55. Peter Spear on Brand Listening vs. Consumer Research & How To Develop A Brand Strategy

imageBrand Listener and Strategist, Peter Spear has over 18 years experience researching consumer insight to help brands see and plan more clearly and strategically.

How does your job fit into the marketing process? All of my work is qualitative consumer research – face to face. It’s either conversation, which can happen anywhere – one on one interviews, group discussions – or it’s observation, which happens out in the world where decisions get made and products get used – in people’s homes, stores, etc.

My clients are usually the brands themselves, sometimes with their creative agencies, but mostly not. My work happens either in the beginning or at the end of a strategic or creative development process.

Sometimes I think of it in two ways – you listen when you need inspiration or if you need to refine.

At the early stages of any development, the goal is to explore the category through the eyes of the consumer in order to inspire ways of thinking about the opportunity. The goal is to inform development through deeper understanding of the consumer experience.

At the end of development the goal is to share what’s been created  – be it a new product, communications, logo, packaging, etc. – to learn and refine. It’s about “taking out” what has been created to determine in what ways it works towards the strategy or brief.

I talk about it as brand listening because it was important for me to distance myself from standard qualitative. I wanted to describe a way of doing research that was sensitive to context, psychology and strategy. Too much qualitative is extremely unreliable and unuseful because it is insensitive to these limitations (and borders on the inhumane).

There are, quite frankly, serious limitations about how much you can learn through qualitative research – but what you can learn can be immensely powerful.

For a planner’s perspective on the appropriate use of research, do check out Martin Weigel’s “The Use and Abuse of Research”:

In it he states: “Most creative development is strategy development done too late.” This means, to me, that there are great efficiencies in keeping research very close to development throughout the process, and keeping it strategic.

A lot of well-known online entrepreneurs suggest ‘validation’ by browsing message boards and consumer reviews about what people are complaining about and then creating a product that meets their needs, and then procure X # of sales ASAP to ensure you have an idea that people are willing to pay. I think there are a couple of things that make me nervous about this. Remember, I have spent my entire career in that space between ideas and real people, so this makes me really sensitive to noble ambitions and the harsh reality of everyday life. The failure rate is astonishing.

I think it’s important to remember that this kind of advice coincides with the single biggest increase in the availability of product-making tools in recent history. So it’s extremely fashionable to align oneself with making things – as opposed to, god forbid, thinking about them or doing some basic exploration of the opportunity.

So I would be careful about who’s advice you take – even mine. But if you haven’t thought about strategy (where are we going?) or about identity (who are we?) then, as far as I’m concerned, you don’t have a full proposition. Consumers know this. You may not need a guy like me to answer these questions, but the questions remain.

Ultimately the question is, “How well do I understand the opportunity I see from the perspective of my prospect?” If you can get that from browsing the internet, that’s great.

The main goal is a satisfied customer. Successful brands hold people in a way that is reassuring – we all feel this in the brands we choose to allow into our lives. This is a combination of brand and product working together. The more you know about who you are, where you’re headed and how you fit into the world BEFORE, the greater your ability to deliver satisfying experiences. 

[EDITOR’S NOTE: As of this interview publication, Kickstarter has 67,633 successfully-funded projects and Indiegogo has an unknown number of successfully-funded projects. (As a private company, Indiegogo doesn’t disclose this specific information)  Of these projects, how many appear to have actually listened to consumers about what they actually want before launching their project? Of the projects that have failed, how many of them might have been successful if they had first invested some money ensuring that that were crowdfunding a product for which there was actually a need and that they were communicating in the correct way?] 

Most of the time, what consumers say they want and what they actually want are completely different things (and they are often not aware of this). How do you account for this problem as you listen to consumers? One of the first things I was taught was that we do not have answers. We have experiences, and these experiences are embodied. Yet most research approaches people as if they were a source of reliable answers to our questions, and we keep them in our heads. This is a disastrous misunderstanding.

So I design projects from the body out. That means I do men and women’s groups separately, partly because all categories are gendered, and partly because men and women communicate differently when they’re in the company of the other.

I recruit and re-recruit to make sure that I am talking to people with real category or brand experiences. I do not have anyone introduce themselves at the beginning of groups, to avoid the creation of a social hierarchy that arrives as soon as you know what neighborhood someone lives in, or job they have.

The mind thinks in images first, so I do a lot of free association and projective questions to get at the imagery and emotions and work backwards. All the exercises are written down, to give people the opportunity to free associate within themselves and to protect against social influence.

I recently backed out of a project because my client, an innovation agency, said the CEO was going to be there, so there needed to be more talking, less writing. Never mind that the talking would be unreliable nonsense. I refused. I have only recently found the courage to hold onto these principles for myself.

Ideally, though, brand listening needs both conversation and observation. In conversation, all listening is oriented towards the embodied experience through indirect questioning, deep metaphor exploration, and projective exercises to get at motivations, mindsets, values and imagery. And observation is about shared experiences out in the category to understand the context.

None of this is revolutionary or perfect, of course. I learned all this 18 years ago, but for clients, agencies, and marketers, these tools often seem to feel like indulgences, when in fact, I believe they’re requirements.

What’s the best way to develop my brand strategy? When I work with startups, I help them develop what is essentially a minimum viable brand, which becomes a kind of template for telling your brand and product story. This process is essentially a collaborative process of coming to clarity around six components which can then be turned into a strategic creative brief.

Who are you serving and who is your ideal prospect? How do you define the activities people are already doing that make them most likely to see the benefits you are offering? Actual experience in a category of behavior is better predictor of future behavior than any demographic information.  Check out Michael Schrage’s “Who do you want your customers to become?”

What are you building? What category are you in? Being clear about the category you are in helps you know who you’re serving, focuses your learning on real needs, and helps shape how you describe what it actually is. Language matters.

My model is a Venn diagram and where who and what intersect is what I call drivers. Design calls them “Jobs to be Done.” Marketing calls them “benefits.” Psychology calls them “motivations.” This is where all listening happens – with individuals active in a behavior, in order to understand how we can be uniquely helpful.

Why do you exist? I call this a passionate provocative purpose.  If design is the rendering of intent, then the Why is the intent of your organization that needs to be present in every interaction. A successful Why statement articulates the transformational intent of an organization – how are you going to transform the category, the consumer?

With these in place, teams can begin to think about brand identity (where Why & Who intersect) and brand behavior (where Why & What intersect) – which are the activities most commonly associated with branding. Jeremy Bullmore describes it as the “body language” of the proposition. But these come after getting the other pieces in place.

How would you recommend an entrepreneur do their own research to gain reliable insights? The first thing I would say is to be clear that it is not the job of your customer or prospect to answer our marketing questions. Hence the need for creative listening. Ask them about them, not you or your product. This is the most common mistake made.

  1. Who you talk to matters. Don’t talk to friends and family. Recruit your interviews according to the behaviors of the category that matters for your business.
  2. I would probably recommend staying away from doing groups. Do one on one interviews. If you do not know how to manage a group, you will be overwhelmed.
  3. Listen widely. Give them space and time to describe their own experiences and stories they have had in the space.
  4. Be patient. Don’t interrupt. This will be harder than you think.
  5. Give full attention. Eye contact, body language matter immensely.
  6. Either give them a full experience or don’t. You can’t take back a bad or incomplete experience. Have either a functioning prototype or a minimum viable story.
  7. Stay away from the future. Asking people what they might do in the future is unreliable.
  8. Stay away from money. Paying money hurts. Avoid causing pain.
  9. Ask open-ended and indirect questions. Practice starting every question with What or How. What’s interesting? How does this feel different? What is this like? What does this remind you of? How would you describe that?
  10. Avoid asking Why questions. This puts people on the defensive and assumes there’s a rational explanation.
  11. Do not introduce your own language. What you call something and what they call something could be totally different. It is this difference that creates insights.
  12. Ask follow up questions. The first response is never a complete response.
  13. Ask about their language. Listen for emotional or descriptive words. Follow up by simply saying that word back to them.
  14. If you find someone explaining something vs. describing something, it’s probably not the whole truth. Focus on getting descriptions.

There’s a great book by Steve Portigal called Interviewing Users: How to Uncover Compelling Insights  that outlines guidelines for preparing for an interview and what it’s like to be a consumer research interviewer.

Also, check out:

  1. “Peak Listening” on Farnam Street
  2. John Winsor on Learning to Listen Again
  3. Tim Brown of IDEO on creative listening

What’s an important lesson you’ve learned from experience? The only relationship that matters is the relationship between brands and their customers and prospects.  By extension that means my relationship with the people I interview is paramount. 

If I am honoring the experiences of the individuals who share their time and their energy with me, and I focus on attempting to orient brands towards being more helpful to them, I can sleep at night. 

Advice for someone who wants to do your job? I guess I would say get in front of people as often as possible: asking questions and following up as often as possible. Get really comfortable at being in the presence of other people and ask them to describe their experiences. 

Listening is extremely hard. Until you understand your category through the perspective of your consumer, you have very little understanding about your brand or product. 

The challenge is to give them space to communicate and to believe what they’re saying – not what they’re telling you, but what they mean. There’s a great quote from Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson: “The person you are listening to is right. Always. Your wife, your husband, your employee, your customers. They’re right.”

Any last comments? If you’re interested in knowing more about brand listening, I would recommend these two videos: 

This music video never fails to make me smile:

6 thoughts on “55. Peter Spear on Brand Listening vs. Consumer Research & How To Develop A Brand Strategy

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