What Makes for a Good Journey

A customer journey map is a very simple idea: a diagram that illustrates the steps your customers go through in engaging with your company, whether it be a product, an online experience, retail experience, or a service, or any combination. It’s nothing new, we’ve all done them or been involved in their development. But what makes for a good map?

Complexity is, I believe, your friend. Yes, this flies in the face of the “keep it simple, stupid” mantra, but there is a solid rationale for it.  Journey maps are tools and need to account for as many actions, triggers, and processes as possible to ensure nothing is overlooked. Sometimes customer journey maps are “cradle to grave,” looking at the entire arc of engagement. Other times they may focus on a finite interaction or series of steps. In either case, how people maneuver through the process of making a buying decision is more complex than the channels in which they navigate – it is wrapped up in cultural and behavioral mechanisms that influence and shape every other action. That includes emotional elements that are often overlooked in designing a journey map. With that in mind, capturing emotional, cultural, and symbolic elements of the journey is as important as capturing functional and structural ones.

From a business perspective, it ensures getting the customer through the process and converting them to a long-term advocate. Brand love is big. A great out-of-box experience is like a little piece of theater. Scripting it well helps guide the customer through the first steps of using their new purchase and minimizes expensive calls into help lines. So, what elements make for a good journey?

  • Actions: What actions are customers taking to move themselves on to the next stage?
  • Motivations: Why is the customer motivated to keep going to the next stage? What emotions are they feeling?
  • Questions: What are the uncertainties, jargon, or other issues preventing the customer from moving to the next stage? What are their pain points? What are the points of breakdown?
  • Barriers: What structural, process, cost, implementation, or other barriers stand in the way of moving on to the next stage?
  • Meaning: What meaning does the product, service, etc. play in their worldview? What meaning does it serve and how is it connected to culture?

Filling all these out is best done if grounded in customer research, preferably including in-depth ethnographic exploration. Ask customers to create mind maps and to map out their journeys for you, while you are visiting them also help create a richer journey, producing a participatory structure that allows for greater clarity.

It’s worth noting that a journey is often non-linear. Depending on the complexity of the product or service, the need, the cost, etc. people will move through different stages over a longer period of time. Personality also plays a role. Someone may jump straight from awareness to purchase if they are not inclined to do research and have a strong recommendation from a friend, for example. But the underlying point remains; the more we can account for their thoughts, trigger, processes, and inter-related actions, the better we can tailor the experience to meet their needs.

In the end, there is no single right way to create a customer journey, and any organization will need to find what works best for their situation, but there are clear elements that help ensure it has the most relevant outcomes. Ensuing you cover all your bases ensures a better end result.

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Obsessing Over Bias

Recognizing and understanding research bias is crucial for determining the utility of study results and an essential aspect of decision making in marketing. Research plans that lack clear mechanisms to minimize bias are unlikely to be viewed favorably and the end results dismissed. But what are the rules for qualitative research studies? Whenever I am reviewing a plan or a proposal, whether quantitative or qualitative, and I come across attempts to manage “bias,” it always gives me pause. Why? Because I have concerns that the growing tendency of qualitative researchers trying to manage “bias” in their work is due to the increasing pressure to demonstrate research outputs lead to quantifiable impact. I get the desire for ROI, KPIs, etc., but there are times when the fixation on quantifiability is grossly misguided.

Instead, qualitative researchers generally agree that considering concepts such as rigor and trustworthiness are more pertinent to the reflexive, subjective nature of qualitative research. A host of strategies for upholding these concepts during the have been developed and written about extensively, and engaging with this literature is a rite of passage for most experienced and novice researchers who are new to qualitative methodology.

But the issue of bias is raising its head with increasing regularity. Stories of clients or departments rejecting proposed qualitative methods due to subjectivity and bias are common. One of the most frequent questions I get asked when pitching qualitative research is whether directed or probing questions from an interviewer is evidence of bias, that is, that they are mining for data that will affirm their own preconceptions. I understand their confusion. But this begs the question: how much of a researcher’s own values and opinions need to be reflected in qualitative study questions, data collection methods, or findings for it to constitute bias? The answer, of course, is that the question is fallacious. Those carrying out qualitative research are an integral part of the process and final product, and separation from this is neither possible nor desirable. The concern instead should be whether the researcher has been transparent and reflexive about the processes by which data have been collected, analyzed, and presented. 

Numerous people have written far more eloquently than I on the challenges and complexities of the evidence-based movement for understanding the potential contributions of qualitative research. And they offer some sage advice that can help us identify a way forward. Principally, that the challenge is not to try and convince that qualitative work reflects objective, opinion-free neutrality. Rather, it is to better articulate the unique value that qualitatively derived knowledge can play within a system that measures impact through an evidence-based lens. Although it may be more difficult to quantify the impact of qualitative research, we should resist the temptation to reach for a positivist tape measure to solve the problem. To do so will lead us to become apologists for the subjectivity that is the very strength of interpretive work.

Art as a Research Method

Research is not as objective as many of us would like to believe. We construct complex statistical models, fret over leading questions, and sometimes cloak ourselves in the complexities of science mystery. But in doing so we sometimes miss the bigger point – we’re here to discover, innovate, and find insights that inspire people.  Good research isn’t about regurgitating facts, but finding uncharted paths. We sometimes seem to forget that while we strive toward objectivity, the whole enterprise is subject to larger political, economic, and social forces. Paradigms dominate thought and research practices until new paradigms develop. The result is that many opportunities are lost because they simply don’t fit the accepted way of doing things. Hence our propensity for embracing rational, seemingly objective science and dismissing the craft the artistry, because craft and art includes elements of commentary, irony, and critique missing from “serious” research.  What if we step back and start to think about how they two can and should influence each other?

First, the arts can fill a critical role as an independent zone of research, of experimentation and of learning. Rather than focusing on standardization and outcomes, the focus is in the act of creating. This is a significantly different way of thinking because the focus is on the interdependence of symbols and looking for new modes of expression that may well run counter to the hypothesis from which we work. It is holistic and concerned less with constructing norms than it is with viewing norms from an angle, so to speak. This isn’t to suggest we throw out systematic investigative processes, but it is suggesting that we broaden the definition of how we “know” what we know and expand the options both the researcher and the audiences we investigate. Using the creative act of artwork as a means of articulating an idea, practice, or belief engages the participant with the concept in question rather than the researcher or question itself. As the artwork unfolds, the researcher is in a position to develop new questions, comment on the ideas expressed, and explore concepts that 1) might not normally be discussed or 2) might be too sensitive for the participant to normally address honestly. By using art as a means of investigation, both researcher and participant become part of a shared exchange rather than a negotiated one.

But art is more than free expression. It isn’t as simple as putting clay or paint brush in hand. Several traditions of the arts uniquely equip participants and it’s helpful to construct assignments with these in mind:

  • Whimsy: Focusing on radical symbolism, the participant-artist is encouraged to incorporate criteria such as celebration, fantasy and wonder into mundane objects and services.
  • The Outcast Approach: Artistic traditions of iconoclasm allow the participant-artist to take up lines of inquiry and expression that are often devalued by others.
  • The Exalted: The positivist approach and valuing of social commentary means the participant-artist is likely to integrate cultural issues in their work that reflect broader concepts.
  • Steam Punk Wonder: Casting the participant-artist as outside utopian/dystopian discussion around technology and change, means the participant-artist can bring the scientific and technological possibilities to a wider expression unbound by “logical” constraints.

There are of course other approaches to how the stage is set, but the point is simple.  Artistic valuing of creativity and innovation means new perspectives and possibilities can be revealed in very evocative ways. That leads to new ways of thinking about what we sell and how we sell it.

Ethnography, Training, and the Perils of Ethno-Lite

We have a vast spectrum of methodologies at our disposal these days, from attitudinal approaches through to behavioral. From big data to semiotics to ethnography. We also have a wide interpretation of what these terms mean. So let’s talk about ethnography briefly.

What ethnography does, or should do, is uncover meaning and complexity through a solid understanding of social theory. Good ethnography is rooted in science, not opinion. Being able to conduct a good interview does not make a person an ethnographer any more than being able to balance a checkbook makes someone a mathematician. Not everyone is a painter and we accept that. Not everyone is an ethnographer. This isn’t meant to belittle ethnographically-informed work or insights that come to light when simply engaging with the world (not everything needs in-depth research to be valid). The point is to say that what we learn from training and experience has value. While the goal of many research plans in many cases is to be good, fast and cheap (something that can, in fact, be attained), those goals aren’t relevant if the end results are shoddy due to a lack of solid methodology or training.

Simply taking into account what people tell you in an interview is misleading and often dangerous. For example, if participants tell you that they make a point of eating dinner every night as a family, it would be easy to take that information and build a marketing plan or product around that statement. The catch is it doesn’t address the unsaid. How much clutter is on the dining room table? What discarded boxes are in the garbage? What is the weekly schedule of activities? How is dinner time used to establish or co-create meaning? What is the symbolic role of food? How does ritual factor into purchase and preparation choices? These are the types of questions that emerge when an ethnographic project is done right and the answers to these types of questions are what lead to a more complete, more resonant marketing plan.

The research methodologies that generate this quick, surface understanding is problematic. And this includes the quasi-ethnography we often see being sold to clients. When, as practitioners, we try to empathize we often tend to think about consumers’ emotional and attitudinal state rather than the context and their behaviors. But the evidence suggests that the context and behaviors of the past predict more closely the behaviors of the future than do people’s attitudes and emotions. And, in some research, people lie. Often for the right reasons: they want to give you an answer they think you want to hear, but they’re often post-rationalizing and not always telling the truth. As such, any ethnographer or research team leader advocating for deeper research should be able to articulate three key components of ethnography:

  • Participant Observation – spending real time with individuals to gain insight
  • Thick Description – a term coined by American anthropologist Clifford Geertz to mean describing everything you see. Observing the entire context, and the themes, and then synthesizing them.
  • Triangulation – Going through the process of cross-referencing and synthesizing multiple sources of data.

Regardless of the product, service, or message you are designing it makes a great deal of economic sense to have a research team that can get at these issues and translate them into meaningful insights. Business anthropology represents the synthesis of academic anthropology with the professional practice of marketing and design. It seeks to understand what it means to be human, the diversity of human practices and values, and then turn these practices and values into tangible experiences. Understanding the context surrounding people and observing what really shapes their behavior gets us further under their skin that analyzing their emotions and attitudes. Sometimes that requires a bit of labor, both in terms of the research plan and the training behind it.

Marketing Food in a World of Global Identities

Food is a sensitive subject in many ways. It’s more than sustenance, it’s how we define ourselves – and others. In a more global world, cultural and ethnic boundaries are increasingly becoming more permeable. Food in particular is available in more ethnic diversity than ever before. And therein lies a paradox. As diets become more different, they also become more similar. As individual tastes find greater opportunities to explore, the world shrinks just a bit. I can find Ethiopian cuisine in rural Indiana even as I find KFC in Beijing.

One way of reading this paradox is to shift from thinking of food in terms of “model” to “style”. The consumption model is a concept that refers to a community, nation, etc. “Style” refers to individual behavior, which, while culturally bound in many respects, is increasingly untethered from tradition. The individual’s food patterns lose any reference to a sense of collective belonging; the family, the social group, their economic class, the local community. They become driven by their subjective choice and hedonistic or ideological nature. So style choices become subject to a diversity of options and contexts. Food consumption becomes an expression of self more so than an extension of cultural norms.

In this sense, self-identity is determined more by lifestyle where people are presented a diversity of choices in all areas of their lives. The self is a reflexive project sustained through the routine development and sustainment of a coherent narrative of self-identity. However, while we are more likely to identify ourselves as being individuals, as creative as we get, it is our social interactions that regulates this sense of identity.

This paradox makes marketing food increasingly complex. Do we tell stories about the myth of the food or the product? Do we sell to the masses or do we find points of meaning among subcultures, cultures of practice, etc.? Do we adapt messaging to specific contexts and to what degree? Programmatic and hyper-targeting have allowed us to narrow the field and message to potential customers and consumers with amazing precision, but there are limits to what these tools can do. They don’t adapt to the shifting contexts and psychological factors that govern our decisions. Which means the role of creative, strategy, and research become ever more complex and important as we work to resolve the paradoxes surrounding food. The data is comforting because it is fixed. It lends a veneer of scientific legitimacy to the things we create. But, we have an opportunity, not just with how we market food, to bring an more expansive lens to the collection, management, and curation of messaging. We have an opportunity to spark more intimate conversations and connections.  

The diversity of foods across the globe has made food a much more democratic facet of modern societies. As a style, it is something that consumers are increasingly food-literate and empowered to comment on. Contributing to this are the swathe of entry points into the world of food for the modern consumer: celebrity cooking shows, foodie magazines, websites and food festivals. Here everyone is invited to participate in a range of cuisines that we might never eat. Like sports, you don’t have to play to be a member of the club.

Fieldwork Part 2: Hemophilia

Coming out of the field, two themes emerged again and again from our research: the idea of rite of passage and the importance of control.

Rites of passage in adulthood serve as a symbolic transition into a new state of being, with certain responsibilities, actions, benefits, and social roles. In the case of non-compliant sufferers of hemophilia, that transition was almost always lacking. There is no ritual of separation as parents continue to call several times a day. There is no statement by either the person with the disease or the people who care for them acknowledging that they are now responsible for their own life – not just figuratively, but literally. And so, our participants created it for themselves.

This process was entirely personal, and these young men found themselves in an extended transitional state, searching for a sort of resolution. Until that resolution was found, the medication became a target for asserting a sense of growing personal control. The medication and the needle became the symbol on which to hang a new sense of control and identity.

Control over the physical, psychological, and cultural state that had dominated every element of their lives was central to our participants’ move to a new identity. There is no cure for hemophilia, but, in gaining control over their identity and establishing themselves as something “beyond the disease”, they are reborn as someone “with hemophilia” rather than a ”hemophiliac”. They become a fully realized person, rather than being an extension of the disease.

Having finally identified our two major conceptual themes, we developed a new campaign centered on the passage into adulthood. Working with our creative team, we changed the conversation from one of vague rebellion to one of control. Taking control of your regimen is a symbolic rebirth. Taking control of infusion means leaving your past behind, not just following the same old pattern. The focus was on defining your future through medication and redefining being a “hemophiliac”. Treatment would be synonymous with stripping the disease of its power and ushering in a whole new world of possibilities defined by the person with the condition.

We also knew that a traditional campaign wouldn’t have legs if it didn’t have a digital extension, so we developed an entirely new web presence: a new, secure website focused on the aspects of transition to living away from home. We developed a private community with a focus on tips, not support. The term support conjured images of the meddling they were trying to escape. “Tips” conveyed shared knowledge and the sense of fostering a community from a group with similar experiences others can’t quite grasp. The community is closed to anyone who doesn’t have the condition or who hasn’t been invited into the conversation by someone with hemophilia. Control is exclusive to people with hemophilia, they have the power to limit or extend their world as they see fit.

At a more concrete level, users gain control over payment, appointments, and doctors. They gradually transition into managing their own care over time, with a series of guideposts, acknowledgements and reminders.  This led to developing a model that allowed content to be restructured to reflect where users were on the transitional/post-transitional continuum. Content could be assigned based on how long they had been out of their parent’s home, whether or not they were living alone, and whether or not they were working regularly with a medical team to address the disease. All of this provided tools to manage the transition to independence.

This website also provided these young men with an outlet for sharing their experiences and stories, moving them from a sense of isolation – it’s decidedly uncommon to find someone else with hemophilia in your circle of friends and acquaintances – to one of community. The upside of this was increased support, a sense of belonging, shared advice, and more sustained, expansive interaction. Not only did it help increase compliance, it also helped broaden the conversation to other young men with hemophilia who were using another medication to regulate the disease. Jacob, a 19-year-old electrician expressed it by saying, “There aren’t that many of us, so when we’re talking with each other it’s believable, it’s real. It keeps you honest.”  In other words, it built awareness of and consideration for our client’s medication. And it helped these young men feel like they were more than their disease.

The pharmaceutical industry is extremely conservative and generally fixated on data. While the industry does hire people to do more exploratory work, numbers rule the marketing landscape. For this reason, and the fact that this was the first time they had ever funded this type of research, we chose to set the stage by telling a story.

The response? In addition to giving the green light to all of our proposals, the client asked that we share the work throughout the company as a demonstration of the power of qualitative research.

In the end, getting our heads out of the data, rethinking the questions, and getting into the lives of these young men made all the difference to the brand, and, I’d like to think, the people coping with the disease day to day.

Art, Advertising, and Food

From da Vinci’s late-15th-century “Last Supper” to Dana Sherwood’s contemporary videos of cakes being devoured by baboons, to The Food Network’s Cake Wars, food and art have always been inseparable. No single generalization can blanket our engagement with food across the broad range of media, from oil on canvas to fermented cabbage, or the variety of actions undertaken, but we can explore universal whys behind our food. At its simplest level, food looks, tastes, and smells good. It is fundamental to our existence.

But beyond that we interact with food intimately, consume it, ingest it, digest it—and internalize it in multiple senses—and with multiple senses. Food defines ordinary life and special occasions alike. It can create pleasure and provoke shame. A vehicle for stories, it prompts nostalgia and inspires utopian dreams. It embodies generosity, community, culture. It causes pollution and contributes to climate change. It’s in the kitchen, at the drive-through, on TV, filling up Instagram. It is fast and slow, super and junk, street and Michelin-starred. As long as art has been made, artists have found in food an endlessly elastic metaphor, and today’s artists use it for varied investigations of the body, identity, gender, community, the domestic, the sacramental, economics, politics, and the environment. 

Food is a basic human necessity. Art exists far down the continuum of biological need. Yet both serve to define Homo sapiens as a species. Humans are the only animals that cook and the only ones to create symbolic representations of reality. These two acts—the essential and the essentializing—have repeatedly converged in human history. From the beginning, in fact.

Since the creation of the cave paintings at Lascaux, food’s visual form has presented a challenge to virtuosity, inviting artists to imitate reality or redefine it. Food brings to the table the enduring themes of desire and transience. Food is an important aspect of how we document ourselves and our lives, even though it is very mundane. It isn’t just something we consume, it’s something we do. It’s not just a critique of other people but an introspective act.

Food is a medium with which to create emotion and, through emotion, to convey ideas. Caravaggio’s painted figs and apples expressed a poignant truth about time’s corrosive effect on beauty. Perhaps the same can be said about how we create advertisements for hamburgers, coffee, or tofu. Perhaps the same should be said. The outcomes of food-based advertising are irreconcilably different and dependent on its cultural role; the starting point is not.

Fieldwork Part 1: Hemophilia

David has hemophilia. Three days a week, he wakes up, showers, dresses, and sticks a needle into a vein. He’s been doing this since he was a child. He does this three days a week, for fifteen minutes each time, because if he doesn’t, a fall or scrape can land him in the hospital – or a coffin. This needle is a reality he’s lived with all 22 years of his life and one he will carry to the grave. It is, and always has been, a symbol of who he is. It has defined his life.

It would seem on the surface that medication compliance would be a non-issue. But for the makers of blood clotting drugs used to treat the disease, it turns out that managing this very necessary element to living with hemophilia is not as simple as it seems. Quite simply, young men (women very rarely suffer from hemophilia) are not particularly good about taking medication, even when that medication is essential to living a healthy life.

From the time they are children these individuals have limitations imposed upon them. Playing with others is often curtailed, parents hover, and they grow up constantly under a watchful eye. As one of our participants, John, explained as we sat in the Seattle apartment he shares with a couple of fellow college students:

“My mom and dad were everywhere, all the time. I get it, but it fucked with me, too. I couldn’t play sports until I was in high school. My mom controlled my infusion schedule and always checked to make sure I’d done it. So, when I went to college, yeah, I kind of slacked off. I don’t think it was some sort of rebellion, I mean, I wasn’t angry. But there’s a kind of freedom I’d never had before, and you take advantage of that, I guess. People can’t imagine what it’s like to shove a needle into their body twice a week, every week, and spend 15 minutes slowly pumping yourself full of your medicine.”

The transition from adolescence into adulthood can be difficult, but when chronic illness is a central marker of identity, that transition becomes harder for young men who have lived in a framework of dependence. Taking care to infuse means being able to engage in every activity they choose with the people around them, but there are a host of reasons to let treatment slide; some functional, such as time management, and some symbolic, like telling the disease to fuck off. 

The fieldwork noted that the role of shared space vs. private living space – often very limited – had an enormous impact on compliance. The first evidence of this point was the role of the refrigerator. Because the medication needs to be kept cold until use, it has to be stored in the refrigerator. Having the medication on public display was embarrassing and inevitably led to questions by both roommates and visitors. That meant that he and his medical condition were suddenly thrust into the spotlight, focusing attention not on the person, but the person as his illness. The second shared space vs. private space problem was finding a place to infuse. The process takes about 15 minutes and while it wasn’t hard to find time to do it, the patient needed to avoid interruptions, excuse himself and ensure some degree of privacy. Because this could be difficult or embarrassing, he might simply forego treatment.

House hygiene was another issue, especially in a shared environment. When we entered one apartment, as might be expected, I had to search to find a space that was free of pizza boxes, clothes, or textbooks. Keeping infusion equipment clean, keeping the bathroom clean, keeping the refrigerator clean, etc. was often a point of contention. Because the person with hemophilia is dependent on others to help keep a clean environment, it was often simply easier to skip infusion than to confront or manage the living situation with roommates.

But the environment is only one of the issues impacting these men; social and psychological changes are another. After moving away from home, young men with hemophilia encounter a degree of personal freedom that they have never experienced before. The wide range of limitations placed on these young men growing up are suddenly gone and learning how to handle it is the problem. There is a significant resistance to personal and social childhood limitations, the result being that finally getting involved in intramural football isn’t enough. As one participant, Brent, told us, “Hell yes, I did stupid things. I had someone watching everything I’ve done for my whole life. So you go a little bat-shit when you’re on your own.”

Resistance might mean drunken Twister, midnight wrestling, or skateboarding without a helmet. In one instance, I had the dubious honor of “officiating” an arm-wrestling contest that was fueled by shots of Fireball – not something you drink when planning an evening of rich conversation. I watched as our participant had his hand driven into the table by a friend who was considerably larger. Under normal circumstances this would have hurt, in this instance, had the participant not been infusing, it could have been life-threatening. 

Chronic illnesses can shape a life-long sense of self, and adulthood is the first time these young men have control over how the world sees them. Social bonding becomes more important than managing the disease because for the first time, they can simply be “Steve”, not “Steve the hemophiliac”. This sometimes leads to a more exaggerated expression than you see with the typical 18-year-old man. And it often leads to less compliance as the young man finds himself expressing his identity in opposition to the illness.

Not taking the medication is dangerous, but it’s also empowering. One participant, Jason, lived with two other young men in a small apartment, strewn with the standard debris of college life. For him, this wasn’t just a matter of letting the housekeeping slide a bit, it was a way of demonstrating his sense of independence. And while his infusion tools were kept clean and away from the chaos of the apartment, there was a haphazard element to their storage that fit the overarching theme of making a break with the past. “I know it’s stupid, but at least I’m in control. Not my mom. Not the disease.”

Technicolor Malt Liquor and All-Night Fieldwork

In its original formulation, Sparks was one of the first alcoholic beverages to contain caffeine. Its other original active ingredients included taurine, ginseng, and guarana, the backbone ingredients of traditional energy drinks. It also contained 6% alcohol. Packaged in a can that looked like a AAA battery, its labeling boldly and loudly stated all of its ingredients and its 6% alcoholic content by volume.  Its flavor was similar to other energy drinks mixed with malt liquor, having a tart, sugary, synthetic taste. Its color was a vibrant day-glow orange. All of this added up to a drink that catches the eye. Sparks was a catalyst for exploring a wilder side. It was what you took to a party, a kickball game, a rave or an outdoor concert.

Ethnography involves significantly more than one-on-one interviewing. The whole humankind is riven with contrasting practices, cultures, tongues, traditions and world views. A cultural context may exist on levels as diverse as a workplace, a family, a building, a city, a county, a state, a nation, a continent, a hemisphere etc. A cultural context provides a shared understanding of meaning provides a framework for what “works” in the world. It is what helps you recognize “your kind” in all senses of the word. Getting at this sort of knowledge can’t be uncovered exclusively through the interview process. So in the case of Sparks, this meant meeting with our key informants and their friends. It meant going out on the town and being part of the activities, not just asking about them. Inevitably, this led us to bars, parties, etc. Being in the moment, taking advantage of unexpected fieldwork situations to gather information, became the unspoken mantra of the research.

And it is out of these moments that good insights, not just data points, begin to emerge. In one case we found ourselves at the apartment of a 28-year-old male living on the Upper East Side. He had gotten into the recruitment mix because he was making under $50,000 a year (the majority of Sparks drinkers were not affluent and so the client had asked that we cap the incomes). However, the participant, Marco, was taking time off from his job as the head of social media for a major clothing brand. At the time he left he was making upwards of $300,000. So Marco had gotten into the mix on a technicality. He clearly fell outside the segmentation scheme, but as it turned out, our day with Marco was instrumental to the success of the project. As it turned out, while he stocked his pantry with high-quality wines and liquor, he was also an avid Sparks fan. Not so much for its energy properties, and certainly not the flavors, but because it allowed him to reconnect with what he saw as his rebel past. Marco recounted his early years in New York, struggling to get by and living a romanticized quasi-punk existence. Every Sunday, Marco would spend the day in Brooklyn with his pre-affluence friends building and riding mutant bikes and the searching out the “worst” or “most ridiculous” drink possible. For Marco, and for almost all the Sparks fans we met, Sparks became something that not only gave them symbolic license to act in ways they normally wouldn’t, but also provided them with a sense of connection to their youth.

While each individual and situation in the fieldwork was unique, patterns did emerge. And when things started to click, it was precisely because we’d found ourselves engaged in the absurd. The questions that needed to be asked and the observations that need to take place could have only happened by breaking away from traditional methods.

Sparks isn’t as simple as the obvious functional benefits or flavor. It’s property that is guarded, like someone’s stash. It’s a mechanism for rekindling friendships. It’s an excuse to treat life as performance art. And most importantly, it’s a symbol that tells everyone the drinker has license to break the rules and to turn the night into something absurd. Inevitably, when you’re drinking Sparks, the expectation is that you’ll be out late engaging in the unexpected. In one case it meant heading to a rave in in the Bronx, followed by a sunrise trip to Hoboken to find a place that served legendary waffles. In another, it set the stage for semi-nude wrestling on the front lawn in the cold and damp of a Portland winter. The important thing to take away from this is that a pattern of behavior emerged that we wouldn’t have gotten had had we simple conducted an interview or run a survey. We had to be in the moment. That’s how you change the game.