Focus Groups. Testing. Polls. Market Research. It used to be that these terms would send a creative person over the edge. The everpresent argument -- to think that 10 people in a room, who volunteered to be there because they got paid and fed, could represent true consumer behavior toward advertising concepts that we usually not even fully formed -- was maddening.
But things changed.
The explosion of real-time analytics brings us tangible facts on how consumers actually react to almost anything. And that learning is now used to shape our communication across all advertising channels. Dwindling are the days of subjectivity and pure creative opinion. Enter proof. The inarguable facts of what consumers will and won’t do or buy according to action and not intention.
The above may sound like the death of creativity. It may sound like everything is now based only on fact and that Willy Wonka’s coat might need to change from purple to red because consumers pick red coats 3.5% more often. Or that Mickey Mouse should actually be a hamster because consumers resonate 4.03% more with hamsters.
Let’s not get crazy.
How many times have you read research findings that begin “Surprisingly, ….”? That’s because humans are only predictable to a certain degree of, well, certainty. The way to find the nuances and intricacies in human behavior is to uncover them through testing.
True creativity comes with finding a strategically sound hypothesis to test in the face of current learnings. Notice I didn’t say “works in the face of current learnings." While it would be fantastic to have every new idea outperform the previous one, the creative objective should be to exhaust the variables. The job of analytics is to measure and translate those combinations into learning. It’s a co-dependent relationship, yet a healthy one. If you don’t have new hypotheses, you don’t have new analytics and learning stops there.
What that means is that creative people have to think harder -- have to look at what is known and find the unexplored territory that still makes sense to the strategy. True creativity is finding freedom within a framework. That is exactly where we are now. There are frameworks of what we know about consumers. What we have to do is find new questions to ask -- new ways to say things that consumers want to hear. This has always been the job of creative -- it just now has more information to use for that process.
That’s why it important for creatives to be able to “read” the results. Our creative freedom lies in being able to understand what is defined by current learnings. Then we need to be able to find the soft spots and areas where there are potentially better ways to reach the target or, even different targets. We have to understand which targets are already defined and possibly identify a critical mass of potential new ones who may respond differently (and better) to an alternate concept. There is more fertile ground for creativity.
Or you dig a little deeper into the results and realize that although more general consumers pick red coats themselves, that doesn’t mean they want Wonka to alter his wardrobe. You test that even though consumers may have a personal propensity for red coats, they like purple on public characters. Even more, you might only want to be talking to a smaller segment of the group, the “Dreamers”, and they are just fine with purple coats and Oopa Loompas.
Variables can also be a key to creativity. The “what ifs…” still exist; we just know the answers to a lot of them now. But keep in mind that changes in external variables can alter human behavior. Things such as the economy, fashion, which party is in office and who our pop icons are all affect consumer behavior. Each time an influential cultural change takes root, a previous concept that did not test well could have its day in the sun. And results that have been true for years may wither.
Remember, Ford gave us one of the best quotes for not always following what we know: “If you would have asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” There is still plenty of room for surprise, delight and magic. It’s up to us to find it. “We are the music-makers, And we are the dreamers of dreams.” Willy Wonka/Arthur William Edgar O'Shaughnessy.