Navigating perceptions

I’ve been challenged to write something short. Here are 4 stories illustrating how people live and make decisions in the world of their perceptions and not much beyond that.

On health craze

A news reporter states that the amount of running marathons over the past 4 years has risen by 400%. More and more people are visible every day jogging through the streets, the holistic health awareness is on the rise, which is declared by respondents in various research studies and noted by various brands and businesses. Meanwhile, the vast majority of the country is laying on the couch watching TV, not caring or escaping from the health pressures into candy bars. The social demand for being fit is strong, but the digitally-satisfied mind is weak. A quick fix era is born and pharma becomes TOP2 business to be in right now. Most trends are much more noticeable than they are propagated.

On quality

A premium car brand is focusing it’s communication strategy on a flagship, most technologically advanced, high-end model, while using imagery of top-income success people living the dream of life controlled. The flagship model drives 4x less revenue than the basic entry-level model, while over 80% of entire revenue is generated by regular middle-income buyers. Some do and some don’t aspire to the life presented in ads and the signalling value of the brand, but each one wants a high quality car that they can afford, and associations of high quality in the category are built through codes of prestige and outstanding innovation.

On eco

30% of people in the country declare buying eco products. Market reports suggest that sales of eco products made up 0,2% of all food sales that year. People want to participate in the thing, but most of the eco products are out of the financial reach of mass consumer. Mass brands exploit that need by using eco bio codes of communication in their packaging. Consumers didn’t have the awareness and time to realize that.

On prices

In the country famous for being the most smart shopping in Europe, consumers are very aware of the marketing efforts and prices of products. When asked about the cheapest and most expensive store chains in the country they make firm answers. As it turns out the chains they have selected are offering almost identical pricing. The two cheapest perceived players have the biggest physical availability and mental availability efforts of the past 5 years, while also consistently adding top quality products to their shelves. People are not calculators, people do mental accounting and that is strongly influenced by communication.

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The one where I arrogantly question the smartest marketing people

I remember it like it was 30 years ago. It was 2007, the year of the first iPhone, last Harry Potter and of course the grand opening of the biggest playground in history of mankind, Michael Bay’s Transformers. Where were you on that beautiful pre-crisis advertising days?

I just finished high school, moved out of my hometown and began my short-lived journalist dream, that soon after matured into brand communications and all kinds of meaning and perceived value direction. I was beginning to take interest in marketing and it seemed as if everybody was talking divergence is the future of everything… Where is it today?

Since the very start, the marketing man has been on a never-ending quest to understand his job. It always seemed to me that most careers in marketing were built on common-sense thinking and gut-navigating, with majority of educated concepts rather a language to be used or a rational afterthought to the decisions and convictions already made, than actual guides of thinking. But the marketing heart was always hungry for some gigantic all-encompassing narratives on how it should be done. And many shiny approaches to provide such structures of marketing success have been presented, each one right until proven wrong.

All until today, when the three amigos named Sharp, Binet and Field, assisted by cold data, scientific method and all the beautiful insights into human mind (Kahnemans for short) have really provided us with the big guns. Oh, how eager I was to shove their findings into all clients’ faces, parading my up-to-dateness and indisputability. The scientific factor is such a great confidence instiller. Oh wait, aren’t we in the middle of a great science crisis, that makes even the most respectable sources of information spread bullshit and confuse people into post-truth sense of futility and submission? Isn’t even the most thorough scientific method prone to errors and overconfidence?

Don’t get me wrong, I really really want to believe. I have nothing but admiration and gratitude for the reasoning we’ve been provided with by the authors of How brands grow and The long and the short of it – their work has really saved lots of advertising lives around the world (or prolonged it for at least 3 more years). And clearly I am in no position to challenge the scientific merit of their work. But how can you resist the itch, whenever you are reminded that the findings and laws proposed are applicable, to a high faultlessness, to all market categories?

Enter questions

No matter how broad some of the assumptions are, can we really say that they apply to chocolate bars as they do to computers, perfumes to airlines, SVODs to fishing equipment, or premium vodka to painkillers? All categories of varying frequency of purchase, mode of consumption, cost effort, commonness, benefit understanding, roles in our lives and all that?

Should you really continuously reach all buyers of the category if your consumers are in consideration mode once every 5 years, and can be effectively identified and precisely targeted? Thinking here in terms of bang for the buck, what’s more effective, a 60:40 long-term:short-term budget split, or something far from it?

No matter how much we love the ESOV principle, can it really do what it promises to store chains that are competing so hard on everything that the consumer is satisfied with simply choosing the closest one around?

Considering how the highest rates of ad-blocking and dumping traditional tv for ad-free SVODs are found among the most digitally-aware, higher income consumers, are you comfortable with the mental availability building efforts directed at them? And how does mental availability work for your brand in times of Google Shopping and Amazon?

Aren’t the long-term brand building principles that have been concluded on the basis of a 1998-2010 marketing campaigns under some challenge by radical changes in information consumption and memory consolidation of the following years?

By the way, we talk a lot about priming, but shouldn’t we talk a little more about negative priming and the risk of turning budgets into more inivisible brands?

And then there’s loyalty. Nobody has repeated the Coca Cola Vs. Pepsi argument more times than myself, but isn’t it a little bit of an unfair case considering that we are talking about 2 brands famously known for being undistinguishable in blind tests? Can we really use the market data about people unloyal to tooth paste brands to discredit the loyalty (or to be more on point – highly repeatable consumer behaviour with strong factor of emotional relation to the brand) argument for cars or airline brands?

Well, probably. To a varying degree. I’m not certain. I’ll probably wait for further research. And with each new client to assist, I’ll keep my eyes open, gather the data, consider all the options and, well… humbly go with my gut.

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A very stupid thing we all do

What are the most potent growth areas of 2018? What emerging needs of which groups are the least catered to at the moment? What is pissing people off and what new technologies can make the old things better? Where is the future of business? Well, certainly not in the past, right?

What if I told you that right under our noses, there are tens of millions of people forgotten by marketing? Not only are they long unacommodated, but, by all accounts, they will continue to grow in number and spend per capita over the next thirty years, they have the steadiest income (and spending behaviours) of all the age groups while also having less credit to pay off and children to support?

And still pretty much nobody’s talking to them and even if somebody is, they usually do it wrong? I mean, come on, we can’t be that stupid, right?

Well, data says we are. The forgotten group is called 50+, the trend has been going on for years and we still didn’t even start catching up. And by we, I mean all of us, Poland, UK, USA, Russia, Japan, Canada… no matter the culture of the country and the approach to older generations that we associate with it, we neglect the same. Studies from all these countries lead to very similar results – strong underrepresentation, improper and often depreciating depiction of the 50+ age groups. You’d think it should be at least a little bit different in UK, but even there, over 90% of marketing budget goes to target groups before 50. There are outliers of course, like the super famous Dove campaign that had amazing reception and absurd sales contributions, but still these are just outliers showing the potential of doing justice.

So why is it, that we are so weak if we are so smart?

Because we are too young

90% of all people working advertising in European Union are below 50 (I wouldn’t assume it’s any different outside of it). We don’t understand life after 50, we don’t want to think about it, we don’t have a lot of contact with people after 50. And even when such happens, all our empathy is allocated in our smartphone. So when the briefing comes, we don’t have a lot to work with, flatten the thing, run into stereotypes, instrumentalize, or redo some best practice case from Spain.

Because oldness has no place in marketing land

It’s a problem that either doesn’t exist, because we are all young, beautiful, satisfied consumers that will never die. Or a problem that has to be immediately solved by rejuvenating messages and products supporting our neverending ball of carpe diem, carpe productum. Which is in a way quite understandable, but on the other hand, with each year more and more unbearable… making room for those brands that are not afraid to say something real. Like Edeka stopping the world for one day by bluntly telling all of us that nobody cares about old people.

Because oldness has little place in people land

Because the young rejoice that they are not old and the old envy the young. Because forever young and old BUT gold. Because old age is health issues, risk of losing control and independence. Because a 70-year old running marathons can’t be just a person running marathons, but a hero to us all, reason for our personal delight and reverie. Because a 65-year old DJ is a peculiar image putting a smile on our faces, not just a DJ. Despite the fact that more and more elderly don’t feel obliged to act ‘elderly’, they can never run away from being decoded as elderly acting outside of old age canon.

And that poses a challenge to the marketer. Resulting in one extreme – an excluded painful greybeard from so many painkiller and banking ads, or the other one – brand on a mission to overcome all stereotypical narratives through complete distortion of reality. Like in the Taco Bell commercial with 80-year olds jumping into swimming pools, bringing joy to young audiences around the world. For the older, the takeout may be less joyful – being old is something you should not accept and the only way to live past 60 is as if you have 20 less, as in live like us, the young.

And it can actually piss the 50+ off which they express in research studies, stating that most marketing communication is not for them, lies and discourages. Especially in times when demography has long ceased to define who we are… I mean, look around, the 6-12-year-olds are growing much faster, the 20-30-year-olds keep postponing adulthood, the 50+’s feel far from old, take life by the horns and in many aspects are no different than the younger and the youngest. In some areas they play up to the traditional elderly code, in some areas they break it, but rarely do they employ that monochrome visions from the ad world.

Just check your TGI. Are they more likely to complain about health and less likely to use smartphones? Sure. But when it comes to indexes of health awareness, going vegan, dieting, reading product labels, worrying if they look good or not leaving a house without makeup – the percentages of the 50+ are almost identical to the 18-35 age group (these are taken from Polish TGI). And we’re talking general 50+ population, that can and should be divided into big multi-million populated segments of considerable differences in attitudes and behaviours. By all accounts, this is not a homogenous group and communication budgets have to recognize that.

Otherwise, we’re simply not doing our job right. And we better start getting up to the task. The first person to reach 150 is said to be already here with us.

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How to have a conversation

Years of working for a strategy consultancy can turn you into a mercenary. Strategy for hire. Get in, infiltrate the problem, extract the solutions, that kind of thing… Week after week of simultaneous processes for clients of all trades and predicaments, agencies of all takes, approaches and cultures. Sometimes the pace is slow but mostly it is not. You have only so much time to deliver an in-depth analysis and winning solution. Your mind is in perpetual movement, no fixed theories, nothing set in stone. Not one dominating methodology to jam all life situations and organization problems into, but rather fitting the assessed sets of circumstances with proper strategic processes… Constant deconstruction and reorientation of perspective in order to find the sequences of signs and concepts that are right on the money with the real thing. It can really get you ready for the world as it is.

And in the end, it all comes down to the people you get to work with. What’s in their heads Vs. what’s in your head. What’s on the agenda Vs. what’s their personal agenda. Negotiating meanings and current mental resources. Each case’s end result comes down to the sum interaction of you and dozens of people on agency’s and client’s side. Lots to consider and lots of going by the gut. But with each iteration you get to see certain patterns. Both their behaviour and your behaviour. You listen, you learn, you optimize, and it seems to work better than the last time.

Here I’d like to share some of my personal favourite, not-so-obvious findings on how to have a conversation. As in how to establish common understanding, facilitate creative space and find yourself in teams happy to work together on common goal. Hopefully you will find some that will make your work better and me looking smart.

Don’t intimidate, facilitate

Often times, when you start working with new people, you might feel a need to assert yourself. Show your skills, flaunt your knowledge, prove your necessity. While there are many reasons for it, this can very quickly create a space of distance and mild threat, in turn shifting focus of the meeting from conversation to self-assertion (all enveloped in trained tropes of a well-mannered, quality corporate meeting). So, by all means, minimize that tendency. Take a step back and focus on the path to doing your job well. Provide perspectives and invite others to entertain them and share their own. Serve rather than command. This can quickly redirect entire group’s focus from “who is this guy and does he know that I am important” to “how can I contribute to this thing.” The end-result will need no assertion.

Entertain their worlds

Each person inhabits the world constructed from the data he or she possesses. So do you. Keep that in mind. Be ready to entertain other outlooks and make an effort to see things from other perspectives. Your perspective will gain focus, while honest inquiry into other person’s views communicates that it matters to the cause.

Start from their islands

Every consultant’s 101 – assessing where a listener stands on the issue and building a bridge of understanding from his place to yours. Mostly illusion, but practiced over years, an actual thing. What’s crucial here – if you want real understanding or something that can lead to actual change of perception – start from their place and brick after brick get to the destination. The need for it is illustrated especially well by most success people telling others how to achieve success (i.e. self-admiration manifestos). Here they are standing on top of the mountain, having made 20 years of steps towards their current position and shouting to all the folks down there who are about to make their first steps, as if they are on the same level. The things they shout are really bold and nice to hear but they make no change in the listeners’ lives, because they make no effort to connect with their present situation and experience. The bridge is built but from the other way, so only people who are close to the mountain have any chance of making the link. And who uses bridges to climb mountains anyway.

Talk ideas

Not words – as in focus on the meaning instead of it’s representations, catchy slogans and oversold buzz words. As in delete jargon and hold your superlatives at bay.
Not people – as in refute the claim not the person, evaluate on merit not on context of presentation (like all the associations that go with the source of a given claim).

Settle your definitions

This one is very in right now. The rise in information consumption, democratization of content creation, redistribution of information, crisis of scientific system… all that has lead to more fragmented outlooks on things and more room for differences between how we define things. Not only does it contribute to a paralyzed social debate of 2018 (more on that later) but can pose a challenge to pretty much any business talk filled with lots of abstract concepts. A lot of these conversations end at the beginning, because people have vastly different definitions of things they talk about, while having outdated notion that they are obviously the same. It helps to talk some of the biggest ones through, while also keeping people more alert and in touch with the thing behind the definition. Remember that assumptions about what is obvious to others is where the biggest rifts in communication appear.

See the human behind the client

This goes out to my main man, the Client. There’s a lot of things going on behind that suit-up persona that we dare not see because, well, he is the Client and our bank accounts depend on him. But hey, he has a Boss to impress and you can be his ally in that. He has a mortgage to pay and mouths to feed, and you can understand why he’s not into risky ideas as much as your creatives are. He’s an uncertain human being who would like to be proud of the company he works for and you can assist him in that by the solutions you deliver to him. Once we break through all the code and associations we see that we are all in this together.

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A big part of what a strategist does is bringing certainty and confidence of action to people with mortgages who are never really 100% sure of what they are doing.

This calls for a solid outlook on things. Knowing what works how and why so, going for the tried and tested methods, repetitioned patterns of thought and FGI-approved gold-standard cultural tropes.

It’s understandable. And properly navigated, yields results. But over time, it can really fuck us.

So that we are always right. So that we cannot see beyond our daily goal-oriented thinking. So that we keep framing new data to old preconceptions. So that we kill the creative process before the briefing even starts. So that we miss answers hiding in plain sight, beneath the known, registered and obvious.

That’s why there’s this place. A place to entertain all kinds of speculative, indefinite notions on brands, markets and people. Found on the margin of current trends and dominating marketing concepts, written on the margin of day-to-day briefs and agency tasks. So that we do not lose sight from the less common paths that may lead to much greater returns.

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