Power From The People: Restoring the Human Touch To Marketing Efforts

crowd2David Brooks, writing last week in his New York Times column titled The New Romantics in the Computer Age asks and answers a critical question:

“What are the activities that we humans, driven by our deepest nature or by the realities of daily life, will simply insist be performed by other humans?”

Those tasks are mostly relational. Being in a position of authority or accountability. Being a caregiver. Being part of a team. Transactional jobs are declining but relational jobs are expanding.”

Great marketing must encompass both the transactional and the relational. Examples of progress abound for the transactional side of the equation. Media planning and buying has become far more efficient and effective in the digital age through automation. Search for “flip-flops” or “enterprise software, and magically, ads for those products instantly start showing up on your home page.

Big data, also fueled by computing power and digital technology, provides prodigious amounts of business intelligence on customers and competitors that can be sliced and diced ad infinitum.

All of this has made us better marketers. However, despite Brooks’ observation that the relational part of the equation is growing overall, it continues to receive shorter and shorter shrift in marketing. We see instance after instance of corporations devaluing high-touch, human interaction in the name of “efficiency” and trimming expenses.

Qualitative research has fallen out of favor, hit by a double whammy of cost cutting and and a growing reliance on “more reliable” quantitative testing.

While there is no dearth of meetings in corporate America, many of these meetings are now partly or entirely conducted by telephone. Some participants are telecommuters, seldom, if ever, present in the office. One or two day retreats for brands to gather marketers and agencies to nail down strategy or to innovate are also on the wane, victims of time and money concerns as well.

We lost a proposal to a package goods company earlier this year because the client claimed that they “couldn’t afford to dedicate a large team of people to the project and require them to travel as well.” Clearly, they were seeking a “transactional” solution, a form of canned creativity in which they would be required to do as little as possible and the answers would reveal themselves as if by magic. The project’s goals were to create at least 20 viable new product concepts in a growing category. If only one or two made their way to the market successfully, the effort would have generated tens of millions of dollars in sales in the first year. The required investment in manpower would have been 6-10 corporate employees spending a half-day in an ideation session held in the client’s office. Two to four of these clients would have been required to travel to two markets for two days of focus groups. However, the client insisted that the investment in manpower and travel – a rounding error when considered in the overall context of current brand sales – was an unnecessary expense.

Another company I know of has banned all outside food for internal meetings, opting to save money by providing $8 vouchers for people to eat in the corporate cafeteria.

In all of these examples, what is really being saved? The sharp-pencil people running these companies will point to quantifiable cost reductions that resulted in higher profitability, indisputable evidence that these tactics are working.

However, it’s certainly not that simple. There is a stronger possibility that this myopic, short-term practice will be the death knell of many of these companies. You might be saving a few bucks on lunches, the travel budget looks better versus last year and your people are spending more time at their desks (hopefully), being more productive.  But limiting face-to-face interaction with colleagues and consumers is tantamount to throwing a big wrench into the marketing and innovation process.

In the case of the $8 lunch voucher, there is first and foremost a clear message being sent to participants that they’re just cogs in the corporate machine, not worth a sandwich and a bag of chips. Not so motivating.

Moreover, the goal of these kinds of meetings is to develop breakthrough ideas capable of generating tens or hundreds of million dollars of incremental growth. Breaking up a meeting, forcing people to eat institutional food in a noisy cafeteria full of distractions where they are not likely to find an entire table or two to sit together, is clearly not the best choice for the incubation of great ideas. Save maybe 100 bucks on the meeting but significantly lower the odds of coming up with that big idea, i.e., the reason you’re having the meeting in the first place.

At it’s essence, marketing is about building strong relationships between brands and people.  Despite what Match.com might say, relationships are not built on algorithms or facts. Sharing common interests is certainly a good place to start, but when offered an array of highly suitable dating candidates, all fitting the stated objective guidelines for height, weight, income, education, location, etc., and even satisfying more subjective criteria as looks, why is it that some potential mates are still far more attractive than others? It’s that “je ne sais quoi,” the intangibles that are much harder to identify.

Brand relationships may not be as complex as those between people, but they are far more sophisticated than in the past. Classic packaged goods marketing for the better part of the 20th century dictated that a rational point of difference should be identified and focused on in order to create a meaningful point of differentiation. Ivory Soap is so pure that “It Floats.” Lucky Strike cigarettes are “Toasted.” Folgers Coffee is “Mountain Grown.” Budweiser is “Beechwood Aged.”

None of this matters anymore. While these claims were true and possibly relevant at the time, they seem made up and trivial from a contemporary perspective. Consumers today recognize an empty claim when they see one. Even brands in lower involvement categories have to stand for something bigger in order to break away from the pack.

That something bigger is not always an observable “fact” and is often just tangentially related to the product offering itself. Disneyland rides aren’t about thrills, they’re about magic. Starbucks is less about coffee than it is about community. Nike shoes are less about support, stability and cushioning as they are about the larger notion of personal aspiration.

This laddering up of benefits is difficult to establish through black box models and not easily gleaned from quantitative studies. In these examples, there was actually very little marketing involved. Brand positions were established not through research, but were strongly rooted in the personal, human visions of company founders.

However, emulating these kinds of success stories requires personal interaction with consumers to ladder up to the appropriate values, and a good deal of face to face discussion internally. The very nature of concept development and innovation is highly relational in nature.

We hear over and over again that contemporary marketing must embrace “storytelling” to be effective. Something that captures the imagination of consumers and provides a shock of personal recognition, a highly relatable narrative on to which people can project themselves.

Numbers can certainly tell some very interesting stories. But not all stories are equal. Consider this.

A bipolar, 30-something whack job, just out of the psychiatric hospital and living with his parents, embarks on a fool’s errand to win back his ex-wife. Old friends, trying to help him get on with his life, fix him up with a beautiful woman who is initially repulsed by him. A romantic dance ensues, literally and figuratively. They fall in love and live happily ever after.

You recognize this story as the Oscar winning film “Silver Linings Playbook.” That short paragraph does indeed tell a story. But even with additional details, it would still be an outline, just  plot. What’s missing is the emotional nuance of human interaction. Few of us will relate directly to the specific “facts” of the film, but we can recognize ourselves in more universal themes such as the film’s tale of a struggle against great odds and ultimate redemption. Our own families may not be dysfunctional, but none are perfect, and the film prods us into thinking about the dynamics of our own relationships with parents and children. And of course the promise of love and the notion of living a happy life in an imperfect world, when brought to life so artfully, strongly resonates with most of us.

I can tell you these things, but the impact is nothing close to what happens when you experience them in the context of the entire film. Storytelling isn’t just the facts or strictly about what happens. It’s about how and why things happen. Engaging stories, those that truly touch us and stir our emotions, are essentially about relationships. Relationships between protagonists and nature, society, other characters, and ultimately themselves. It’s the difference between reading Shakespeare’s Richard III as opposed to a historical textbook account.

Marketing, at it’s core, is also about relationships – those between brands and people. An abundance of slice-able and dice-able data can help us understand some of the mechanics, but marketing will always be more art than science, a human endeavor highly dependent on depth, heartfelt understanding and nuance.

Brooks seems to agree in his New York Times column, going on to say that:

“Empathy becomes a more important workplace skill, the ability to sense what another human being is feeling or thinking. Diabetes patients of doctors who scored high on empathy tests do better than patients with low-empathy doctors.

The ability to function in a group also becomes more important — to know how to tell stories that convey the important points, how to mix people together.

Secure workers will combine technical knowledge with social awareness — the sort of thing you get from your genes, from growing up in a certain sort of family and by widening your repertoire of emotions through reflection, literature and a capacity for intimacy.”

The transactional versus relational discussion should not be framed in either or terms. Nor should quantitative versus qualitative  or marketing science versus marketing art. We need both the yin and the yang, just the right balance, to succeed in marketing or any endeavor.

Attacking marketing science and quantitative research would be foolish. It clearly advances the cause. Yet the “soft” science, the “touchy-feely” art of qualitative insights and ideation seems to be under constant attack. Marketing has been thrown way out of balance as a result.

Ideas may be inspired by data but they still come from people. When people interact in the proper environment, whether a road trip for focus groups or store checks, a creative ideation meeting, drinks after work or a chance encounter in the office, there is a better chance of those ideas being hatched and nurtured into money making enterprises.

We can learn a good deal from quantifiable data on consumer behavior and attitudes. But the nuance of the human condition is best observed up close and personal. It’s why psychotherapy is sill best conducted face-to-face, not over Skype, telephone, email or digital billboard. It’s the reason why qualitative research should never be overlooked.

We cannot forget that the magic is in the moment, when people share ideas and experiences in real time.

I am fond of saying that we’re not in the marketing business, we’re in the mental health business.  It’s a highly textured human endeavor that demands human interaction to succeed. It stands to reason that a commitment to maximizing and enhancing those human reactions is more important than ever to counter the effects of a transactional, automated, Big Data world.

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