the learning from an “expert” begins well before a visit the veterinarian.  It is driven by context and a sense of real-life experiences. The owner of a pet daycare facility and the person with hunting dogs has types of experiences that go beyond what is addressed by the clinician.  So, how might this insight be developed into an executable strategy?  A company could deploy representatives in major metro area that would be responsible for spreading word about a product among shelters, resorts, retail and groomers.  These locations have the “real” referrers, not the vets.  This ambassador would have a very different function from sales reps and would engage unofficial experts and consumers in their normal environments to establish awareness without the motivation of sales.

Other opportunities might include sponsoring entire dog parks or shelters to demonstrate on an emotional and grass roots level, that the company cares about the same things pet owners do. The idea is to become a point of reference for consumers when they make visits to clinics, pet hospitals, or any other venue where pet health products are sold and prescribed.

The second major insight is that the “type” of pet impacts where you go to get information about what to use. How a pet is functionally and symbolically conceptualized has a dramatic impact on purchase choices.  If, for example, a dog is conceptualized as being primarily for work/investment vs. companionship/part of the family, it impacts how and why people invest in that animal.  If a cat is an “indoor” vs. “outdoor” cat, it sets expectations about what are acceptable levels of disease and/or discomfort.  Ultimately these issues shape whom the consumer asks for product advice, how and where they shop, what types of messaging and imagery they respond to, and how they define “expertise”.  It is in these points of implicit meaning that marketing opportunities lie.

It all comes down to the point that pets are more than our humble companions and the people who treat them and care for them are more than their titles.

By Gavin

Why History Matters to Business

Henry Ford once famously said that “History is bunk.” And while Henry may have had a point when it came to mechanics, it certainly doesn’t apply to marketing and brand development.  We often jump into  things without taking the time to understand how populations came to be who they are and how that may shape their interpretations of your product and your brand.  The questions we need to learn to ask to make sense of the seemingly contradictory behaviors in the present are the same questions that historians use to think about the past. History is part of the weave of connections that provide context and meaning.  Knowing a people’s history is crucially important when you want to shape the future of your brand. History isn’t a side-item, it is a tool.

The two main complaints about history is that it is irrelevant to their job and that it is boring. And inevitably, when you ask a marketer or business development person to elaborate on how it is boring, the complaint seems to come back to a question of relevance.  It isn’t uncommon to have a business person to ask how understanding history could possibly help them.  And on the surface it is a fair question. Now, let’s step back for a moment and imagine this situation.  Imagine that you are asked by your company to research an area for possible expansion, a market in which you have no real presence. After looking for other companies that have opened or are operating a similar business in that region.  Of course you ask if it a success or a failure? You ask why it succeeded or failed? But it’s not as simple as looking at procurement models, logistics, ad dollars, etc. To answer these questions, you need some skills that history can provide. Without a solid understanding history and culture, you will inevitably have oceans of data but it won’t mean anything. Why?  Because you won’t have the ability to critically analyze that data and make it make sense. Oh, you’ll be able to speculate what the numbers mean, but you won’t be able to explain why they are what they are and, more importantly, you won’t be able to isolate the cultural variables that will lead to a successful product launch or marketing campaign.

When you understand history, you understand the underlying motivations and socio-cultural structures that shape how your brand is interpreted as it is. You will learn about cause and effect, which in turn leads to learning about how your brand or business will be received. Since history is mainly about what causes the next event or action, people can clearly understand how things are related to one another. For example, if colonialism was a significant event in the history of the country you attempting to enter, it may well manifest itself in how your brand is understood. If your plan doesn’t account for this historical element, there will probably be some people who will take the stand to fight back, possibly forming a vocal “revolution” against cultural imperialism. While we may be inclined to dismiss such language, it is in large part because we, meaning the West, have been the people in power.  We dictated policy and by extension brands and products. These associations are very real in other parts of the world and will shape everything from B2B interactions to permits for selling your products to how an ad campaign will be understood.  Why is Home Depot failing in China? Because of cultural systems that define DIY projects as representing status distinctions and weak individual economic power. Add to that the development of labor roles in Chinese history and the reasons start to emerge. Of course there are more reasons, but the point is that if you understand history as something that has direct, real application in a business context, your brand will be prepared when it enters a given market.

In addition to being armed with knowledge about the people to which you are attempting to communicate and bring into the brand fold, the ability to conduct research is another skill that learning history can provide. How? Because knowing the answers is as important as knowing where and how to find them. For example, if you were to go about researching an area for possible business growth, you would need information about the people, the market, the demand, etc. Learning history requires you go beyond business journals – it means digging through documents people in the desired region have created, looking for the interpretations of a wide range of people and pulling the various elements together into something meaningful and rich in its subtlety. Research becomes a creative act rather than something static and formulaic.

By knowing a bit about what has happened in our world, you are in a better position to account for why things are the way they are, what will happen in the future and how you can prepare your brand to succeed.  You learn to address people in meaningful, sometimes unexpected ways.


Poetry and Research

Commenting on something I had written about storytelling, someone said, “Maybe stories are just data with a soul.”

Poetic. And I would say research needs more poetry. Indeed, there are many researchers who would agree. Data need not be dry. Besides, “data” has a richer definition and history than we like to admit in an age that fetishizes numbers. Stories are the symbolic launchpad of metaphor, the defining element of the human condition.


5 Strengths of Emerging Agencies

Times are hard in the marketing and advertising world and there seems to be consensus that things won’t be getting easier. The old agency model is on the road to extinction, but no on seems quite sure how to survive. There is agreement that agencies need to adapt and transform from “integrated ad agencies,” to some new type of organization that is defined by broad thinking, flexibility and a more strategic approach to problem solving. The problem is that this sort of thing is easier to talk about than to achieve. Becoming skilled in conversation marketing, insights generation and digital marketing requires more than the addition of new skill sets inside the agency, it requires a fundamental shift in how we think and operate. Whether you are an agency trying to reinvent yourself or a company in search of a more effective vendor, it is more important than ever to think about how you will promote your brand in a meaningful, sustainable way.

Doing that means working less on a one-sided story and more on creating experiences. Experiences invite participation and engages people on emotional, rational, and cultural levels.  They inspire people to drag their friends along and share the experience with the world. Experiences can exist as a webpage or phone app. But doing this requires a different kind of thinking and an agency that is willing to throw off its typical processes and embrace something new. So what are agencies to do?

1. Change the structure of the team

You can hand off elements of an engagement from team to team, but the result will be a continuation of the same old thing. If you want to conceive and execute powerful customer experiences, you need the researchers, creatives, strategists, and interactive designers working hand in hand throughout the entire process. Hand-offs result in muddied interpretations and siloed thinking. Getting teams to work together and share ideas in an iterative way is absolutely essential.  This means developing teams based less on function and more on their passions, flexibility, and willingness to communicate in an ongoing way. This means getting everyone involved from the start. It used to be that everyone waited until the creative team emerged from isolation with the ”big” idea (the message, the spot, the tagline.)  If you get everyone working together from the day one the solution will be more than an ad, it will transcend any one medium.

2. Be genuinely interdisciplinary

Having a broad set of skills on which to draw does not make an agency interdisciplinary. Not everyone needs to be an expert in every discipline, but they need to understand the basics. More importantly, people need to feel comfortable sharing thoughts and ideas without fear of being dismissed by others. They need to be encouraged to have a voice. One simple way to do this is to have client team members sit and work near each other, not in departmental sections of the office.  Don’t isolate departments. Another way to encourage this is to have a shared work space, such as a wall, devoted to sharing ideas and insights. This encourages people to engage in a discussion rather than falling back on the old, familiar way of doing things.

3. Start with the user, consumer, etc.

It may sound obvious, but putting the user, consumer, or target of any stripe at the heart of the solution is crucial. This is easier said than done and it is easy to forget who the user is when we work in isolation. Anything we create, be it a product, an experience, a campaign, or a business strategy, starts and ends with the person, or persons, we’re trying to engage with.  This means understanding a customer’s relationship with more than the brand. It means understanding how they view the world, the multiple reasons behind why they shop, what their social networks are, etc. In other words, start with what is important to the user in the broadest sense and create according to how your brand fits in with their identity and cultural norms.

4. Re-think the creative brief

The creative brief is a relic. With the exception of a few tweaks here and there it has remained unchanged for years. It clarifies the question, “What do we want to say?” but it rarely asks why we want to say it or what the consumer wants and needs. It is better to answer questions like, “How will we create brand advocacy?”  “What things does the customer need to hear from their point of view?” “How do we get people to participate?” “What does the brand mean in the context in which it will be used?” Asking those sorts of questions moves the end product from simply being clever to being smart and relevant.

5. Become a learning organization

While human beings are hardwired to explore and learn, we also have a tendency toward complacency. We get in a pattern once we learn how to do something and tend not to deviate. But with the proliferation of technology and social media networks, increased globalization, and the pace at which access to information is expanding, it is imperative that everyone in an organization always be in a learning mode. This means cultivating a mindset that fosters and rewards learning and going outside individual comfort zones. Create a library, take creative fieldtrips, get the organization to explore the world instead of sitting in an office. The result is more collaboration, fresh thinking, and greater engagement by the members of the team.

What it all means

In the past, audiences were fairly captive.  They were largely passive consumers of advertising as they read the paper, watched television, etc. The model was simple: buy attention and you will eventually convert someone into a consumer of your brand.  But in a postmodern world of global branding and social media, companies can no longer simply buy attention. The best crafted brand stories may be memorable, but only if someone hears them. You may create a commercial that creates a truly phenomenal amount of buzz, but it means nothing if that buzz isn’t relevant and doesn’t produce revenue growth. As consumers become more inclined to co-create the brand through speaking, blogging, sharing ideas, and  adopting brands as part of their public identities, we need to move from simply telling stories and hoping the audience will listen to getting others to engage with the brand and telling the stories for us. In other words, we need to engage our audience in a much more interactive, discursive way.

For agencies that will thrive in the emerging market, gone are days when you gave the creative team surface-level research findings (or simply a clever idea), wrote up a brief and hoped for something revolutionary. Many beautiful campaigns were developed, to be sure, but that didn’t mean they were relevant. This is even more true today. Today, agencies have a wide range of disciplines on any given team (anthropologists, illustrators, interactive gurus, strategists, etc.), but this broad set of skills and perspectives means little if they don’t know how to work together in a way that departs from past processes.

By Gavin

A Return to Thinking Deeply

Sitting on a flight yesterday, I couldn’t help overhearing the man in the seat behind me discussing what he believed to be the solution to our economic woes and how to improve business.  The solutions themselves were nothing new and so I won’t mention them here.  What struck me was the distinction he made between academics and “real businessmen” like himself.  The word “academic” is, of course, loaded but one of the underlying meanings to so many would be paragons of business is that “academic” means useless or detached.  Now, while I would be the first to agree that academic s are prone to obfuscating and pontificating in some senses, the ones that gain recognition and traction in their field and across disciplines (including business) are anything but detached or lacking in their ability to articulate game-changing product and business solutions.  The practical and the academic are NOT mutually exclusive and indeed, there is a desperate need to start incorporating some of that “academic” approach back into businesses.

These days, there’s a fixation on returning to surface-level research in marketing. Cheap. Fast. Tactical.  Strangely, being obtuse is frequently presented as being savvy.  Stupidity masked as brilliance.  What defines current research demands will not work in a market still defined by mass extinction. Change is needed and change doesn’t come from shallow understanding. If a company is going to be truly successful, if a company is not just looking to survive but prosper into brand iconography, it has to do more than quantify and type its constituents. Above all, it must really understand the consumer. Truly understand its consumer on a gut level. Of course, the people in most companies would argue that they do just that; they have reams of data to prove it. They’ve spent countless hours and countless cups of coffee in focus groups asking people for their opinions. They’ve stopped shoppers in the mall, watched them at the check out and run survey after survey. And if you propose something requiring a bit more depth, it is often  “too academic” – I have to wonder if “too academic” would applying if they were talking to their cardiologist.  “Sorry doctor, running all those CAT scans before putting in that stint seems too academic.  Just stick that fucker in there and it will probably be ok.  It’s just my heart, it’s not that complicated.”  This isn’t too say that finding and insight don’t need to find simplicity and clarity, or that they should be riddled with jargon.  But is to say that simply dismissing good methods, information and insights because they don’t fit easily into a bullet point or that they require more than a few moments of thought is dangerous to legitimate innovation.

The problem is that meaningful understanding doesn’t come through focus groups, surveys or mall intercepts. It doesn’t come from one-on-one interviews, hidden cameras or diaries. The things, like participant observation, are all part of the tool kits used by a range of researchers to talk to consumers but talking is not understanding. Sorry to say this to my business brethren, but sometimes good work does indeed require deep thinking, complex ideas and time.  Not everything need be the fast food solution to developing insights.  So what does it mean to understand our customers?

Admittedly, it’s difficult to define “understanding.” It’s convenient to use an operation or behavioral definition where we begin with the maxim that somebody who reacts appropriately to X understands X. For example, one could be said to “understand” Japanese if one correctly obeys basic commands given in Japanese. But in context, this is a terrible inadequate definition. A person can execute the command, but may miss the fact that it was given in sarcasm. If a native English speaker tells another native speaker to jump off a cliff, they understand they subtext of the phrase, but a non-native speaker may not pick up on that. This is why idioms and metaphorical language are usually the last linguistic concepts to ingest when learning a new language. Understanding implies a much deeper ability to interpret and create, especially in a foreign or unknown context.  And it’s this interpretive element that defines “understanding” and what real consumer understanding means to a business.

“Understanding” is an ability to reason from an inductive perspective and pull together seemingly disparate bits of information into something cohesive. An inductive researcher approaches the analysis of data and examination of practice problems within their own context rather than from a predetermined theoretical basis. The approach moves from the specific to the general, which means that the research team looks at things in a completely fresh and unbiased way. Anthropology is built on this fundamental principle and goes beyond providing a company with the raw understanding of human behavior, innate responses and bio-social needs. It provides a richer method for understanding how these pieces fit together and, more importantly, how people craft these pieces in a given context.  Because anthropologists take an inductive approach, it means they learn as they react and are taught about what is important by the people with whom they work.

For businesses that are attempting to pull themselves out of the muck of the economy over the last two years, now is the time to start thinking in terms other than ROI and short-term sustainability.  Now is the time to start thinking about how to change and define the game.  Human beings are complex, absurdly complex. These complexities are amplified by a postmodern condition where speed, mutability and fusillade of advertising bombardments are the hallmarks of existence. It simply isn’t enough anymore to know that family X prefers crunchy or smooth.  Companies need to understand “why.”  They need to understand how people shop for food in general. They need to understand how people cook with it peanut butter.  They need to understand the changing conceptualization of food as it relates to a sense of identity in a social network. They need to understand the changing landscape of the family meal.

Too academic?  Maybe.  On the other hand, Honda and Toyota changed the nature of perceptions about cars in America because they took the time to learn.  Their brands became synonymous with quality and efficiency even as others created increasingly problematic gas-guzzlers.  Why didn’t’ Ford fall into that category?  Because Ford, in the middle of a hugely successful brand turn-around, took the time to explore that “too academic” work and apply the findings in new, creative, genuinely innovative ways.

The point is that opportunities do not lie in the obvious, they lie on the outskirts and it is up to us to knit together the relevant pieces.  Armed with this depth of understanding – real understanding – businesses can develop products and brands that do more than produce small incremental profits.  They can develop brand loyalty and brand advocates. They can transform their businesses and become iconic.  They must, because as we know, the basic rule of evolution is simple: adapt or die.