I was excited to attend this conference because the topics went beyond the typical “market research” techniques and approaches. There was the expected content around “big data,” the influence and use of mobile and social in understanding consumer behavior and, of course, the ever-empowered consumer. But what was particularly valuable throughout the conference was a challenge, a call to action so to speak, for researchers to think and do things differently in order to be a more impactful discipline and resource within their organizations. And for all marketers, a call for greater humanization and empathy with respect to the consumers we are trying to understand, engage with, and influence. Throughout the conference, it was clear to see from a range of client presentations that the brands that can find this real, human understanding and use it in their marketing to connect with consumers are seeing strong business performance as a consequence.

There was a wide range of interesting presentations given, but there are three in particular I want to highlight. This week, I want to talk about a keynote presentation given by Manoj Fenelon from Pepsico – The Consumer is No More, Long Live the People: Moving from Consumer Understanding to Empathy.

Just as marketers are faced with a myriad of ways to engage with consumers, researchers are faced with a host of new ways to research them. We can listen, watch, observe, track. We can do this in the store, on their phone, in their home, in their car. We can use surveys, questions, eye tracking, diaries. We can produce reports, heat maps, brain patterns, bar charts. Market research has always struggled to move beyond long reports and summaries to insights and actionable recommendations, and that challenge is growing with greater access to data. Gone are the days when question 1 = methodology b (well, those days should never really have been, but that is another story). Unfortunately, I still see a lot of that linear thinking when it comes to the research “ask” (I need to do some focus groups to talk about this new idea), just as I continue to see a lack of concise, meaningful conclusions and recommendations in research reports. I have always argued that market research departments need to evolve into a more strategic insight planning function, so when Manoj kicked off by saying he wanted to talk about “why the way we did CI in the past has problems and why we need to switch to something new,” I was all ears.

Manoj talked about the need for three broad buckets of change with respect to engaging with consumers:

From aspirational to useful

– From understanding to empathy

– From research to dialogue

I thought this idea of shifting brands from being aspirational to useful was pretty compelling.  He argues aspiration worked fine when the middle class was growing (not only in numbers but as a concept). What does it mean to be a man in this new environment? Marlboro man will show you. What does it mean to be a housewife? Better Homes and Garden will show you. A good parent? Mister Rogers and Betty Crocker will show you. Brands had the opportunity to be aspirational by showing and defining to people what they aspired to be.

But today is different.

We all want and are empowered to be individuals. We can all seek our own definition of being a man, a homeowner, a mother. And there are many things I aspire to be, and be like, that do not involve brands – such as being like my friend’s sister who is running for a charity that supports families with kids who have cancer.

We are also more knowledgeable about how the world and capitalism works. Consumers can and do shape brands as much as the other way around. I could argue even more so. But arguably most important is that our trust in organizations and brands has declined (check out the Edelman Trust Barometer.) Who do you think is the third-largest baby food brand in the United States? It is moms making it from scratch.

You must watch this video he shared of a generic brand. Pretty hard to stand out and be genuine when we all know how the “game” works.

His conclusion? Brands can no longer BE authentic, but brands can help people define and express their own authenticity. In order to do that, we need to evolve how we think about, research and engage with consumers.  He had a lot of great concepts and examples (if you get the chance to see him present, grab it), but the five key takeaways for me are:

1. Brands can no longer just say or show what they are, they have to DO, live, breathe and be what they are.

2. Brands should stop defining themselves by the “core” in their brand pyramid but by how they interact with people. This really resonated with me – we need to get our heads out of our PowerPoints and into people.

3. Brands can’t design experiences. Experiences, and what they mean, are inside people. The job of a brand is to create context, opportunities, stimulus and tools for people to participate in the experiences they want to have.

4. We need to take the side of people and go into the trenches. Empathizing goes beyond understanding consumers to really seeing things from their point of view. Again, this reminded me why I went into research, because I wanted to represent the perspective and voice of “real” people.

5. People are not thinking machines to survey and test, people are feeling machines that happen to think.  Just as marketing can no longer rely on pushing out, neither can research rely on asking. We need to have a dialogue with people.

At the end of the day, it is all about context. Manoj shared this great Tom Fishburne cartoon to remind us that brands are a very small part of people’s lives.

brand camp

To understand those lives, researchers need a new set of competencies – empathy, creativity, synthesis, and storytelling.

Manoj finished with the following ask of people working in research.

The contrarians and rebels, the people on the fringes of organizations who question and deviate from the status quo, which so often leads to inertia and inflexibility, are huge assets for any organization. Those who disagree with the present often see the future more clearly.

I was inspired and reminded of my role as a strategist, researcher and planner. Anyone who is up for a challenge, let’s talk!