Beyond The Obvious: Leveraging Research To Discover The Transcendent Character Of Your Brand

A discussion forum targeted to marketing researchers caught my eye last week. The thread was initiated by an ad agency planner who asked for suggestions on how to find a “motivating emotional positioning for a “low-interest” product (through) qualitative research (that would) uncover sharp, insightful territories.”

It drew a great deal of response from a wide range of people, both with quantitative and qualitative backgrounds. Many provided specific examples, with a good deal of consultants and researchers providing case histories to support their own value-added, one-of-a-kind techniques.

I looked through these responses carefully and with great interest. Developing “motivating emotional positionings” is what the Right Brain Studio is all about, so I was hoping to learn. But I was disappointed to find nothing particularly new or interesting.

What did strike me was something I’ve seen a lot of over the years: Clients spending lots of money, employing fascinating techniques, to uncover nothing but the obvious.

One research firm touted its ability to uncover the “deep metaphors” of a brand experience and turn those metaphors into actionable communications. Clicking through a few links, I found a recent edition of their company newsletter with a case history. A major university had hired them to “develop a deeper understanding of how students imagine the ideal college experience.” The goal was to help the university to better understand how to communicate with top, in-state, college prospects to determine what might persuade them to choose their school over other colleges and universities.

Here is brief summary of the four “deep metaphors” uncovered and what they mean. I quote directly:

1. “The college experience is like a System. All elements of the college experience must work together to generate personal growth.”

2. “College represents an escape from comfortable but confining Containers. These young men expressed a strong desire for freedom – to have new experiences and be exposed to new ideas allows them to escape from the familiar. Perhaps it is not surprising that also students seemed eager to no longer be bound to their parents and communities at home.”

3. “Journey was another significant Deep Metaphor; the college years are a journey, and students expect to be different at the end of their journey than they were at the beginning. But college is also a small yet critical step in one’s life journey, a step that impacts their future in ways great and small.”


4. “Students wish to Connect. They not only want to form lasting bonds with other students, but also want to feel more in touch with themselves by thinking about their goals, values, and what really matters to them. They want to feel a personal connection to their school (often accomplished through intercollegiate sports teams), and they want to feel more connected to the world, by learning about other people and different cultures.”

Okay. They spent money on this? Completely generic and obvious, don’t you think? The question they did not answer – or perhaps didn’t even ask – should have been, “What college experience is our university uniquely positioned to deliver?”

Unfortunately, we see this kind of wasteful spending with alarming frequency. Segmentation studies that reveal “freshness” is important to the baked goods category, or in-depth interviews reveal that women want to feel like “good moms” when they serve the right breakfast cereal to their children.

All while the question of proprietary brand character is avoided.

Why is this? Maybe people feel the need to “cover all the bases,” maybe it’s the fear of putting a stake in the ground, or maybe it’s just a lack of vision. It doesn’t matter. Our real mission as marketers is to create positive distinctions between our brands and their competitors.

This is never easy, but easier if you think of your brands as characters. We use projective techniques all the time in focus groups, but it can’t just be an exercise. Brands need to be into character starting with positioning and creative briefs, and stay in character through execution.

Think of Don Draper (Mad Men), Jack Donaghy (30 Rock) or Gemma Teller (Sons of Anarchy). These characters were not conceived simply as “brilliant but troubled adman with a past,” or “blowhard network executive” or “motorcycle gang old lady.” These would be the generic equivalents of a college offering “systems, containers, journey and connection.” These characters are so much more. We are drawn to them for their contradictions, vulnerabilities, coping mechanisms, strengths and weaknesses. They have texture. Therefore, they seem authentic and true.

This should be the aim of all marketing research – but especially qualitative work. To discover the nuanced truth, authenticity and uniqueness of our brands so that we can communicate it all in a compelling manner to our targets.

In other words, tell me something I don’t already know.

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