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:

50. Timoni West, Freelance Product Designer

Freelance Product Designer Timoni West has 10 years experience designing user experiences to help brands turn visitors into consumers.

How does your job fit into the marketing process? In terms of user-experience (UX), with very early startups it’s been my experience that they have little to no marketing budget and most of them rely on their friends supporting them or through public relations. In any case, the homepage is technically the biggest marketing tool brands have that they can get for free.

So for the most part, it’s the UX designer’s job to make sure that when visitors comes to your website they immediately know exactly what the product is about and can sign up for it as quickly as possible.

If visitors land on your homepage and are confused about what the product is or why they should use it then the UX designer has failed. And honestly, there are TONS of startups that fail to tell you what they do. When that happens, it’s generally because the company itself doesn’t know how to articulate their product vision.

What are one or two projects you’ve worked on?



Many designers offer free and paid website templates for Tumblr and WordPress. How can you tell the difference between good and bad templates? Have a consistency across your brand’s website and social media sites as well as making it clear that the website is part of an overall corporate identity. Then it comes down to how well the template is executed: Does it look good? Does it make your company look professional? A lot of templates look artificial, and there are a lot of ‘brand identity gurus’ out there that give you the feeling that they’re offering products that they don’t seem to really believe in, and so they embellish and overstate things. Making it clear to your visitor that you have a solid product that you’re proud of is a key goal that you want to demonstrate throughout the look and feel of your website and social networks.

Would you advise investing in UX or advertising? That depends on a couple of factors:

How good is your product already? If you have a very simple product and you’ve already nailed what your product does, and when people open up your app or visit your website they know exactly what it does and why they need it, then by all means don’t spend any more money on UX and invest in getting the word out about your product.

But if when people go to your site people don’t know what it does or why they should use it, or if you’re having problems with growth because people aren’t being retained (or converted via signing up or purchasing) that means that there is a problem with your product or your product’s presentation.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Benjamin Descazal, Data Consultant for KBMG discusses in-depth how to assess your website to maximize consumer engagement.]

What about manipulative UX design? Manipulative websites come up a lot in UX design. While I appreciate that some applications and websites are trying to go viral and facilitate exposure, some go too far by making their product annoying to use, so users are constantly trying to use the product while not posting everything they do onto Facebook. Some brands really go a step too far.

That being said, there are some cases where ‘forgivable’ patterns can definitely be helpful for startups: Web site features that consumers generally dislike however are willing to tolerate, or that consumers accidentally do but have the opportunity to go back and undo if they want – Most people will probably just let it go – up to a certain point.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Brad Frost gives a good presentation on Bullshit for Creative Mornings.]

Most importantly, never do anything that could cause your user to feel like you’ve tricked them.

Are speaking engagements a part of your advertising or is Github a one off thing? Github was a one-off opportunity; however I have another speaking engagement coming up so I might start speaking more regularly.

Will developers ever create a perfect UX system? I think we’ll start to see more brands that are circumventing current UX systems to create their own, more simple ones. If you think about it, Google Reader did that, and any sort of RSS reader does that now. Flipboard does that. Pinterest does that. They’re basically trying to create a new UI (user interface) to consume things that normally are found at many different places across the internet.

What are misconceptions that clients commonly have about the UX industry? Fortunately, I get good clients. On a broader scale, if you have a project where you’re working with both product managers and UX designers, people forget that designers are probably the best source for project planning and feature sets.

Of course this depends on the size and structure of the company, but sometimes designers have to work with defacto product designers who do everything but actually design the product, so they kind of tell you everything that you need to do, like asking you to wireframe up their ideas.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: A website wireframe, also known as a page schematic or screen blueprint, “is a visual guide that represents the skeletal framework of a website. The wireframe depicts the page layout or arrangement of the website’s content, including interface elements and navigational systems, and how they work together.”]

Brands usually contact UX designers when they have a specific need. So I’ll begin by talking about what they need for their product so it’s kind of hard to mess that up. They tell me what they want, and I tell them if I can do it.

If users make a mistake it will most likely be within the first five minutes of downloading your app (or product) while they’re deciding whether or not to trust and use you, and so you’ll instantly have negative feedback going on there.

Your thoughts on hiring a UX agency versus a full-time in-house UX designer?  Many startups and entrepreneurs prefer to hire on people full time because they’ll obviously be dedicated to the brand vision and want to work with people who are as passionate about the brand and who are invested in it in the long run as they are. If you’re hiring an agency or a freelancer it’s sort of assumed that they won’t care as much about the long-term growth of the startup.

The nice thing about UX is that it’s so straightforward that no one will ever be trying to just fake it for their own personal gain. You might not know what the best answer is, or what the best use-case is, but you can’t just do bad UX that’s very confusing and get away with it because everyone will know that it is confusing, and that it needs to be fixed.

I want to hire a UX designer, how can I tell the good from the bad? I can tell you what I always look for when I’m going to hire people.

1) I always look at their homepage. They need to have a homepage. They can’t just have an ‘about me’ page or a cargo collective page. They need to have something that they have hopefully coded themselves, or have at least personalized if they haven’t coded it themselves and maybe got someone else to do it for them. That’s number one.

2) The second thing is actually showing off their work.  The person may know a lot of UX designer sites or may be able to drop a lot of names but not actually show off anything, I want to know what companies they have worked for as well as companies they want to work for. I understand that people get busy, but the number one red flag when if you’re looking to hire someone for web or mobile is someone who doesn’t have their own personal portfolio online. That is step number one in showing that you actually care about the internet.

With branding, how should I choose a logo? To be honest, I don’t think logos matter as much as agencies say they do. I’ve seen some of the most powerful companies in the world have some of the most tiny crappy logos. I think what it comes down to is sheer repetition. You can have the most beautifully designed wonderful logo in the world, and you’re company will never be known – it’s not some magical turnkey that some companies sell it as.

That being said, don’t have a cheesy logo unless you have a children’s company. Don’t try to make it warm and fuzzy and encapsulate six different ideas – it’s just one market. If nothing else, go with Gotham all caps.

When you’re a company just starting out, don’t worry too much about the logo – don’t spend any significant amount of time or money on it because you can always change it later. Brands are constantly updating their logos and they’re doing fine.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Marine Soyez, Art Director for Pixelis offers great information about updating your brand logo. Also here are some fundamental things to keep in mind when buying a logo by Stocklogos.com]

How does SEO meet UX? This depends on the type of tool the UX designer is using. Most of my projects for clients involve building on an existing content management system (CMS) of some kind, and they almost always have SEO already built in.

What are the top 5 CMSs you’ve worked with? Wordpress is obviously very popular. Online sites I’ve used are Shopify and Squarespace. Drupal. Ghost. Medium… I think that WordPress is better and more robust, but it’s really hard to beat Tumblr’s social tools.

Might Tumblr suffer now that Yahoo! purchased it? Will Tumblr fade under Yahoo!?  No. I think Tumblr will fade anyway. I think they were getting to the point where they are either making big money or they are bought out by someone.  And they got bought out. It doesn’t matter who you get bought out by, when you get bought out, your talents and your top people have mega money, so they don’t have to work anymore or they move on to other projects. I don’t think Yahoo! will replace the Tumblr people with good or better people, I think they will either maintain like the way they did with Flickr and then it will just turn into parity and the rest of the internet will move on when Tumblr no longer has the features to compete anymore.

Globally, I think the way companies set up rewards systems means that they are sort of doomed to lose their talented people after a certain number of years. They won’t keep innovating forever, people will move to other companies, and your product will slowly lose value.

What are a few of your favorite advertising campaigns?

What books would you recommend for learning more about UX design?

The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman
– Any book written by Edward Tufte
A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander

Every single decision you make affects how a user will view and use your product/website.

What about UX design and hackers? Anything can be exploited by a hacker. I think most people who design websites nowadays are aware of basic security protocol, so I wouldn’t worry about it too much. If a hacker wants to hack your site, it’s going to happen. But I think the likelihood isn’t high that they will want to hack your little startup.

That being said, there’s a lot of extensive information online about security best practices, and if you hire a designer you should make it clear that that is a priority for you and make sure that you know what they have done to your site and what sort of security measures they have taken.

If you want to ensure your website is hack resistant, have a friend hack your site and let you know. Also browse the questions and answers on http://stackoverflow.com

How do you research for a project? This depends on how well I know the client and the client’s product space. I’ll start by doing a search and seeing what people have said/are saying about the client, their competitors, and the industry.

When it comes to actually doing up the wires (wireframes – def’n ?) I’ll start by creating a prioritized list of the primary tasks we want the visitor to do on the page.

I want to do your job, any advice?

– If you don’t have a portfolio, make one out of projects you did for friends, in school, freelance, etc. If you don’t have any projects, create a bunch of projects for yourself so that you can show your skill. Dustin Curtis redesigned the American Airlines page and it went viral. Another guy redesigned airline tickets. One guy did a really great fake Starbucks app. Just show off your skill and how you solve problems.

– Once you have an online portfolio, consider starting your career off at an agency because that will introduce you to a lot of super talented people and you’ll also get to work on a variety of projects.
– Go to a lot of meetups and meet as many people as you can. Once you get comfortable, speak at a couple of meetups. Get yourself out there and start meeting people. Every single good job I’ve had and every single client I’ve had I found through other people.
– Start following people on Twitter that you really admire and start engaging with them.

– Give back to the community by giving back to open sources projects.

I have a small budget to promote myself, any advice? If you are a very early stage, not particularly well connected, and need to get yourself out there – throw a party and invite everyone you can. Every website that exists now started off with a small community of super active users. This gets people aware with the product, and hopefully they’ll like using it. The more early adopters talk about you, the more people who take that early adopter’s advice and use it themselves. If you take out an ad on a subway, you might get a few people to check you out, but it will be in a vacuum.

How do you use images and avoid copyright? I believe everyone should be paid for their work. That being said, sometimes you honestly don’t have the budget for it. The absolute best resource I use is Flicker’s Creative Commons License Search.

BONUS: Timoni’s latest speaking engagement on cognitive biases

In the world of emotionally branded presence, it is not quantity that counts but quality. Consumers are so barraged by communications that finding a unique venue for a brand message can sometimes be more powerful than logos plastered everywhere. This is particularly true in large cities where modern computer technology has made the cost of oversized vinyl panels negligible and, therefore, 120-foot advertisements staring down at pedestrians from buildings are a commonplace sight, and advertising clutter from bus stop ads to passing trucks is abundant.

Emotional Branding by Marc Gobé