Telling tales: How taking the time to listen can boost brand building

In today’s socially-mediated world, marketers are placing greater importance on understanding their audience as people instead of simply consumers. Satisfying consumers’ immediate wants creates a commodity, not a brand. To build a brand, marketers should not waste time asking what people like, need or want – they should discover who these “consumers” really are. To accomplish this, marketers are using research to listen to people’s stories and understand people’s identities, not just their interests. This demands skills beyond that of a moderator who asks predetermined questions about people’s reaction to product attributes. Taking qualitative research a step further to understand a person’s authentic, subjective experience in the world can reveal deeper brand insights than studying only the cross-section of a consumer’s world in which s/he interacts with the brand or product at hand.

Unconscious purchase calculus

This emotional-cognitive subjectivity is what underlies people’s unconscious purchase calculus. Understanding this process entails a shift in perspective from seeing consumers as data points to accepting consumers as creators of their own brand of meaning. Traditional attitude and usage studies that put product attributes at the center, as well as product-oriented surveys and focus groups, fall short. To succeed, products must fit into people’s lives rather than the other way around.

The core task of marketing is to entrain the emotionally-based logic that shapes self-identity and product-identity into a unified narrative. Brand is that spasm of sentiment – illogical, immediate, rock-solid – that triggers when we perceive a product as a venue for manifesting ourselves; brand is about being a venue for people becoming more themselves.

Loving interrogator

Listening for identities requires being more than a moderator. Instead, serve as a loving interrogator of the ways people make meaning, justify it and author a vision of their future selves. Eliciting “self-stories” is the critical task. To hear and understand people’s stories you have to give them the time and the leeway to spin their tale.

I was once asked by a soap company to devise a project that would help discover the latent meanings of “clean.” I went around the country speaking to women ages 17-54. I also spoke to women who had particularly dirty jobs: plumber, soldier, craftsperson. I asked them to tell me what makes you feel the most “you” – the purest you?

After the fieldwork and my analysis of the women’s narratives were completed, I went to the CEO of the soap company. I handed in my report; it was a single page with only three letters written on it: SED. The CEO said to me, “What’s this?” My answer? Women know how to get clean, but what women really want is the experience of feeling cleanSED. Cleansed means washing away the day, ridding yourself of the experience of being put upon, hunkered-down and tight. This idea was quickly used for both advertising and internal branding.

A gasoline company asked me if anything beyond price per gallon drove customer loyalty. I spoke to people in (my brand of) focus groups, starting each group by asking, “What, in your everyday experience of the world today, gives you energy?” They were forthcoming with stories of family, friendship, discovery and fun.

I then asked, “What saps you of energy?” They told stories – naturally, without any prompting – of a world too fast, complex and competitive. They also told stories about traffic and the travails of commuting. Unexpected narratives also came spewing out about how many people liked driving to and from work alone, in the privacy of their car. It was their only “me” time of the day. Halfway through the project, “life on the road” became a metaphor for people’s hopes and hassles, as well as how they saw life in general. By the end of the project, this idea not only impacted advertising but the design of the company’s gas stations.

While doing a project on luxury, I asked, “How do you accomplish not buying something you really want?” Here’s a story from an artist who couldn’t stop herself from buying a Louis Vuitton handbag:

“When I saw it I had to have it, but at first I didn’t buy it. It was too expensive. I went home, but I couldn’t stop thinking about that bag. So I went back the next day. It made me happy just to look at that bag. It’s candy-apple red. My grandmother made me candy apples. That bag gives me an appetite. It’s the color of life. It will protect me against solitude, like my pets. And, it’s a small bag, so I can always carry it with me. There is no meaning or order to the universe or to life, or it’s not attainable by humans. This bag seemed unattainable, but I got it. This bag says to me that there is some meaning or order to life. That meaning or order is ‘beauty.’ Beauty is the most important thing in life. That’s why I’m an artist.”

Grand narrative

Once self-stories about “I” and the world are understood, the analytical task is to locate the core metaphor and mythology that composes the grand narrative of all individual talk. From this kind of analysis an idea can result that balances poetic abstraction and mundane specificity. Stories allow marketers inroads into how our internal emotions connect to the societal structures that confine us. In other words, stories lay the basis for finding in each subject the controlling cultural ideas that exist in everyone’s mind.

From such insights arise potent communication plans that have the chance to increase ROI, as these plans and their implementation can tap the primal structure of the human experience. When it all works, marketers can create something – a message, a campaign, content or a multi-platform strategy – that will lodge indelibly in people’s lives so that even when they are not thinking about it, they recognize its existence. Whether Campbell’s or Hermes, understanding this narrative is required of market leaders of any corporation that seeks to profit the only way that profit can be made: by making brand magic.

Editor’s note: Bob Deutsch is a cognitive anthropologist at Brain Sells, a Boston communications consultancy. This article appeared in the May 24, 2010, edition of Quirk’s e-newsletter.