The Meaning Detectives: Behavioral Heats Up Offline

Way beyond the clickstream analysis and user tracking that informs online BT methods, there is a larger and much older realm of consumer behavioral research that has become the new hot zone in brand and product marketing. Focus groups and surveys are all well and good, say these researchers, but marketers and product designers need to understand how and why people buy products and the meanings that they attach to them. To do this, you hire companies like Cheskin to hit the streets, and actually go into people's lives and homes to study ethnographically how people interact with products. Steve Diller, experience design studio leader and partner at Cheskin, recently co-authored Making Meaning: How Successful Businesses Deliver Meaningful Customer Experiences. Diller walked us through how the esoteric methods of ethnography are increasingly informing design and marketing strategies.

Behavioral Insider: Why has "consumer experience" become a hot term recently, and how is it being driven by your type of ethnographic research into how consumers live and behave?

Diller: Overall, there is more competition in most consumer categories. More companies are aware that the point of consumption, aside from the functional benefit you get from something, is [having] something that changes in your life [positively] when you interact with the product or service. That is an experience.... It's conscious and it happens over some time and that's what an experience is, the conscious awareness of a change. It is a better definition of what companies are actually providing the consumers. The book is trying to nudge that conversation in a particular direction, towards thinking at the highest level [of meaning] that people could be looking for. Most of our clients these days think about experience and higher level benefits than just function. There progressively is more interest in, what does it feel like to use it?

BI: Give us an example of recent field work involving consumer behavior research.

Diller: For two major regional newspapers, we did elaborate work to understand what it was that made news compelling for people. What is it that makes them savor the process of reading the paper each day, which itself was a question the newspapers never asked. We didn't do direct ethnographic work in this case. We sent cameras to people and asked them to take pictures of things that mattered to them, thinking that news is partially about what matters to you. And then we looked at those photos, and we tried to construct an ideal newspaper from those photos, and people would tell us the stories that went with the pictures. Usually, the news from their own newspaper was very lively and got at the kinds of issues they cared about, [while] the version that [they imagined would] show up in the metro daily was boring and overly objective in the sense that it took no point of view. That taught us a huge amount about what it took for news to be compelling for people in that particular market. The result was changes in positioning, and changes in the way reporters wrote stories.

BI: How have you used on-the-ground ethnographic research to inform product design and brand positioning?

Diller: We did a global segmentation study for a major printer company. And this involved a combination of one-on-one, in-depth interviews to get acquainted with someone so we understood what was at stake for them in their use of home printers. Then we went to people's homes and watched them actually use these machines as well as go shopping with them to see how they made decisions and evaluated what was really important about them. That also included going online with them to observe the way that they studied what the options were. We saw what role [printers] played in their household, and in countries as diverse as Japan, China, Mexico, France, Germany, and the U.S. We began to see global patterns that I don't think we would have picked up [otherwise]. Design issues, like dust, in a city like Shanghai, become hugely important in a way that [they aren't] important in San Francisco. It wasn't on our radar screen before we went into people's homes in Shanghai and saw where they kept their machines and what concerns they had in day-to-day usage.

BI: How do such insights actually affect design and marketing?

Diller: There are huge implications. Everything from brand positioning to product design to the development of new services, were all informed by that. We came to conclusion about the role of printers in the home that were fundamentally different form what our clients had ever considered before, and it changed their view of what their jobs were. Their entire business was redefined in a way that moved decisively away from a simple business sort of description of X number of pages printed per minute for business use. Instead, they were beginning to think much more broadly about a more integral role in family life itself. And that has major implications for positioning.

BI: A lot of marketers still find the use of behavioral techniques a bit creepy and manipulative. In online contexts we record behavior in order to follow users with relevant ads. Offline, you study behaviors in order to shape brands and corporate voices that can seem falsely associated with higher meanings.

Diller: Cheskin came of age at the time that the Freudian heritage of advertising was still dominant, from the 20s on when [Edward L.] Bernays was most influential in the U.S. So Louis Cheskin got to work on this. He took at the time a radical approach to it, saying that using Freudian theory as a basis for developing ad campaigns, for instance, is an interesting starting point. But you always need to be rooted in reality, as opposed to simply relying on theory.... As time has gone on that has become more important. From my own point of view, I don't think the desire to understand people is inherently creepy. Its goal is empathy and developing something for people with an authentic concern for their needs. I think it gets creepy when it speaks through theory rather than through empathy. When you speak through theory invariably it sounds stilted and partial. When you speak to somebody in a voice that isn't based on a real understanding of what they as human beings think, and how they speak themselves, you use stilted language. If you try to manipulate people, it come across as creepy, or at least as obnoxious. If you speak authentically about who you are and what it is that you're trying to deliver and you have real empathy for people, it's not going to come across as creepy. No one would say that Apple is creepy.

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