Sitting in a meeting not long ago, I couldn’t help overhearing someone comment that the presentation of the rationale for a campaign they had just sat through was too “academic”. 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 complicated, useless or detached. Now, while I would be the first to agree that people with an “academic” bent to their work can be prone to laying the jargon on fairly thick at times or wanting to give details that some people might feel aren’t needed, 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 successful, if a company is not just looking to survive but prosper into brand prominence, it has to do more than quantify and type its constituents. Above all, it must really understand the consumer. Truly understand its consumer at a deep 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. They have tapped into Big Data and can tell you that 67% of Prius owners in Cleveland also buy 7.4 ounces of coffee on Tuesdays at 10:17 a.m. 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 jargon should be minimized. 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. And while Big Data is great for getting at what is going on, it rarely points to why. Understanding doesn’t come from one-on-one interviews, hidden cameras or diaries. These 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. Nor should it. So what does it mean to understand our customers?
Admittedly, it’s difficult to define “understanding.” It’s convenient to use an operational 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/users understanding means for a brand.
“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 seven years, now is the time to start thinking in terms other than one-to-one ROI and short-term sustainability. Now is the time to start thinking about how to change and define what’s next, not just what’s happening this quarter. 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.” Take something as simple as peanut butter. 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. In other words, rather than thinking about incremental change and upticks of 2% in their specific category, they need to think big, be bold, and look for real insights. They need to get beyond the numbers, which are safe, bland and devoid of meaning, and get at the stuff that really matters.
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. Why did Subaru gain market share and increased loyalty when others lost ground (other than building terrific cars)? Because they launched a campaign that spoke to bigger human issues and ignored mediocrity.
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.