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October 1, 2019

Building the Case for Face-Time

Mike Bainbridge

Author @Sterling

October 1, 2019

Building the Case for Face-Time

Empathy is dying…and technology is the killer. That’s a bold statement, right? But, I’m sure it’s not a huge surprise to you.

In 2011, the Society for Personality and Social Psychology released a study “Meta-analysis of the Changes in Dispositional Empathy in American College Students Over Time,” a terrifying title with an equally terrifying conclusion. The study found that, for over 75% of all test subjects, empathy levels had dropped significantly vs. 30 years ago. Much of this decline was attributed to technology and social media which are stifling our ability to relate to each other due to reduced face to face time. We can only imagine what that percentage would be today.

So, what has any of this have to do with consumer research and branding? Frankly, a lot. I’m the first to acknowledge that technology has advanced consumer research tools in leaps and bounds, making it incredibly easy for us to track consumer behavior and attitudes from the comfort of a desktop, phone…or even our living room couches. But, as we become more enamored by what solely tech-based research can do, it is tempting to disregard good old fashioned in-person research

Skimping on “face to face time” with consumers spells danger for anyone in the brand building world. To build brands that matter, you need more than the hard data that remote research tools provide, you need a healthy dose of…yes, you guessed it…EMPATHY.

You don’t need to be an ethnographer, anthropologist or clinical psychologist to empathize. You just need to be human, as empathy is a fundamental human trait. Everyone in the branding business can hone their empathy by spending time with consumers and focusing on two simple things:

  • Understand the context of people’s lives
  • Observe (as much as listen and ask)

Let’s Talk Context First
Marketers’ professional lives revolve around their brands. Consumers lives do not! What extended face to face time does better than any other type of research is put us in the consumer’s world vs forcing them into our world. Taking time to understanding people’s everyday experiences gives us a better handle on the context that is driving their feelings certain situations, and leads to richer insights:

  • Spend time with a Mom below the poverty line to grasp the significance of having only one national brand in the pantry among a host of private labels because it is the most tangible demonstration of love she can show her family right now (Campbell’s)
  • Listen to a cop tell you how much a brand of shoe inner soles means to him became because it saved him from going on disability leave (Dr Scholl’s)
  • Hear about the rifts in a lady’s extended family and then have her rave about a boxed chocolate’s ability to bring everyone together at holiday’s to really understand the cathartic power of the brand. (Russell Stover)

It’s the context of these people’s lives that helps us understand the meaning and value these brands take on; context we could never understand from a data point.

Let’s Talk Observation
Some of the richest learning comes just from watching…not just what people do, but how they emote in the process. We can only sense these feelings when we are present ourselves.

  • Feel the mood in a room transform through the simple act of cutting open an orange to be reminded of the positive power of scent (Tropicana)
  • Sense the delight and bewilderment that take over a first time Mom as she navigates a baby stroller aisle for the first time; register the confidence with which a second time mom attacks the same aisle to appreciate the different needs we have to satisfy as a brand (Graco)
  • Watch the glint in a woman’s eye as her husband prepares a traditional breakfast for their twin girls…in Russia!! Even when you can’t speak the language…the glint in the eye helps you appreciate the power of a favorite meat brand in the family tradition (Cherkisovo)

In our opinion, the best proof of the value of in person research is the concept of the Muse target. A number of our clients no longer rely solely on traditional demographic or psychographic segmentation models to define targets. They are adding The Muse Target: a real person whose personal values, affinities, aspirations, life circumstance and tensions are in sync with the brand in question. The Muse is someone the team can interact with and get to know on a much more personal level and tap into for inspiration and guidance in staying relevant, meaningful and valued.

What we learn from a Muse doesn’t replace traditional demographic and psychographic segmentation data. These data points are still critical for market sizing, media planning etc., but the Muse rounds out our understanding of what makes people tick at a much more human level, helping us relate to and serve them better.

So, get out there and engage with your consumers in person and don’t succumb to the temptation to rely on all things digital to drive your learning plan. As The School of Personality and Social Psychology taught us: technology will kill empathy and face to face time will foster it.


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