We’ve all been there. Behind the glass of the focus group viewing room, observing our "consumers" while tucking into M&M’s or Pringles. It’s a long night and we’re bored. The agency has sent a couple of junior people along that nobody has met before.
The atmosphere is sterile so somebody cracks a joke. Maybe it’s about the respondent with the dodgy tash. Or the lady taking up too much of the sofa. What about the inarticulate guy at the back or the know-all with too much make-up? Whatever. The joke gets a laugh, the consumers can’t hear and, as long as we get some good "learnings" from the research, it doesn’t matter, right?
Well, actually, maybe it does. Understanding the people you’re trying to talk to is one thing but, in my experience, the best marketers don’t just learn, they like. And, in recent times, I sometimes get the sense that our industry doesn’t like its targets (itself a tellingly aggressive term) or audiences (better but potentially pretty assumptive too) very much.
My evidence? Well, think of all the clunky advertising, infuriating service design and shoddy ethical practices plaguing business at the moment. Almost every instance will have been thoroughly researched and the team responsible will have a robust argument for behaving in the way they have. But, all too often, these insights will be laced with patronising prejudices about the group in question.
"These guys are rate tarts."
"They’re not very sophisticated."
"They just want to get pissed and get laid."
"They have the attention span of a gnat."
"They’re a captive audience."
"They just want the facts."
Months after the debrief, you can still feel the disdain dripping through the voiceovers or screaming at you over the on-hold music.
Just as actors typically say that they need to like some element of their character, even if they are playing a monster (an exception was Spencer Tracy, who simply advised starlets to "learn your lines and don’t bump into the furniture"), I think it’s much harder to communicate with people if you know all about them but can’t empathise with them.
Of course, that can be difficult sometimes. Over the years, I’ve worked on campaigns aimed at teenage knife-carriers; rural drink-drivers; potential tax-dodgers. But, even here, there has usually been another side to their stories and it has helped me to see them as frightened kids who are looking for protection; the life and souls of the pub who get carried away in the moment; self-employed grafters who resent the special treatment given to big businesses. OK, you need to make sure these characterisations don’t go too far the other way and become tantamount to excuses for intolerable behaviour. The point is, it helps to find some element of likeability and then adjust accordingly, rather than go straight to the moral high ground.
Even the names we attach to people can make a difference. For instance, in the anti-smoking world, there has been a long history of referring to the main group of smokers with an arcane label: R&Ms (routine and manual workers). Technically, this is an accurate descriptor of the demographic segment that is most likely to smoke these days. But how can you connect with someone when you think of them as a bureaucratic cipher – and a not very appealing one at that? The implication is that these people’s lives are drab and empty, and yet even a cursory meeting proves that the opposite is the case.
When I worked on the government’s campaign, we set the terminology aside and focused on the love that smokers undoubtedly have for their kids. Far from being a dead end (because R&Ms led such bleak lives that they didn’t care about such things), this proved to be an extremely motivating message.
At a time when we’re accumulating more data than ever before, it would be a shame if this came at the expense of human connection.
It feels as though we all, rightly, like to learn these days. But maybe we need to learn to like?
Andy Nairn is a founding partner of Lucky Generals