the invisible thing driving your brand

If I ask you -- as brand producer or a consumer -- why you make or buy the things you do, you will not answer me well. You may try to be truthful, but the level of real insight that I get from you will likely be fairly low.
This matters for marketers a hell of a lot, since we want to make money and spend the least amount of money doing that. For a marketer to help a brand producer effectively, the producer has to know what they're doing and why - and they have to understand what motivates the customer extraordinarily well.
Your value proposition is tied partly to the functional asset you give the customer, but it's more fundamentally about your passion. This is the space where your customer connects to you, when they could simply buy the cheapest product at the cheapest price from anybody else. It's your source of equity.
Brand consultants can help you, and so can market researchers. But be careful -- bad data puts you in a worse place than having none. 
  • A survey may be cheap, quick and carefully worded to be objective. But it's also unreliable, because people filter their spontaneous answers through the self-aware and self-conscious mind.
  • Interviews and focus groups, meanwhile, while potentially interesting, are a minefield of potential bias, group dynamics and transference from interviewee to interviewer and vice versa.
  • Observation is biased by the researcher's own filters.
  • Textual analysis - such as a review of popular culture - is also subject to cultural bias and interpretation.
And we haven't even talked about the influence of the research sponsor - the things one can and cannot actually discover, given whoever is paying the bills.
Yet we have to do research, and we must arrive at answers. And we don't have all the time in the world. So what are we to do?
  • Rely on the creative genius of a brand producer - someone who knows what the customer wants without asking.
  • Triangulate the methods - use two or more, and compare the results.
  • Work sequentially - start with the most qualitative and exploratory approach, as in ethnography, and narrow it down to the survey.
  • Have multiple people review the same data - minimizing the chance of any one person distorting it with bias.
All of the above are standard answers. But there is one more I really like, and that is less often talked about: studying the nature of the interaction itself. That is to say, one studies not only the content of a subject, but also the research process.
Process data is implicit. It's frequently unexamined. But it's highly influential over one's results. Don't look at only what you learned, look at how you learned it: Seriously, how did you get the work done? What was the sequence of events, what were the methods, and what stands out as odd or strange?

For example, let's say I'm studying the fashion preferences of preteen girls. The typical way to find out what they like to wear? Poll them online; pay them to participate in a discussion; observe their outfits at a local hangout; review the stuff they write and share online.

Or maybe I just find someone who "just knows."

But that partial view would exclude so much about process.

  • How does one gain entry into their world? 
  • Who among them speaks up as a leader? 
  • What kinds of things are they comfortable talking about?
  • What types of devices do they use to communicate? 
  • To what extent do they interface with others virtually or in real life? 
  • How do they actually get to the store, or do they even go? 
  • Do they make their own clothes, or buy them? 
  • What do they seem to take for granted?
  • Who do they seek to impress?
  • What in the research process went wrong, was unexpected, or proved difficult to work through?
  • What did the brand producer or whoever sponsored the research expect to hear? What did they not want to admit into the study?
The "how" of research is incredibly important to record, even in one's mind. It is a deep and rich wellspring for creative inspiration.
All are opinions my own and do not reflect those of my agency or the federal government as a whole. Photo by Nagesh Kamath via Flickr Creative Commons.