Local Marketing, More Than Geography?

There is a belief current amongst marketing professionals that the mass market is starting to break down, and instead of an easy to target homogenous consumer groups in a mass market, the market for many products is dividing into large number of niches, that could make mass market products redundant. Now, I would be disinclined to agree with such a blanket statement (I think it’s flat wrong), but I would be inclined to agree that local marketing and hyperlocal marketing are increasingly taking center stage and will continue to grow in importance in the coming years.  “Local” means a lot in marketing these days, from search rankings and profiles to location-based games and apps.  Hyperlocal further refines this by defining itself as focusing on a very specific area, very close to home (or, your place of business.).  But, what “very close” means is relatives and apps follow us everywhere.  So what is the underlying feature, the truth so to speak, behind localization?  I believe is has less to do with physical proximity than it does with social and cultural proximity.

For example, hyperlocality plays a large role in a homogeneous suburb, perhaps, but within that suburb, and spread across a metro, there will be subgroups that will travel fairly large distances to shop at a store, attend a church, etc. es, they are affinity groups, but with physical location becoming less a factor than social location, and with the advent of being constantly dialed into the network, local and hyperlocal marketing means rethinking demographic data and how we visualize the populations we are targeting.

The important feature is that if people feel a connection to the store, they are more likely to pay attention to its marketing materials.  This is part of a social phenomenon that exists independently of any one individual’s perceptions or experiences. Such a feeling may be derived from the natural environment, but is more often made up of a mix of natural and cultural features in the setting, and generally includes the people who occupy the place. The point is that the stronger the bond at the local level, the more likely the customer is to buy.

When you’re trying to promote a business, regardless of size and reach, every little thing that you do needs to be thought out before hand. You are more than a business, you are part of the community and social fabric. Understanding the complexities of the communities you serve is central to establishing long-term relationships and sales.


Marketing More Than Features: Windows to the Soul

We spend an awful lot of time marketing features to individuals; neat little segments that correspond to the demographic data we glean from surveys and similar devices.  We talk about features, function and material benefits. The catch is that people work, live and think in terms of a socio-cultural system. That means they are frequently doing more than buying things and that the reasons for their choices (and the marketing they respond to) are more complex than what the numbers tell us.  As an example, look at how we frequently market something as seemingly functioanl as windows.The window is more than glass.  It holds symbolic meaning on numerous levels and tells us a great deal about a culture, a time frame, the nature of a place, etc.  It is a liminal juncture that serves as both gateway between the inside and the outside world. Liminality is a period of transition where normal limits to thought, self-understanding, and behavior are relaxed – a situation which can lead to new perspectives. One’s sense of identity dissolves to some extent at this juncture. These can range from borders at the entry to a house to airports or hotels, which people pass through but do not live in. The window is a transparent border and signifies a powerful transition between the inside and the outside world.  The window signifies the border between Place and Space.

Not surprisingly, there seems to be a great deal of discussion around curtains, blinds and the ways by which we frame our windows. In some cases these mechanisms are primarily functional, serving to block out interaction with the outside world and limit the ability to look into the closed space of the home.  They serve to cut off interaction.  In other instances they define the environment, framing the outside world in an ornate display that turns it almost into an abstraction. The frame signals that what is going on outside is beyond the bounds of the lived experience.  It also signifies that the window is something special, something with meaning and power, to the person or people within the home.

There is a powerful concept in Japan around the idea of uchi and soto. The basic concept revolves around dividing people into in-groups and out-groups. When speaking with someone from an out-group, the out-group must be honored, and the in-group humbled. This is achieved with special features of the Japanese language, which conjugates verbs based on both tense and politeness.  One of the complexities of the uchi-soto relationship lies in the fact that groups are not static; they may overlap and change over time and according to situation. Obviously, the concept applies to space, place and the transitions between the two.  The transitions are usually visibly marked in some way to signal that the dynamic of an interaction is about to change. The window works on a similar principle.

So what does this mean for someone designing or marketing windows, curtains, blinds, etc.? It means that the window is more than a series of feature and price points. It means that people endow windows with special meaning and that the things we use to frame them and reflect the cultural lives and realities of the people using them, and that changes the message entirely.  How does the window fit into the concept of “home?” What are the various meanings of “home” and how do you design or market to those?  As with so many things, it isn’t about the product, it’s about where the product fits into a person’s life.  Speak to those things and you’ve changed the nature of the conversation between the product, the brand and the people involved in the buying decision.

When “Bad” Interviews Go Good, Part 1

Contrary to what people say, there is rarely such a thing as a bad fieldwork experience.  I won’t say never, because they do happen. But more often than not, what the client would be inclined to look at as a bad interview, event, etc. is in fact an opportunity.  There is always a chance to learn something and things like outliers often shed light on the larger cultural patterns and lead to innovation.  Case in point, when doing work for a large brewer some time back, we were given very clear, though perhaps suspect criteria we were to recruit against.  But one participant proved that you can’t always think of your target audience in such cleanly defined terms.  In this case, it was Roberto (and yes, names have been changed to protect the innocent).

We arrived at Roberto’s Upper East Side apartment at 11:00 a.m. on a cold, bright Sunday morning ready as we would ever be to talk about beer. We had been out the night before with another participant until 4:00 a.m., touring the Washington Heights haunts and listening to the stories of old Dominican men reminiscing about the old country and young men recounting their exploits from night before.  It had been a very productive night in terms of the fieldwork, and it had been a unique pleasure to be invited into the group, not so much as an outsider but as something approaching a friend.  So, on this cold January morning, with only a few hours of sleep under my belt, I wasn’t sure what my colleague and I could expect.  We knew the basics (I had spent an hour or so on the phone with Roberto leading up to our visit), but were not sure what a late Sunday morning in a reasonably erudite section of Manhattan might tell us about domestic beer consumption.  As it turned out, it told us quite a bit.

Roberto’s apartment didn’t overlook Central Park, but the building did – clearly this 29 year old man who came from Michigan to New York only seven years prior had done well for himself.  Roberto buzzed us in and we headed up to the 18th floor.  Roberto answered the door and graciously invited us into his home.  Fieldwork begins with the subject and so our participant’s greeting moments began the analysis.  Contrary to the image he had tried to project in the initial phone call with us, Roberto was anything but “exotic” (his phrase, not mine) in appearance or bearing.  A very handsome young man of slightly above-average height, with medium-length light brown hair and blue eyes, but not someone you expected to be named “Roberto” – as it turned out, he had added the “o” to his name only several years before.  Consequently, I assumed there would be an interesting story and I was not disappointed, though the story turned out differently than I anticipated, and in an important way. Cold as it was outside, his apartment was very warm, with numerous lush plants scattered strategically about the living room. Roberto was dressed in beat-up tan shorts and a grey polo.  On the inside of his left upper arm was a tattoo of a bicycle, but done in such a way as be stylistically of a Neolithic cave drawing.  As it turned out, the tattoo, like the name were extremely important in the end.

The apartment was neither lavish nor ostentatious, but it was as large as the home of the participant the night before, an apartment that had been shared with his younger brother and mother.  This was not the home of a pauper or someone simply wanting a more status-oriented zip code.  Roberto’s tastes were minimalist in nature, but there were original works of art in the living room and two bed rooms, one of which served as an office and home studio, and the electronics he owned were very high quality.  His wine rack was well stocked and several expensive bicycles, each designed for a different environment, hung from the high ceiling in the foyer.

When we had spoken with Roberto originally, he had told us that he wasn’t currently making more than $60,000 a year and in fact, this was the case.  He had just taken a “sabbatical,” as he termed it to focus on selling his art, but was planning to return to his job in about a week.  As it turned out, at the ripe old age of 29, Roberto was pulling in a little over $600,000 a year running the interactive strategy department for a fashion designer.  The initial inclination for most market researchers would have been to stop the interview on the grounds that the participant was outside the demographic target provided by the client (which he was).  But being an ethnographer my first thought was that if a man who clearly did not need the money from participating in the study and who in every way other than income met the criteria laid out by the client was interested in inviting me into his life for a few hours, then surely there was something important to be explored here.  This isn’t to say we did not find a replacement for Roberto, we did, but also made a point of remembering we were in the exploration moment and that we had an opportunity. As it turned out, we were absolutely right.

Roberto made $600k a year and was “poor on the weekend.” He stressed how, 6 years earlier, he had lived in squalor in the Lower East Side and had often had to make the decision between two 40s or a 40 and a slice of pizza.  (If you aren’t familiar with what I mean when I say “a 40,” head to the web and get dialed in.)  I’ve said it before, but I’ll stress it again: Being a collective drink means that beer choices are shaped by season, the socio-cultural roles we assume in different contexts, identity, the invention of tradition, etc. “Identity” arises when an individual constructs and presents any one of a number of possible social identities, depending on the situation.  Roberto’s 40 was a cheap drink, yes, but it was also so much more.  But more about that in Part 2.

Cultural Analysis: or why traditional marketing is for idiots

What anthropologists do is study context and culture.  We study meaning.  We study the interconnectedness between humans, their environments, their institutions, etc.  And yet, somehow conducted a two hour interview has become the standard. I have watched ethnography be co-opted by any lack-whit with access to the internet, a reasonably good smile and an ability to translate the facile into the language of his/her handlers, namely people looking for a quick, cheap, easy answer to a problem they more often than not constructed after glancing at Wired (note I said “glancing,” not “reading”).  “I do my own taxes so now I am an accountant.  Let me do your taxes, too.”  Brilliant.  The catch is that for anyone wanting to actually learn about the people they sell thing to, there is an alternative to anthro-lite.  But part of that recognition begins in understanding that anthropologists and the outcomes of our field work are not about psychographic, demographics or anything quite so limited.  We begin with culture and look for the linkages between actions, meaning and people.  The individual doesn’t mean much when context isn’t factored in.

We begin with cultural analysis.  This means that the kinds of questions we ask of data in most traditional research doesn’t apply. And so the answers are different as well.  By focusing on the sociocultural rather than a construct/demographic dreamed up in a boardroom one afternoon we uncover the symbolic meanings, practices, a situations around people’s lives.  The system is the unit of inquiry, rather than interpersonal emotions and individual psychological processes.  We are all culturally saturated beings and it is in understanding the interplay between people in context that we gain real insights.  Think of a series of hubs and spokes. Traditional research typically looks at the hubs in isolation. A cultural analysis seeks to identify the hubs, the spokes and why they are configured the way they are.  It looks beyond the obvious and explores a much, much broad web of meaning.  Let’s put it into focus, shall we?

Consider something as simple as mouth wash.  Taste is only one element.  We look for the symbolic cultural meanings, categories, creations, contradictions, and practices that govern people’s actions. And so the questions build.  What is clean? How is a clean mouth different from a clean floor?  What can you clean your mouth with? What makes it different from cleaning the floor? What symbolic associations are made with the mouth?  With the dentist? Can your mouth be clean but still produce bad breath? Are there different types of bad breath?  Is mouthwash something you hide? What does it mean to be a good, clean person?

Thinking in these terms starts, hopefully, to move the conversation away from just another form of the survey and turn it into something both meaningful and powerful.  But anyone can do it, right?  Well, yes and no.  I will not go so far as to say the researcher needs advanced degrees in anthropology or sociology (though it does help), but they do need to understand the social theories and analytical tools used to make sense of what, in the broadest context, is going on.  They need to embrace a worldview that understands the relative unimportance of statistics to innovation and the fact that individuals are, beyond the level of the organism, fictions.  Simply having the gift for gab doesn’t cut it.  In addition, there are, I am sad to inform, people who are simply better at it than others.  I have a friend who works for NASA doing extremely complex math in order to put fast moving objects on other fast moving objects in space.  Try as I might, I will simply never have the intellectual capacity or mathematical streak that Andy has – I will simply never be able to do what he does. Similarly, I will never have the capacity to paint that my brother has.  And yet, every jackass with a video camera is now an ethnographer.  Pissy as that may sound, it isn’t meant to be overly hostile.  No, it is meant to convey that there are people in the world through a mix of training, practice and natural inclination tend to see things in terms of patterns, symbols and shared cultural experiences.

Ultimately, cultural analysis is a different way of thinking and seeing the world. It is not just another explanation for what has been turned into another buzz word, namely ethnography.  This is precisely it’s value and power.