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We’ve built our practice around staying ahead of the curve in modern marketing. So it may seem a bit ironic that we believe the next wave in serving customers well is something much more analog.

Let’s face it, humans cannot be wholly defined by demographics, purchase data, and survey results – yes, all of that is important, but really it’s table stakes these days. Big data should be just a small part in how you go about understanding customers. As marketing evolves, we must get better at parsing more types and sources of data, and remember that qualitative insights are extremely powerful sources of clarity when everyone else is focused on the numbers.

Where Traditional Research Fails Us

Demographic analyses from sources like Nielsen may support ad targeting, but should not be used as a substitute for understanding your customers specifically. Remember, the competition also has access to that data, so they’re working from the same assumptions. While you might gain a short-lived edge in return on ad spend with some 3rd-party targeting, you’re entering an arms race with competing advertisers, not building an enduring brand.

On the other extreme, focus groups are deeply flawed and outdated. We’ve found that the artificial environments, challenging interpersonal dynamics of a room full of strangers, and surface-level questions cloud the ability to get at truly meaningful data. They end up being high-effort, low-value exercises resulting in unreliable data.

Surveys are another common go-to for insights that we recommend only in select situations. They are great for quantitatively evaluating hypotheses, but rarely help uncover new ideas outside of the predetermined questions and answers you create.

Listen More Intently

Instead, we have found the best way to get much deeper insights about customers is through specialized, in-depth interviews focused on digging into the often-circuitous journey to purchase. For even seemingly everyday purchases like milk or footwear, we’ve found that this journey often goes back years, decades even.

We uncover memories rooted in childhood, practical problems that have gone unsolved despite trying many other substitutes, anxieties that hamper the desire to purchase, and deep emotional and social dynamics at the core of even the most mundane purchases.

We also build context around these interviews by studying cultural trends, consumer values, social media conversation, real-world observation, and any previously conducted brand research to place customer insights into a larger perspective. This allows us a comprehensive understanding of customers and the ability to build real empathy with them.

Reflect on Your Brand

While we listen to customers, we must also reflect on what makes your brand special. What makes it fundamentally different from the competition, not just better? Where does it provide value beyond the cost of a product or service? What is its larger purpose? How might it capitalize on new opportunities and explore innovations?

Again we look to long-form interviews as a source of insight, this time with a range of key brand leaders and team members. We find, for example, that customer service leaders often have deep insight into the customer’s perspective on what makes the brand special, while C-suite members often have a spectrum of views on the future direction of the brand.

Here, too, we provide context by analyzing competitors, industry dynamics, online search data, and market dynamics to hone in on what makes the brand meaningfully different and develop a positioning that encompasses that in an inspiring way.

Build True Brand Clarity

So while the competition focuses much of its energy on the numbers, try taking a different path. Find your true differentiation by listening to customers while reflecting on what makes your brand uniquely qualified to serve them unlike anything else on the market.

By learning to listen and reflect, organizations will benefit from our more analog approach to customer and brand insights as the key to building an enduring business in this rapidly evolving market.

Michael Kwolek

Michael Kwolek

Michael crafts brand insights and marketing strategy, with particular expertise in natural products, startups and pop culture. He also holds an MBA from CU-Boulder and spends his downtime exploring music production, world cinema and street food.
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