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Considering character: a novel approach to consumer insights

By Ewen Haldane | Business Director

The School of Life


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September 8, 2017 | 7 min read

The so called ‘problem of other minds’ is a philosophical brain teaser that asks ‘how can we be certain that other people have minds like ours, given we can only ever observe them from the outside?’ Most who come across this problem rapidly decide not to worry too much about it.


Yet, venturing inside the minds of others and coming back with insights that are both surprising and (with hindsight) pleasingly obvious – is the critical task for market researchers.

Broadly speaking, three techniques are available for understanding what other people are thinking – we can ask them, observe them, or imagine what it’s like to be them. Of these three, the greatest (and cheapest) is arguably imagination. Yet, it’s also often unfairly ignored.

What’s the harm in asking?

The main problem with focus groups, as researchers know well, is not that we lie to the facilitator, but that we lie to ourselves. As Freud observed, we don’t really know why we do what we do most of the time. We are largely strangers to ourselves. That’s true of our deepest motivations, never mind when it comes to articulating why we prefer a particular brand of ketchup. As a result, we can’t put much stock by consumers telling us they love the new logo, that more green vegetables would be lovely or that online banking is a terrible idea. We know that groups have rejected many promising ideas and cordially waved through many that have turned into complete car crashes (New Coke, Crystal Pepsi, Coors Sparkling Water or Tropicana’s unfortunate rebrand were all warmly received – just to take examples from the soft drinks category).

Just an observation...

Ethnography addresses our lack of self-awareness by observing not what we say but what we do. Ethnography’s basic contention, that an insightful observer can know more about us after an hour than we might know of ourselves even after years of therapy, is doubtless true. However, ethnography comes up against the observer effect; the observer’s very presence changes the nature of what is observed. In short, consumers are less likely to buy emergency diarrhoea pills or crotchless underpants with an ethnographer peering over their shoulder.

Of course, ethnography can employ subtler techniques. Discreet cameras or devices that monitor our facial and biometric reactions can help researchers pinpoint the exact moment a product triggers us to chuckle or cringe. But viewing ads while a scanner monitors our eyeball hardly replicates life in the wild.

Even done well, it can go very wrong. Tesco recently quit its US business ‘Fresh & Easy’ at huge cost, despite potential customers having endorsed it after extensive ethnographic research. Researchers had shopped, cooked and eaten with customers and had even built a replica store (under the guise that it was part of a film set) to surreptitiously test the concept with consumers. Observers noting Tesco’s failure to learn from observation pointed out that in-market testing in the real world might have been a more fruitful approach.

Some ethnographers argue that we should go further still and put ourselves in the customer’s shoes. Quite literally. Patricia Moore, an industrial designer working in New York in the 70’s, famously spent three years intermittently dressed as an old woman, plugging her ears, blurring her glasses and fostering a stoop, in order to better empathise with the challenges faced by an elderly audience. As a result, she developed (among other things) a thicker handled potato peeler; an easier product for people with weaker joints.

This empathetic approach is deeply admirable. But it’s also an expensive way to optimise a potato peeler. It brings to mind a comment that Laurence Olivier made to Dustin Hoffman, whose intense method acting on the film 'Marathon Man' drove him to stay up for 72 hours to feel a deeper affinity with his strung-out character. Olivier drily remarked: “My dear boy, why don’t you just try acting?”

Perhaps there’s an even simpler way of imagining what it’s like inside other people’s heads?

A novel approach

In his book ‘What is Art?’, the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy proposed that the best route to understand what’s going on in the minds of others is the novel. His book ‘Anna Karenina’, for example, was partly an exercise in helping readers empathise not only with Anna but also with the surprisingly tender inner life of her seemingly callous husband Karenin.

His notion was that literature can act, in essence, as a time machine and teleportation device, putting us through infinitely more situations than we could ever hope to experience in one lifetime (or witness through a two-way mirror). In the space of a few hours, a novel can allow us to peer into the inner life of someone losing their job, a teenager in love, or a religious fanatic.

Before corralling a slightly awkward group of ABC1s in a sitting room in Slough, we might assemble a dream team of some of history’s most insightful thinkers. What might a focus group of Dickens, Shakespeare, Woolf, Aristotle or de Beauvoir have had to say about the unmet needs of your customers?

In addition to the standard techniques, an agency operating through the lens of literature might offer clients a reading list of novels, helpfully curated by theme and audience. ‘King Lear’ might help RSA understand the potential pitfalls for retirees planning their financial legacy, ‘The Rachel Papers’ might help Lynx empathise with young men pursuing a first romance, ‘Huckleberry Finn’ or ‘Don Quixote’ might help Facebook develop tools that foster deeper friendships.

The myth remains that in order for an insight to be 'actionable' we need a statistically sound survey of thousands to verify that what we’ve observed truly represents the will of the people. Taking an insight from a mere book seems foolhardy by comparison. But as history has repeatedly shown, just because a lot of people say something, doesn’t make it true.

Sometimes, the most helpful insights are right in front of us, hiding in plain sight. They might have been there for hundreds of years. On a bookshelf.

Ewen Haldane is business director at The School of Life.

Modern Marketing Books Creativity

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The School of Life

The School of Life is a unique team of world leading psychologists, philosophers, artists, designers, poets, sociologists and anthropologists. We are a global organisation with a mission to help people lead more fulfilled lives.

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