Why producing strong marketing ideas often requires the removal of your ‘marketing hat’.
One of the core roles of qualitative research is to connect marketing teams and their agencies with the people* who are buying their products and processing their communications.
Watching groups, participating in ethnographic studies and so on can help remove marketers from their ivory towers and enable them to root marketing programmes in the real world behaviour and attitudes of their customers. It helps reduce the possibility of proceeding with inappropriate marketing and communications initiatives and enables ideas to be optimised.
However, my view is that marketing people could go a long way to achieving these goals without spending a penny on market research or witnessing or interacting with their customers. It’s simple, and they can do it without ever leaving their desks.
In my experience, it is rare to find marketers who remember that they are people too. They buy cars, shampoo, chilled desserts and insurance policies, just as their customers do. While they may be unusually attuned to marketing communications and brands, their fundamental motivations, behaviours and beliefs do not distinguish them significantly from the ‘ordinary’ folk they would like to buy their stuff. But, to look at many of the marketing ideas I am asked to research, you would never know it.
My first thought whenever I am given, for example, a range of positioning concepts to research is “what’s the response likely to be?”. My answers are partly based on over 30 years’ experience in the business, but they are also informed by simply thinking for myself as someone who buys stuff. Very often, I can see that at least half of the ideas are non-starters, for reasons that would be blindingly obvious to any human being who has ever bought something in the market concerned – and probably to most of those who have not. And, being pathologically unable to avoid making my life difficult, I go back to clients and gently enquire about these ideas in an effort to help them see that they are not marketing to zombies steeped in brand theory but to real people who live on their streets and use the same trains to commute; in other words, more often than not, people like them.
Yet, many marketers appear to find being ‘people’ something of a challenge! Of course, there is always the defence that “we are so close to this now that we can’t see it clearly any more”. While there is some truth in this, a key skill in life, both personally and professionally, is to be able to stand back and look at something you have been dealing with for a while and appraise it with fresh eyes. How difficult is it to ask yourself the simple question: “how do I feel about this?” – what is your immediate, intuitive response? When you read a concept, do you think “Mmm, you have a point there, I’d like to find out more”. Or do you think “I’m sorry, I don’t really understand what you mean”; or “Right… and your point is?”; or “Why on earth would I care about that?”. While I find strategic ideas in particular benefit from this perspective, the same can apply to creative ideas. In a world of marketing where there is arguably too much action and not enough thought, a few moments in the office each day spent as a human being instead of a marketing person would pay substantial dividends.
My livelihood depends on the need of marketers to get closer to their customers and use their input to help them develop more effective ideas. So, in advocating that marketers spend more time thinking like people, am I a turkey voting for Christmas? I don’t think so. While I genuinely feel there are cases when research is conducted where it is simply not needed, the best outcome of marketers remembering they are people too would be better quality ideas. A greater proportion of the ideas that we put into strategic development research would at least be potentially right, rather than half of them being totally wrong. This in turn would enable us to spend more time gaining useful feedback and developing promising ideas rather than wasting time separating wheat from chaff. A higher initial strike rate going into the project will give us a better chance of a high quality idea coming out at the end of the research.
So, to produce better marketing ideas, it always pays to forget that you’re marketer.
* Incidentally, you may notice that I did not refer here to ‘consumers’. This has always struck me as a strange word, partly because the notion of people ‘consuming’ cars or bank accounts conjures up such strange images, but also because it casts the people who buy goods and services and use brand communications in a passive role – as a mass that ‘feeds’ at the trough of brand marketing – that is clearly inappropriate. In a ground-breaking move, I prefer instead to refer to these people as… ‘people’.