Market Research: Why Brands Should Stop Talking to Consumers and Start Listening to Humans
By Jim Chastain
Let’s stop talking to consumers. I have and I don’t really plan to talk with them anymore. They haven’t done anything to make me upset. They haven’t purposely misled me. I just find them to be limiting and not representative of how they really make buying decisions. Sure they offer opinions. Yes they talk about products and brands and what they like and don’t like and why. Of course they seem sure of themselves. But it usually doesn’t add up. What they say and what they do are often different. They contradict themselves. Maybe they don’t get it or maybe — just maybe — we are asking them questions about something they really don’t care that much about. We’re forcing them to talk an hour or two about a small fragment of their life that is defined by being a user of a category or a brand. We’re limiting them to being a “consumer.”
I am choosing to listen to humans. I think the marketing world would be better off if we all focused more on humans than consumers. If we changed our mindset from thinking of someone as “the person responsible for washing the dishes in the household” or “the primary decision maker when it comes to household finances” or “the gatekeeper for children’s snacking occasions,” to a person who has a whole set of life experiences that have shaped them into the person they were, the person they are, and the person they want to be. A person with real hopes, real fears, and deeply held beliefs that have been shaped over the years by their life experience. Someone who, I strongly believe, is primarily motivated by feeling cohesive in a world that makes them feel scattered in a million different directions.
This person doesn’t think of him or herself as a “consumer”… just someone who is trying to come up with a coherent story they can tell themselves about who they are. Psychologists call this story their Narrative Identity. This isn’t about projecting an image to the world. It’s a story they tell themselves to feel better about who they are and to give their life some kind of unique meaning. This is about feeling together. Feeling they matter. Kind of important stuff in the fragmented and stressful world we live in.
So why should brands care about this? Because a coherent story that makes a person feel cohesive is vitally important to them. A brand would want to play a role in it. And we believe in the notion that people use brands to tell themselves stories about who they are. If a brand doesn’t play a role in their story, then it doesn’t really matter to them. What brands often don’t see is that it’s not about bringing “consumers” into the brand’s world, it’s about the brand playing a meaningful role in someone’s life. The brand will have more equity with a more meaningful role. And with more equity one would imagine more volume, more profit, and a greater impact on the world. I would argue that most brands and categories have the potential to play a meaningful role in someone’s life in some way.
We have worked in a wide range of categories and, without fail, when we change the conversation to allow someone to talk about themselves, the participant is more at ease and the clients get more engaged. People love talking about themselves and often offer up more insight than they imagine. The client is hearing things they’ve never heard before and coming up with ideas that are rooted in an understanding of what is important in someone’s life… not just their opinion about a product.
Why not play a more elevated role in someone’s life? Be part of their coherent story that makes them feel cohesive. Help them manage life tensions in a way that makes them feel better about themselves. To do this you’ll need to talk to them as a human. Stop talking to them as a consumer. It’s way more fun, revealing, and interesting for both of you. And it will make both of your worlds better.