When the Voice of the Consumer Needs to Be Ignored

Rudy Giuliani was rightfully ridiculed last year when he asserted that “sometimes the truth isn’t really the truth.” The exchange with NBC’s Chuck Todd, cited here by CNN.com, is worth recounting in full.

Rudy Giuliani, President Donald Trump’s attorney, said Sunday that “truth isn’t truth” when explaining that he won’t let special counsel Robert Mueller rush Trump into testifying because he doesn’t want investigators to trap the President into a lie.

“When you tell me that, you know, he should testify because he’s going to tell the truth and he shouldn’t worry, well, that’s so silly because it’s somebody’s version of the truth. Not the truth,” Giuliani told NBC’s Chuck Todd on Sunday morning during “Meet the Press.”

Giuliani claims Mueller waiting for Manafort verdict to negotiate Trump interview

“Truth is truth,” Todd said in response.

“No, no, it isn’t truth,” Giuliani said. “Truth isn’t truth. The President of the United States says, “I didn’t …”

“Truth isn’t truth?” Todd interjected. “Mr. Mayor, do you realize, what … I think this is going to become a bad meme.”

“No, no, no … don’t do this to me,” Giuliani said.

“Don’t do ‘truth isn’t truth’ to me,” Todd continued.

It is always difficult separating objective facts from subjective feelings. Mr. Giuliani seems to be saying that Mr. Trump feels that he hasn’t broken the law, and that should be good enough for the American people. As Trump himself would say, “We’ll see.”

However, in a court of law, we can only hope that facts, not feelings, will matter and the president will either be exonerated or suffer the consequences of conviction accordingly.

In the court of marketing, the opposite is true. The goal of marketing insights cannot be the pursuit of the facts, but the relentless quest to uncover human truth. While marketing truths should not be fuzzy, the role of facts can often be confusing.

We want to believe what our consumers tell us, especially when they speak in a clear, confident, unified, unequivocal voice.

In focus groups we recently conducted, respondents were shown television commercials from a few companies in a category where offerings are complex and somewhat confusing. Respondents, nearly across the board, insisted on evaluating these spots on a single dimension: How many facts were presented?

Ads with people talking about higher level feelings? Not credible. Production values? Irrelevant. Just the facts please, the more the better.

These consumers were lying. That they demanded fact-based spots was indeed a fact, but it wasn’t the truth. Had my clients taken this feedback at face value, they would have directed their agency to create a spot that would have been completely ineffective.

How do I know this? It is my strong belief from decades of in marketing and studying people that brand choice is never based on the facts, certainly not the facts alone. Feel free to disagree but you’d be wrong, wrong, wrong and that’s a fact, or at least I feel it is. Do Android phones offer better value and superior features than iPhones? Probably, but you’ll never convince diehard Apple people, me among them, that it’s a better choice. But let’s put all this aside for the moment.

The conversation around reactions to the ads revealed a number of interesting observations. First, there was absolutely no recall, aided or unaided, of any specific TV spot in the entire category. Respondents remembered nothing at all. They couldn’t describe any of the ads overall, any specific features of the ads, taglines, imagery or anything else. This was at a time when the entire industry was advertising heavily and some of the ads presented were in heavy rotation.

With no emotional hook to speak of, these fact-filled efforts were virtually invisible. They all added up to a single, generic, forgettable spot that may have been successful in raising awareness for the category but did little or nothing to elevate individual brands. I would argue that the very reason they were forgotten is a direct result of an unrelenting barrage of facts and features with nary a tinge of emotion.

Respondents don’t watch TV spots in focus groups the way they watch them at home. In this case, they essentially told us that they don’t watch them at home. Seems that they tune out instantly when they see ads for this kind of service come on the screen. They are not glued to their sets, taking notes, writing down fact after fact so they can make an informed decision. Real life isn’t a focus group.

We also have to recognize that the focus group process sets respondents up for a fact-based perspective. How could it be any other way if we are talking about a category where brand/product choice “should” demand an intelligent, rational analysis. No one wants to appear “stupid” in front of others, so who is going to admit, in this category at least, that they’ve made important life decisions based on feelings?

So why bother doing this research in the first place you might ask?

It is often very difficult to distinguish between facts and truth when we talk to consumers. They say one thing and do another. Talk to moms about snacks for their kids and you would think we are a nation of fresh fruit and veggie lovers, not overweight chip-a-holics and chocoholics.

People will, most often, fudge the truth or lie outright not to embarrass themselves in front of others or even a single interviewer in a one-on-one setting. They want to appear “smart,” and “smart” often translates to “rational.”

But that’s not how it works. When you keep digging, with the skepticism and insatiable curiosity required by all marketers, the real truth will eventually emerge. You’ll see who your customers really are. How their life experience, personal values and deeply held emotions guide their behavior.

Again, superficial analysis would have indicated that our “truth” here is that people need facts to make complex decisions. (Like voting.) As it turns out, that wasn’t true at all, which means that there’s a grain of truth in Mr. Giuliani’s observation that “truth isn’t truth.” Perhaps not in the case of his client, where many facts have emerged and more will follow. But certainly, when dealing with subjective, emotion-based decisions, there can, in fact, be many layers of truth.

It’s our job to unravel them, and why marketing will always be art than science.

2 Comments
  • Ronnie Blackburn
    Posted at 14:39h, 07 January Reply

    A bit of a long-winded way of saying “What people say they want and what they actually do are often two different things.” Would have loved to see a more straightforward approach to the topic, perhaps actually outlining what circumstances might warrant paying more attention to what consumers actually do rather than self-reported desire/intent, and when self-reported metrics are especially valuable (which is more along the lines of what I expected when reading the title of this article).

  • Bill Marks
    Posted at 10:55h, 08 January Reply

    Spot on, Jeff. I preach this all the time and have a number of enlightening, hilarious, and poignant examples I’ve shared over the years

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