Consumer Research: Read a Good Book,
I recently attended an all-day session on consumer insights sponsored by a major pharmaceutical company. Several of its brands were interested in getting to know a particular audience segment better, since that segment might logically use several of their products. I was keenly intrigued because I happened to fall into the category in question: Male, 40-65, with potential for a couple of male-related health problems (as evidenced by an expanded waistline, among other things).
The room was lively and the insights were many. Each brand and its respective agencies had researched “the guy” and had much to say about how he acted as a patient, a potential patient, and a sufferer of various conditions. What was not as prevalent were insights about this guy in general: what mattered to him, how did he prioritize his resources, what made him smile? This was the purpose of the meeting: to get to know “the guy” better within the context of his life.
As discussion ensued, insights came from multiple sources. Some people in the room had read research, some had conducted interviews, and some drew upon men they knew in this group such as fathers or uncles. I was struck by the fact that the room was about 60% women, and the men there were mid-forties or younger. I bet I was the only guy in the room over 50 and the only one overweight. I listened while they talked about how our guy viewed his friends, his spouse, and his family. “Does he share with others his thoughts about his medical condition?” “No, definitely not. He is too proud or too ashamed or in denial.” As I listened, I thought about my group of friends who go camping each year – all guys in their late 40”s or 50’s – and I realized that I knew a lot about their health status. I probably knew as much about their prostates as I did about their golf handicaps. The conversation was not ringing true.
This led me to another thought: how do you get to know a persona that is not you? Typically, we do primary research (ethnography, focus groups, surveys, social listening) and review secondary research to build a profile, but I realized that the profile was not well rounded. It tells a lot about how many in the group do specific things, but it doesn’t dig into the big question: Why does he do those things (like talk about or not talk about his health with friends)?
I wanted to suggest to the room that if they really wanted to learn about what the worries and joys of mid-life maledom are all about, they should read Something Happened by Joseph Heller, or Duane’s Depressed, by Larry McMurtry. Here were men of the segment (albeit fictional) that exposed all sorts of things about their motivations, loves, dreams, and fears. And the thought struck: we have wonderfully complex personae already developed for us, sitting out there is literature, poetry, and song.
I believe that we in marketing may have become too enamored of the research result, and have eschewed a great source of information about people. We ask what people do, but we avoid the complicated and difficult question of why. Fact is, people probably don’t know why they do things (or they have complex rationalizations at the ready), but those keen observers of the human condition – authors and poets and songwriters – have dug through the singular explanations to paint a picture in more general terms. Exactly what we market researchers want.
The next time you get ready to build a segment persona, consider the possibility of reading a good book first. It may very well help you understand that segment better than all of the research combined.