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Creating an Emotional Connection: Four Consumer Research Methods for High-Performance Campaigns

By , Creative Director, Hanson Dodge

July 15, 2016

Focus groups, surveys and other research tools remain valuable methods of gathering data that can inform every element of brand strategy.

But understanding what connects consumers to brands on an emotional level can be a bit more complex than we give it credit for. Which is why brand builders charged with delivering highly emotive creative campaigns would be wise to complement the usual array of data gathering measures with some less conventional tactics and techniques.

Our goal is to build brands people care about and connect with, so they, in turn, are willing to buy (or buy into) a product, service or idea.

Brands—defined by some of the top minds in advertising as “history, reputation” (Ogilvy), “mental pictures” (Burnett), “expectations, memories, stories, relationships” (Godin) and “gut feelings” (Nuimer)—are intangible, abstract and completely subjective ideas.

Just think about it for a moment. Emotions, memories, stories, relationships, gut feelings: these aren’t quite the confidence-building concepts business-minded CEOs and data-driven CMOs are clamoring to hear when tasked with showing “business results.”

Yet, it is all of those intangible, touchy-feely things that make a brand worth real, tangible stuff, like money.

Take Nike: all of the history, memories, feelings, stories and mental pictures—which no doubt include M.J. jumping from the free throw line, that TV spot that made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, the first time you opened that box of new Jump Mans—are what make that little swoosh and name worth $13 billion.

When you are dealing with emotions, feelings and memories (and all of those other things) you’re now attempting to understand one of the most complex things on the face of the earth: humans. And after six years of college and a handful of degrees in the social sciences trying do just that, let me tell you, it’s not easy. But you don’t need a degree to know that.

So how do you get to the kinds of consumer insights that can spark highly emotional creative ideas? Let’s start with a couple of “dont's”:

Don’t just ask them what they want, because they may not know the answer.

Henry Ford famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Steve Jobs quipped, “People don’t know what they want until you show them.” And, similarly, but maybe not so eloquently, my old-school Italian uncle would often say, “When I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.” Point being, people don’t know what they want. In branding and advertising, sometimes you just have to show them or tell them.

Febreze’s Almost Failure. P&G’s Febreeze almost failed because of what consumers didn’t know. Febreze was initially positioned around the idea of being a revolutionary product that got rid of the worst smells in your home.

Imagine asking a consumer that question: “If we had a product that could get rid of your worst smells, would you buy it?” Damn straight you would.

But it didn’t sell. Why? They soon found out that most people don’t know when they, or their house, smells bad.

It wasn’t until after some creative repositioning around the concept of pairing Febreze with a cleaning routine that it became the brand we know today. If you’re interested in this concept, let Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers (and several other sociological bestsellers), tell you a little bit more about people and their unknowing love for chunky pasta sauce.

Don’t assume the answer they share is “the answer.”

You think consumers will admit important, personal, maybe even emotional aspects of their lives to a stranger? Many won’t.

An Unnamed Fast Food Restaurant’s Attempt at Understanding. I sat at a conference listening to a CMO of a fast food chain (which I will leave nameless) explain how their brand did extensive research to find out one thing: how often their very best customers came into the restaurant.

They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars asking consumers that very question. The answer: their best customer came in to eat every five to seven days. Then, with that information in hand, the fast food chain started to market to those consumers using that five to seven day time span as recurring cycle for ads, coupons, deals, etc.

A year later, they launched an app and rewards program that gave them the real data on how often their best customers actually came in. I’m guessing you know where this is going—their best customers were coming in every two days (something most would not readily admit).

Think about it this way: about 75 percent of people like milky, weak coffee. But they will never, ever say that to someone who asks them how they like their coffee (Gladwell).

All of which makes the case for using multiple methodologies for uncovering—and validating—consumer insights that can give rise to higher performing creative campaigns.

So what should be done instead?

Be willing to expand the tool set to go beyond the limits of more traditional research methods. Look. Listen. Experience. Ask differently. In other words…

1. Have one-on-one conversations and ask questions differently.
If you’re interviewing someone and really trying to understand what connects, don’t ask them directly. For example, if you want to know how important riding is to a serious cycling enthusiast, ask what they would do if bikes were outlawed?

We did once, and when talks of the apocalypse, turning to alcohol, not being able to go on with life and uncontrollable tears started, we knew we had a real answer.

2. Sit among consumers.
Ethnography, the practice of watching and studying, is not new, but it happens far less often than it should in marketing and advertising. Enter their world; sit with them in their natural surroundings. Who knows, you might just find yourself in a mall on a Friday night, making friends with a bunch of middle-aged men competing in a Magic the Gathering tournament (which, if you didn’t know, is the popular fantasy-driven game that’s a mix of chess, Dungeons and Dragons and poker). Totally hypothetical, I swear.

3. Find the places they might not know you’re listening.
Put to use all of the amazing social listening tools out there. Dig into their Facebook feeds. Dive into online forums and sites like Reddit where people are willing to spill a lot of personal (sometimes strange) but almost always useful stuff.

4. Use focus groups as ideation sessions.
Use focus groups as opportunities to have consumers do some brainstorming on your brand’s behalf. For example, ask them to come up with the next 10 best ways to make the music listening experience better. You’ll probably hear at least one great idea or insight that you can use.

And that is actually the point in all of this—the research studies, the learnings, all of it. From a creative perspective, we are really just looking for one powerful, disruptive idea that will inspire consumers to take action. Great ideas come from the right understanding, and not necessarily a complete or objectively verifiable understanding. Once you have that one totally unique insight about the consumer, nothing else should really matter. Put it in a brief and lock the research away. That insight—if it is truly insightful—will provide all the fuel the creative team needs to create killer campaigns that connect with consumers on an emotional level, which leads to real results.

HDC’s insight-driven campaigns for Legendary Whitetails led to a 200% increase in unaided brand awareness among the brand’s target audience and resulted in 80 percent of consumers who saw the digital and TV spots making a Legendary Whitetails purchase. Why? They felt a connection with the brand and its belief system.

Next time you are doing research for a creative campaign to understand what connects with your consumer—be it surveys, focus groups, interviews, ethnographic studies, all of them—remember that we are in the art of business, not the business of science. Take what you learn as a directional starting point, not the litmus test for what works and what doesn’t.

Joe Ciccarelli, Creative Director, Hanson Dodge

A brand strategist turned creative director, Joe Ciccarelli blends his background in understanding people, culture and trends with an ability to get the most meaningful ideas used in the most creative ways. Otherwise, he’s a writer, storyteller, avid reader (of both treasure and trash), a musician, a learner and a teacher. Holding degrees in Communication and Sociology as well as Master’s degree from Marquette University, Joe also serves as an adjunct professor in the school’s Advertising Department.

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