In the post-advertising world, many brands struggle to understand the people they’re selling to and why they behave as they do. As power shifts from brands to consumers, knowing your consumer has never been more important. Even the accounting firm PwC has woken up to the fact that “every industry participant will need to invest in customer understanding and engagement.” But so long as this point is couched solely in data-analytics terms, it tells only part of the story.
It’s easy to feel lost and, oddly, reassured by the introduction of “big data” (defined by Gartner as volume, velocity and variety), or colossal swaths of demographic, behavioural and customer-preference numbers. History is littered with examples of how the misuse of big data can precipitate poor decision making on a massive scale. The U.S. military’s overreliance during the Vietnam War on quantified data at the expense of human observation in the field is a classic case (read Brian Bergstein’s piece in the MIT Technology Review [20 February, 2013] for background). In a different context, data-harvesting giant Tesco’s handling of the recent horse-meat crisis reveals that having a wealth of available data but little empathy for your audience and their world can obscure the bigger picture, thereby impeding effective decision making.
Recent studies indicate to behavioural economists that people don’t make decisions or act according to reason (read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow  for a seminal exploration of the factors that do influence human decision making). As leading psychologist and thinker Dan Ariely says:
“[W]e usually think of ourselves as sitting in the driver’s seat, with ultimate control over the decisions we made and the direction our life takes; but, alas, this perception has more to do with our desires—with how we want to view ourselves—than with reality.”
Yet conventional market research still lags behind, continuing to frame and capture consumer choice in rational terms (as researcher Jules Berry’s proposal for adopting fresh methods recognises). While the promise of big data and the familiarity of traditional market research make these the methods that many brands commonly use to understand customers better, in doing so they risk missing factors that disproportionately influence such key desired behaviours as purchase and footfall. As has been highlighted by Nick Bilton of the New York Times, big data can be misleading, or even meaningless, without context.
What do we mean by context, or “culture”?
Just as the concept of “brand” can be interpreted in an endless variety of entertaining and thought-provoking ways, culture operates on many levels simultaneously. These range from the ephemeral (e.g., lolcats], to the news moment (e.g., news and sports), to fashion and trend (e.g., the growth of “authenticity” and “maker culture”), to profound regional and global movements, such as the Arab Spring and the shift of economic power from the West to the East. If it’s valuable, important or relevant to your audience, it’s valuable to your brand and business. The brands that manage to have authentic and unique points of view when engaging with the conversations that matter are the ones that stand to gain most, whether that means improving engagement, sales or loyalty.
So what must brands do?
To develop communications or content that people love, care about and share, we must go beyond the conventional to gain insight into their mind-sets, motivations and contexts. This deep human understanding provides a window on the intangible, the irrational and the social contexts in which real people live and make decisions every day, shining a light on the magic and the madness that separate us from rationally motivated automatons.
How should brands get there?
At Story Worldwide we stimulate and sustain conversations that matter to clients by tapping into an existing meta-conversation—a national or global discourse that folks we want to engage with genuinely care about. The question is, how do you identify these conversations?
The surest way to identify these conversations is through a multifaceted understanding of and cultural insight into audiences. When investigating a brand’s audience at Story, we go beyond demographics, key behaviour traits and consumption habits (whether in-store or online) to uncover tastes, deep-seated motivations, emotional and contextual mind-sets, desires and unmet needs—all with the aim of understanding who, what, how and why we are. This ensures an exhaustive view that draws out the insights and triggers that make a difference. Journalists, fashion designers and studio bosses (to name a few) have informed their planning and investment decisions by cultivating an instinct for their consumers’ motivations and tastes and, crucially, the cultural contexts in which they live. In marketing and in business more broadly, we can lose sight of this perspective when attempting to rationalise and quantify everything.
Who does it well?
Communications work when, in acknowledging an audience’s unmet or underserved need, they reflect and satisfy that demand in distinctive and rewarding ways. This approach was at the heart of some of the great campaigns of the past half-century, including Nike’s “Just Do It” and Red Bull’s “Stratos.”
In the case of Nike in 1987, Dan Wieden, with a psychologist’s instinct, saw a nation wounded by the recent stock market crash and the Iran-contra affair and in desperate need of rediscovering some of its old confidence and satisfied it with a punchy, can-do, identifiably American declaration (for more on how, read Douglas Holt’s fascinating 2012 book Cultural Strategy).
For Red Bull, the strategy drew on the universal: mining human beings’ desire to push ever forward and redefine what’s possible. In the process Red Bull revived the spirit of the major events, such as the moon landing, that captured humanity’s imagination. In each case, tapping into the cultural context was a key factor in building value and influencing behaviour, including buying, recommending and sharing. The most successful brands take advantage of the opportunities this offers their business (Oreo being a recent high-profile tactical example).
Photo: AFP PHOTO / www.redbullcontentpool.com / Jay Nemeth
What should brands do with this insight?
The bonus for brands is that you don’t have to be a global advertiser with a $100 million budget to become a part of people’s lives (the true measure of effective communications, as commentator Faris Yakob suggests). This film on ADHD (Story client work) is a good example of how insight brought to life by storytelling can influence people’s lives and get them sharing, even on the most challenging budgets. All the data in the world will achieve only so much as long as it fails to capture or relate to what makes us human: our deep-down desires, needs and motivations, the things that really inform our behaviour. Even then, this insight must be shaped, nurtured and invested in with pride by professionals for it to come to life in a way that people, clients and consumers alike, love and can’t help but share. Ultimately, we are just people, more similar than differing—whether clients, agencies or consumers—all with attributes, motivations, needs and traits, living in the same world: a fact worth remembering the next time a vast spreadsheet is heralded as the font of all wisdom.