Brand Affinity, Culture, and a Pickup Truck

Brand affinity is the most enduring and valuable level of customer relationship and is based on the mutual belief that the customer and the company share common values. It breeds unshakable trust in the relationship the brand and the consumer share. It is at its strongest level when a customer believes that your brand champions the values they both share. Consumers who demonstrate affinity for a brand buy more, buy more often, and complain less than all other types of consumers. And the surest way to build brand affinity is to tap into the deep, culture truths your consumers hold. As an example, let’s talk about that most iconic of American driving, the pickup truck.

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The pickup truck has become an essential part of Western culture. Trucks are the symbolic embodiment of the hard-working American spirit. Even though trucks are needed and valued for their usefulness in farming, ranching and blue collar occupations, many, if not most, truck owners do precious little in the way of physical labor – spend a few hours driving through the pricier suburbs of Houston or Denver and it becomes abundantly clear that the truck is as much a cultural statement as it is a tool. According to a study conducted by Hedges & Company, truck owners spend a considerable amount of money on customizing their trucks, with 45 percent spending at least $1,000 and 17 percent spending at least $3,000 making alterations and refinements. The most common components customized are wheels and tires (36 percent), audio and video (29 percent), exterior trim (29 percent) and exhaust systems (19 percent). The high value that pickup truck owners place on their trucks and the amount of money that they spend in aftermarket products makes sense when you consider the fact that 64 percent consider their truck as an extension of their personalities.

Seems like a pretty straightforward discussion so far, but pause for a moment and try to picture the typical pickup owner. Visions of a guy in his 20s or 30s immediately come to mind. And while that’s clearly the target audience, it also represents a marketing plateau – there’s simply a cap on how many of these people exist. So where might other opportunities lie? What potential market is being overlooked. Well, let’s try women. When I was doing fieldwork with women who owned trucks, only one of the 30 participants owned a truck as a function of her occupation. Several used it as a means of establishing a sense of identity that said to the world, “I’m not a girlie girl.” Still more used it as a way of asserting a sense of strength on the highway. Some used it as a way of maintaining a connection with their past rural (or semi-rural) lives. The point is that the truck became an extension of themselves and utility played a minor role in the underlying reasons they chose it over a car or an SUV. And interestingly, the brands they chose most often were Toyota and Ford. They were seen as either more accepting of diversity because they weren’t part of the traditional American pickup market (Toyota) or because they harkened back to a simpler time (Ford). Dodge, on the other hand, was seen as embodying masculinity to the point of misogyny and Chevy, as one consumer put it, was “a truck for boys”. Toyota and Ford pickups fit easily into their cultural identity, Dodge and Chevy did not. The result is that the women who own Toyota and Ford pickups express extreme loyalty to the brands and say they are significantly more inclined to advocate for them. Considering the economic power of women, that’s a great place to be in.

So why does it matter? It matters because it speaks to the fact that the products we own and use, whether they are thought of by their manufacturers and retailers as utilitarian or extravagances, are reinterpreted and redefined by their owners and that is a huge opportunity for marketers. The truck is a fashion piece. It’s a toy. It is a way of stating you’re part of a tribe. And just as trucks have a range of unexpected meanings, so to do laptops, beer brands, eye glasses, etc. Regardless of your product or service, understanding the cultural elements of a brand gives build stronger connection to your consumers.

 

 

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Post Pop: Identity as Brand

How Brands Shape Identity (And Why It Matters)

Coming out of anthropology, I have always been interested in social and cultural interaction, identity, and how we display ourselves in a public venue. This interest was driven to the forefront of my mind again recently when attending Indy Pop Con, an event dedicated to cosplay, anime, comics, and gaming. Because brands that have the most resonance and sustainability are focusing more and more on cultural groups as significant points of marketing, it becomes increasingly important to understand the nuances of who is actually speaking and being spoken to in specific contexts. Whether it’s cosplay, choosing your next car, or even buying beer, there is a central question we need to ask ourselves: how do self-presentation strategies impact who people choose to be in a given context and how does that shape marketing?

Identities Change. Anthropologist Erving Goffman used the imagery of the theater to portray the importance of social action. But unlike others who have used this metaphor, he took all elements of acting into consideration. A person’s main goal is to keep his coherence, and adjust to the different settings offered him. In other words, whether in the real world, the virtual world, or the juncture where the two meet, we negotiate what we let people know about ourselves and by extension, how we feel about a brand. Take gender, for instance. Marketers frequently target based in part on gender. We build campaigns with women or men in mind. However, for many people, especially younger people, the notion of a binary gender construct is becoming a thing of the past. And in virtual environments, players to switch genders fairly freely. Whether we’re talking about cosplay, gender, or anything else, what this means is that how people perceive themselves is more fluid than it has been in much of the past. Companies that don’t take these notions of identity into account in their marketing and advertising efforts do more than miss an opportunity. They risk alienation through irrelevance. Now, here’s where shit gets nerdy – yeah, I’m putting that out there. For those who aren’t that excited by the nerdy, skip the next paragraph.

Importantly, we don’t simply adopt personas as a façade; it’s much deeper than that. Identity is constructed according to context. The theoretical model used in anthropology and sociolinguistics is rooted in the idea that we construct identity – that we create or adapt both inward and outward expressions of ourselves in accordance with the moment. Think of it as a form of high-stakes theater. In a social interaction, as in a theatrical performance, there is an onstage area where actors (individuals) appear before the audience; this is where positive self-concepts and desired impressions are offered. But there is, as well, a backstage – a hidden, private area where individuals can be themselves and drop their societal roles and identities. This backstage makes it no less “real” – it simply means different notions of identity apply.

As we communicate with people, we share different parts of ourselves, adopting slightly different personas, so to speak, to reflect the context. We display and act upon sides of our personalities we want to stress with one person but conceal with another. That doesn’t make us less “authentic.” Rather, authenticity is dependent on the situation. In a nutshell, communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.

Now, back to the less geeky stuff. What this means from a marketing and advertising perspective is that people gravitate toward brands that they can adapt to a given context. People (because we’re talking about human beings, not consumers) will choose brands that are congruent with their self-image. In this particular way each person on an individual basis will try to reflect his or her own identity through choice. When part of a larger social group, those choices tend to converge to a certain pattern thus forming the basics of contextual identity.  For example, a woman may choose to buy a pair of Doc Marten’s as an act of ubiquitous self-expression. If the she considers herself a post-punk soccer mom, the boots are also a visual expression of being part of the middle-aged-once-a-punk tribe. Individuals try to express their identity through all means they have at their disposal. By choosing a particular brand, a person reaffirms both her own and her tribe’s perception about her desired identity. As a result, people use brands both to reassure themselves and to signal others what kind of person they are. In other words, the brands we chose send a message about who we are in different contexts. The brands we chose are communication tools we use to express our different personas.

Putting It into Practice. So what is a brand to do when it comes to marketing and advertising? What do we do with this idea of the fluid, contextual self? Simply put, think differently:

  • Think in terms of building your share of culture. The stronger the associations people have between your brand and their cultural affinity, the more likely they are to see your brand as inseparable from their own identity. That builds more than loyalty, it builds an unbreakable link between your brand and how they see the world.
  • Contextualizing the brand. This doesn’t mean abandoning a consistent brand message. Rather, it means creating a brand, campaign, or messaging platform that can adapt according to the contexts in which it will be used. Know the cultural standards of your audiences and design a plan that fits their worldviews in a given context.
  • Build flexible strategies. Brand and campaign strategies should be thought of in terms of ecosystems, not pillars, where every channel plays a unique role in relation to the audiences. This allows your message to remain relevant as people shift from one contextual persona to another.
  • Don’t throw out the segmentation just yet. Segmentation schemes are still useful for speaking to macro-behaviors and broader cultural patterns. That means they represent a good starting point when developing a marketing plan. But they are a starting point. Don’t let them become the end all and bee all of your strategy.
  • Mediocrity breeds indifference. Be willing to create buzz, even if some of that buzz is occasionally negative – it’s better to be loved by many than to be liked by all. Learn to be comfortable with the fact that depending on the context, a brand is interpreted and used differently. This isn’t to say it’s a free for all, but it does mean that much of the conversation around the brand will occur in unexpected ways. Turn that to your advantage.
  • Finally, remember that people want a reason to embrace your brand and will find a way to do it if your brand helps them reaffirm their identity.

While only a generation or two ago one’s identity was prescribed according to traditional groupings of class, religion, nationality, region, race, etc., the world has today rapidly become one enormous, fluid and unstructured mass where identity is more nebulous. Brands have become badges, controlled as much by the buyers we don’t understand as the ones we do. A brand’s strength is semiotic in nature. It provides a message for an individual as much as a product, retail setting, service, etc. A shopper isn’t just buying a hammer or a pair of shoes.  He is buying an adjective, a sense of self, a membership pass into one of several “tribes” to which he belongs. Knowing that gives you significantly greater power in the marketplace.

 

 

Myths, Symbols, and Advertising

Mythology is perhaps the most archaic and profound record we have of our collective spirit. It creates and defines our experiences. From the inception of cave art, and presumably long before that, we find myth and myth-making as a fundamental element in relating to the mysteries of life, the cosmos and the world around us. It goes beyond recounting the day’s events and the mundane, giving life to the essence of what it means to be human. Myth is the symbolic revelation of eternal “truths”, an expression of our collective psyche and our role in the unfolding of the universe. As it relates to brands and marketing, it reminds us, or should remind us, that while features are central to a product, they are only a portion of what drives us to select one thing over another. If we think about brands as myth, as stories conveying something grand and extraordinary, we generate more than a passing interest in the consumer, we establish a connection to something transcendent, something that speaks to the underlying need to find meaning in the world.

In this case, I return to the idea of the universal hero in myth. Why? Because beyond buying a product to fulfill a functional need, we frequently seek out products and brands that allow us to step into a role that is greater than ourselves.  There are certain patterns which recur across cultures regardless of time and distance. Jung called these patterns and Joseph Campbell immortalized them for the non-scholar. And while there undoubtedly flaws in the possibly essentializing nature of their analyses, the fact remains that the underlying currents of these archetypes hold true, regardless of the minutia.  Archetypal images embody the most essential elements of the human drama. The trickster, the hero, etc. manifest themselves across space and time. They are a repertoire of instinctive human functioning. As an example, consider the archetype of the universal hero.

As it relates to marketing and advertising, we pay attention to stories that have conflict, resolution and challenges that allow us to project ourselves into the role of the protagonist.  A problem (i.e. monsters/struggles) is overcome by brands (i.e. hero/ heroine) reestablishing order in the universe.  The hero myth tells us that the character’s courage to suffer the burdens of fear and the conflicts within his personality set him apart. In myth, the ego is banished to a world full of opposites which war with each other within the personality. Out of the conflict something new and marvelous emerges. The journey of the hero typically includes most of the following stages:

  • The Call: the character leaves his ordinary life to enter an unusual and often supernatural world.
  • The Trial: there she/he encounters one or a number of challenges.
  • The Reward: a boon the hero receives as a result of his trials, usually accompanied by a new knowledge of self and the cosmos.
  • The Return: the hero must consciously decide to return to his world, sharing the new-found knowledge. Here the hero applies her/his new skills, powers, and understandings to somehow make his world a better place.

The advertising for Dodge Ram trucks often follows this motif, tying the truck (and the driver) to overcoming a series of challenges that only this brand can cope with. The driver is able to step in where other brands fail and vanquish the problem. He emerges stronger, wiser and more powerful than his counterparts. Similarly, cleaning products frequently do this.  The would be heroine is confronted with an impossible task of cleaning a bathroom. Armed with a specific brand, she not only vanquishes the problem (the monster), but is able to demonstrate both her prowess and knowledge to other members of the family, sharing the product/hidden knowledge with other members of the group.

Another mythological archetype that appears frequently in advertising is the Trickster. The trickster is a figure who plays tricks or otherwise disobeys normal rules and conventional behavior.  The trickster figure, whether as a deity, folk hero or literary figure breaks the rules of the society, the gods or nature, usually, albeit unintentionally, with ultimately positive effects.  With the help of his wits and cleverness, he evades or fools monsters and dangers with unorthodox manners. Therefore the most unlikely candidate passes the trials and receives the reward. The character of Mayhem as a representation of the Allstate brand or the Trix Rabbit represent the archetypal motif of the trickster. And they work because, like the hero, they conform to an underlying, universal storyline that entertains, teaches, and makes sense of the world.

Why does any of this matter? It matters because advertising and marketing far too often engage at the superficial level of the mind. They sell features and, occasionally, benefits. While that may be good for point of purchase or short-term gains, it does nothing for establishing a brand as something enduring. If you think in terms of designing a message or a campaign from the standpoint of mythical archetypes, you create something powerful, moving and universal. You create devotion. It certainly does nothing to turn a brand and its story into something iconic, something we share. And without that, a brand isn’t a brand at all, it is a commodity.

 

Making Tech Sexy: Share of Culture and Building Brands

The old advertising model advocated the creation of an external brand image to influence consumers. It talked about benefits, it talked about the company, it promised to give you sex appeal. Those times are long past. This is partly due to the sheer number of channels in which people interact, but we believe there is a deeper reason. And that deeper reason is that successful brands both reflect and transform culture. In other words, talking about what you do is no longer enough. To compete in today’s landscape, you have to convey why you exist and connect it to how people experience their world.

Today we’re seeing that certain issues which used to be considered secondary to a brand are suddenly primary. People are not just choosing the best, the sexiest, or the cheapest. They’re choosing brands that have meaning. Their concept of nature, of self, of society takes center stage. And this is where brands are taking on a new and intriguing role.

So, what role does brand play in this landscape? The simple answer is that brands become symbols for crafting identity. They introduce, reflect, and influence meaning. The most resonant brands are creating value not just by the products or services they represent, but by the symbolic power they impart.

We believe that to be relevant and long-lasting, a brand must operate like a member of a culture. A company must share out its core values and articulate WHY it exists. A brand must stand for something and drive people to participate in it, become part of it. People want to belong to something bigger than themselves. People need to be part of a tribe. A

 How it relates to the creative process

We are not focusing on complex cultural concepts just for the sake of making people smarter. That’s completely useless if you can’t do anything with it. As such, we take the insights we uncover and integrate them into a creative strategy by asking questions such as: “What are the cultural forces and tensions that are acting on the consumer to influence how they perceive value?” or “What are the conventions or the categories that you may or may not want to disrupt?” The answers to these questions build a proposition to bridge between research findings and creativity that illuminates a new pathway to growth. Through that proposition, we are able to connect greater meaning to brands and grow share of culture. If you can understand the domain of culture, and actually use that understanding to build a strategy, you can increase relevance. Starting with a focus on cultural insights ultimately leads to looking at a problem from different perspectives.

Why do we take this particular approach? Because at a fundamental level we believe that when people make a purchase, whether it be a home, a new gaming system, a vacation package or whatever it is, they are actually using that product or service to add meaning to their lives. The meaning that has been created in the goods and services that everybody buys are not intrinsic to those goods and services, it’s actually our culture that says a diamond has more value than a ruby, and gold has more value than silver, an Apple mobile device has more value than a Nokia or what have you. If you come to marketing from that point of view, it suggests that the choice they’re making is actually very important to them. From that perspective, the marketer has a responsibility to do the right thing by those consumers, who are choosing a certain product in order to craft their identity. That means there are really no boundaries for clients and the emphasis becomes one of solving a problem rather than executing on a task. And quite simply, that sets up a brand for meaningful creative work.

Putting It Into Practice

So, what does all of this look like? Let’s take you through an example. BaM was asked by Microsoft to quickly come up with ideas for Windows Gaming’s VIP party for Gamescom in Cologne. Gamescom is the video game industry’s largest European event, with well over a quarter-million visitors and thousands of journalists, all looking to see advances in gaming technology. In other words, this is a very big, very visible event. And as with all such events, people are there to learn but also to have a good time, which of course means parties. But while Windows is a major platform for development and is home to a huge audience of PC gamers, it isn’t necessarily seen as the sexiest of brands. Windows needed two main things; 1) ideas to create buzz at the event and 2) a way to get VIPs to their party. Equally important, this was the event where Microsoft would premiere the auto racing game Asphalt 8, it’s newest release for Windows.

So, we began asking a very basic question. What makes a party meaningful? Through a series of interviews and recounting our own experiences with parties in a narrative-based brainstorm, we came to a very basic truth – a party is just another event, but a destination people want to actively be a part of. It creates a sense of excitement and suggests the promise of stories to come. For the attendee, a destination is something special, something tailored, something to live on after the drinking and dancing are done.

The next step was to gain a richer understanding of developer culture by thinking about them as a “culture of practice”. Culture of practice generally refers to the manifestation of a culture or subculture, especially in regard to the traditional and customary practices of a particular ethnic or other cultural group. In other words, what commonalities could we uncover in the developer tribe that we could speak to?  Two key insights bubbled to the surface. First, there are close links with driving culture in that machines are points of fascination. But the machine itself isn’t enough. They want to understand it, test it, experience what it can do. Design, how quickly it reacts, how it performs, etc. factor into a love of technology – it isn’t about the parts that make it up, it’s about the sum total of the experience. Second, developers have in the past been often overlooked at events like this. They are important and people listen to them, but once the technical discussions are over they have traditionally been relegated to the “geek” corner. Not anymore. Look at the two classic characteristics of geeks: social ineptitude and obsessive devotion to some pursuit. They’re neither social climbers nor rebels, because they are indifferent to how the world sees them. But those days are, in many ways, dead and buried. Cory Arcangel is a Damien Hirst­y hipster artist. Joss Whedon is not a geek but a talented hack writer in the tradition of Ben Hecht, capable of synthesizing junk culture in clever and knowing ways. The point being, developers are as much artists and rebels as anyone else. And they deserve recognition for it.

So, what if we paired the love of the machine with the cool factor of “geek culture”? Almost all of these developers are deeply familiar with the supercars in driving games like Asphalt 8, but how many have actually been in one? What if we created a taxi service involving high-end, high-performance cars? Even if our VIPs didn’t have a strong fascination with these amazing machines, they would jump at the opportunity to be in one. It spoke to the love of performance and technology, but also the sheer bad-assery of the design.

Knowing our venue was several miles from the event, it also provided an opportunity to do more than experience a pointless two-block ride – it let the passenger really feel the car. We found an incredible rental vendor and drivers to ferry our VIPs in Lamborghinis, Audi R8s, and Ferraris – the sort of things you might be familiar with if you were eagerly awaiting the next release of Asphalt.

The next step was to create awareness. Rather than sending an email or note that might never be seen, BaM created exclusive key cards, each featuring different 8-bit party icons for partygoers to present at the door. But for our select group of VIPs, we created cards featuring an illustration of an 8-bit car with handwritten phone number. Dialing that number landed them a ride to the club in our supercar taxi service. This did more than just get you to the event. It created a sense of exclusivity for the passenger and curiosity for the onlooker. It created buzz. Suddenly people were asking, what cool thing does Microsoft have going on and how do I get in?

Party Time

The cars and the buzz were great, but the party had to pay it all off. And this is where details matter most. BaM gave the club’s drink menu a redesign with retro-gaming themed names like Castle Key, Magic Elixir and Combo Move. The staff wore shirts featuring 8-bit artwork that corresponded to the drinks they were serving. And partygoers had the chance to play a sneak preview of Asphalt 8: Airborne on Surface tablets that were walked around by the staff.

Coolness is defined in many ways by the company you keep. In this case, the party did more than attract our guests. It produced both gatecrashers and a visit from the polizei – nothing says “successful party” like people from other organizations, like Google, trying to get in and the police showing up to manage the growing crowd outside the building.

Take Aways

Great story, yes, but why does it matter? At a practical level, we were able to demonstrate that Windows provides outstanding game quality. In other words, we were able to change perceptions about the brand (Windows is, it turns out, kind of cool) and the products. We did more than just make the case for the platform and the game, we generated increased interest and share of culture.

It also opened up new venues to sell games. By proving the products in a very public way, we could exploits Windows’ tremendous reach. We’re largely outside the App Store/Android battle. By demonstrating what Windows has to offer, it allows developers and designers to broaden their market, thus providing Microsoft with new partners, products, and prestige.

Finally, at a broader level we were able to start shifting perceptions of Microsoft and Windows. Added to the successes of the Surface Pro, the exclusive use of Windows products in DC universe programming, and an increasingly user-friendly operating system, this event helped the company capture a greater share of meaning in the broader culture. It helped move the conversation from moments of advertising and marketing, to part of a deeper, positive undercurrent. In other words, it helped capture a greater share of culture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Presentation as Storytelling

The goal of any good presentation is to change thinking, to shake the client’s foundations of belief, to rattle his or her assumptions, to create a new state a awareness. The presentation serves to evoke a feeling in the viewers, whether a client or a project team, and bring them into the moment of experience, compelling them to consider new ways of classifying and thinking about their world. It’s about the story. As with the impressionist tale (see VanMaanen  1988), the story is recounted including all the “odds and ends that are associated with remembered events.”  An audience should be drawn into the story created both by the author/editor and participant(s).Brand-Storyteller.png

Selective packaging of information to exemplify generalized constructs is a standard practice, even though the precise empirical situations in which the information is developed is perhaps far less coherent or obvious than the concepts they serve to illustrate.This is doubly so when addressing the needs of business and design teams with distinct,
targeted problems and limited time.  Our editorial choices make points clear in what might otherwise be murky waters – we make learning sexy.

The key to successful engagement is to move from structural aspects of a story to the symbolic, uncovering systems of meaning that resonate with clients and compel them to action. It should never be a series of bullet points. Why? Because a brand is a signal that triggers a field of meanings in the consumer’s mind. These meanings are conveyed directly and inferentially through stories. By harnessing the symbolic power behind these meanings, strong brands move beyond the codes governing a product category and enter the personal space of the consumer.  The same holds true for the client.  Through storytelling and presentation of symbolic codes, clients move from fixating on the product line and can rethink what the brand means in a wider context.

So what should we do?  First, strip it of text. The media tool is the comforting factor, not the content.  PowerPoint serves as a frame around which to build behavioral norms, but what appears on the screen should augment the story and add color. Second, just because you’re using PowerPoint, it doesn’t mean that you can alter the stage. A presentation is like a play – so why not do it “in the round?” Promote physical interaction and direct interaction between the audience members.  Finally, give people small tasks throughout the presentation so that they are not passive recipients of information but co-creators.  The more they engage the more they will take away.

 

Inspiration in a Hong Kong Market

1929770_17290858361_6526_n.jpgWhile doing work on a project related to nutritional supplements in Asia I had the distinct pleasure of getting away for a day and exploring one of the many markets in Hong Kong. For anyone interested in the relationship between food and culture, these sorts of excursions are tantamount to spending a day in the Elysian Fields. The sights, smells, sounds, and general crush of life can produce sensory overload, but they are worth every second. You might think that food is just food, but in reality, food is as much a part of society as money, politics, and taxes. The growing or gathering of food, its consumption, and our attitudes about it all reflect the state of the economy, social classes, and tradition. And it serves as a great reminder of how we think about analyzing the world around us.

I would contend that we owe the widespread popular fascination with all things food-related, whether in academics, shows like Hell’s Kitchen, or the random “food porn” selfie to these most ancient bazaars and culinary settings. There is something absolutely primal to the act of eating, yes, but also to the exploration of what we eat, whether through taste, texture, sight, or any other sense. Food, like language and religion, is a foundational part of the shared human experience, and something that marketing folks often overlook.

So what is food?1929770_17290663361_4068_n.jpg It’s not as obvious as it may seem. And know that food has been a fixture in the study of culture from the beginning, I would hesitate to give a single answer. But it seems that the question of what exactly bounds food itself is an object that has been ignored or over simplified in the world of marketing and design. And yet, it is the central question that lies at the heart of debates over the ethical, cultural, aesthetic, and political debates of GMOs, vitamin-fortified staples, enhanced water, MSG, and even pink slime. Defining what makes food more of less “real” is central to how we talk about it, and for manufacturers, how they market it. Much of what you see in a market like this would be labeled as gastronomically valid, but much of it would not. With all the various competing perspectives, And what is contested between the competing communities of food practice, so to speak, revolves on the privileging of various biological, cultural and technological elements of food – preparation, harvesting, storage, presentation, and packaging all fall within competing interpretations of what is “right”. The point being that the “yuck” factor we so often attribute to one food or another has more to do with how we interpret food than it does with anything biological. Culture and context shape our understanding and acceptance (or rejection) of it.

Why do I mention it? Because it has everything to do with how we market it. 1929770_17290758361_2521_n.jpgFood is symbolically charged. It is wrapped up in deeply held beliefs that we carry with us whether we know it or not. And it’s something we need to be constantly aware of when in the field or out of it. How we experience the world matters and how we craft it into something that resonates is about touching the heart and soul.

 

 

Finding Balance: Data, FIeldwork, and Creativity

There is perhaps nothing new about the ongoing battle between data and qualitative work, and the influence they have on creativity and design. Data is everything, creativity is dead vs. the argument that creativity is paramount and data is a distraction. Neither position is true, though there is some truth in each argument. The goal is to deliver insight that inspires creativity, regardless of the methods by which we gain those insights. The central need is to determine how data and inspiration work together to drive change.

As advertising, marketing, and design come to rely more on technology, we are forced to reconsider what constitutes creative quality. It also means being honest with ourselves and recognizing that data is not a panacea. It, like qualitative work, is part of a thinking process that helps identify the underlying story we need to divine and craft tools that inspire action. At times that can be found in the data alone, but more often it’s found among outliers. Without the two sides working hand in hand, we get half truths.

For marketers, nothing could better define both the essence and preeminence of creativity than empathy. We all recognize the pace of technological change and changing customer behaviors. And we all recognize there is tremendous opportunity in being able to derive greater targeting from the data we collect. But behavioral measurement shouldn’t lull us away from using the creative process to intuit what customers will experience, whether we’re trying to convince them to take an action or building a tool to meet a need. Data underpins everything, but meaningful success will come to those who can augment data with a deeper understanding of the audience. What role does symbolism play? What metaphors connect? How does the object we create make sense in their lives? These are the sorts of things we come to understand through deep immersion.

As an example, some years ago I did work on a medication used in treating schizophrenia. Based on the success rates and data collected about patient behavior, it should have been an easy product to market. However, the sales were flat. It wasn’t until we began examining the process of schizophrenia that we were able to tease out where the problems were. Access to transportation, difficulties with case management, distrust of the psychiatric community, and the role of friends and family all had a significant impact on how the medication was understood. This wasn’t the sort of thing you could get at via data analysis. And yet, using the two methods together allowed the team to develop creative work that resonated deeply and was targeted at the right place and the right time.

What we need to be doing is rebooting brand planning as a qualitative and a quantitative art. What designer, strategist, etc. tasked with building a tool or developing an engaging brand experience wouldn’t want to know a bit about how the audience for their art behaves? How they engage with content? How they engage with a device? But the trick is not getting caught up in the numbers at the expense of the human being behind them.