The bottled water company wanted to push the fact that it was, technically, a mineral water, not just a spring water. The bank wanted to impress with its global scale, because it was really big. The health insurance company wanted to show-case the surgical procedures its customers could access, because it could offer more than its competitors. The detergent manufacturer wanted to explain that smaller doses of its concentrate are as effective as older bulkier brands, because it had achieved a technical breakthrough in detergent production. The airline wanted to stress its ruthless efficiency and punctuality, because that’s what is was good at. The whiskey brand wanted to present itself as fashionable and cosmopolitan.
But consumers, it turned out, found ‘spring’ water a more appealing idea than ‘mineral’. The bank’s customers preferred to see it as a flexible friend not a scarey monster of a corporation. The last thing health insurance purchasers wanted to ponder was the details of surgery – they just wanted their kids to be safe. The idea that smaller is better was a contradiction in terms to rural housewives who grew up with the certainty that a bigger tractor is better. Whatever about getting from A to B, airline passengers wanted a modicum of human cosseting when hurtling through the air at 35,000 feet. And the whiskey drinkers were drinking the whiskey to get a nice homey feel, not to join a fashion parade.
Such are the trip-wires that face businesses when they only look inwards for the message to present to customers. Ordinary people have an inconvenient habit of seeing things their own way rather than admiring the specialist accomplishments of the companies they buy from. They are a bundle of contradictions – they want to be healthy, but they can’t resist a mouth-watering meat sandwich. Or they want their fish fresh, but they’re squeamish about the eyes. Or they’re usually a considerate bunch, but just not when they’re in the bubble of their cars.
For all these reasons, listening remains an unavoidable part of marketing and branding, and all the drum-beating and arm-twisting that goes with it. The best way of listening is – well, listening: talking face to face with a representative sample of your customers and letting the language spill out. You’ll get a clearer idea of where people really stand from a half-hour conversation – the body-language, the things said and unsaid, the tone of voice, the group dynamics – than from all the metadata and correlations that appear as nice, clear-cut, definitive, notional graphics on your workplace screen.
Having said that, we live in a joined-up, birds-eye world in which technology gives us access to piles of juicy data. How to extract the juice from it? Is there a way of getting to the more touchy-feely stuff as well as how often that button was clicked? Martin Sorrell, the £40 million a year leviathan of WPP, and hence of the dark arts globally, recently explained his thinking on research. “We started off with market research, we thought that sounded pretty boring, so then we moved to consumer insight, and then we decided to call it data investment management – it’s made that segment of our business more sexy”. Consumer insight: so passé. Data investment management it is, so.
I still contend that the best way to listen and communicate is person-to-person. Which is presumably why Martin Sorrell chose to explain his ideas, at a market research conference, in person, rather than via an emailed on-screen brain diagram. But the world is the world, internet and all, and those of us with an appetite for understanding what motivates people in their quirky behaviours now need to include the online space in our endeavours to sniff out what is going on. Which is why I, and many others, as well as continuing with the jaw-jaw, are also exploring the possibilities of data to deliver qualitative information. Qualitative analytics. Watch this space.