Demystifying Escape

Several years ago, when Universal Studios was feeling a bit depressed over its struggle to draw attendees to its Orlando parks, the company sought professional help. Dr. Mark Ingwer, president of Insight Research Associates, uses a hybrid technique to understand consumer attitudes and behaviors in relation to a brand, what he calls psychoethnography. The approach combines psychological interviews with behavioral research, in this case actually following families in Disney World and Universal Studios parks to understand the different experiences in each. As Ingwer demonstrates, behavioral research often can provide marketers with information about what consumers do -- but not a lot about why they do it. For that, you need a shrink -- sort of.

Behavioral Insider: What problem did you need to solve for Universal Studios?

People didn't know what they could expect when going there, so Universal Studios was not considered a destination theme park by many of their out-of-market visitors. They obviously wanted to get on the radar of folks planning to come down. Somehow there was this vague notion that Universal Studios was related to being in the movies in some way, and that was the essence of what the brand conveyed. We were contracted because they hoped to develop strategic learning for marketing in order to differentiate the resort experience from Disney.

BI: What is pychoethnography?

The technique du jour is anthropology and ethnographic research, and it is a wonderful tool because it unveils what people are doing by actively observing them. But it doesn't necessarily get at the motivations. So the combination of the motivational and the observational enables us to get underneath needs and desires and emotional differentiation. We joined families as they experienced the theme parks and then conducted interviews that addressed some emotional experience issues to understand how they experienced the two parks. We did everything from guided imagery to recreate the thoughts and the feelings connected to the theme park. We gave them words to differentiate the two. We also used a technique similar to laddering and trying to understand what they were looking for and why they left their normal lives to accomplish. We looked at their continuum of this notion of escape and what that meant to them.

BI: What kind of agenda did you have on the ground when you were observing them?

We tried to understand key issues like the emotional engagement that the individuals seemed to feel with an experience and understand the connection between the family members. We learned from the interviews that in daily life people don't have the opportunity to bond with a family as much as they like, especially with older children. To some degree the vacation was designed to revitalize them. That is at least a fantasy.

BI: How did the experiences between the parks differ?

The family experience was impacted based on life stage. Younger families with younger kids, the mother and father were seeing the world through their child's eyes. So there was a kind of vicarious experience. We observed that as distinct in these two parks. Whereas the older families that went to Universal, the parents connected with their kids and the parents became kidlike. Which is a different role and experience.

At Disney, we saw for many that it was a rite of passage, part of being a good parent. You take your kid there to experience Mickey and Minnie. But we also noticed in observational piece that at Disney parents were more passive and observational. And we learned from doing the interviews that they were coming up with words to describe Universal as more active and participatory. But also there was the sense that Disney was safe and predictable and Universal as thrilling and perhaps unexpected. It was important in terms of potentially targeting the family at a certain stage of their development. Disney World was considered to be more often nostalgic and Universal was more visionary. Disney was fantasy and Universal was another reality.

That is where Universal ultimately came up with the idea of not being an ordinary vacation. So it is 'expect the unexpected' that challenged their target audience in terms of what they expected to have happen on a vacation. So we learned that potentially Universal may allow families at certain stages to bond at a deeper level where the parents did not have to sacrifice their own level of gratification.

BI: How did you characterize the parks psychologically?

We came up with this archetypal notion that Disney embodied qualities more representative and more characteristic of the mother. And that Universal Studio characterized some of the qualities of the father.

Once we explained it in that respect. the management had an appreciation for the power that could be unleashed. The mother is a caretaker while the father encourages the child to go out in the world, trust themselves, experiment and then come back.

We learned the life stages to both the children and adults proposed another avenue of differentiation -- that Universal could be also a rite of passage, except not one that is steeped in Americana and nostalgia but one where parents can share their experience with somewhat older kids.

That became a key insight. If the parent can experience regression in a socially acceptable way, it gives children permission not to see them as harsh, top-down people. There is a shifting of roles that presented an opportunity.

At Universal it was a tandem experience where they both connected in similar ways. One parent said that at Disney our kids share experiences with us; at Universal we are sharing our experiences with our kids. This kind of effort using different techniques that are somewhat unorthodox yet well-founded in terms of the academic world enabled Universal to understand they had a unique property that could be differentiated. In 2007 they earned a record $92 million, more than twice what it had made the year before, and in this time travel to Florida had fallen 2.8% -- yet Universal Studio saw a 3% increase.

BI: How does your approach complement or modify typical behavioral research and marketing techniques?

It comes back to the importance we feel emotions play in terms of understanding behaviors. We are all influenced by our thoughts and beliefs -- but if you can demystify and uncover the emotions underneath, then there is the opportunity to identify behavioral ways of motivating. It is not just developing models.

I was reading some of your columns. There are words like 'personality profiling' and 'mindsets,' and people talking about 'model builders' and 'anonymous clickstream data.' We think that it is important to see people not as transactors but to understand who they are emotionally. How do they feel about the category? Pull back to understand people as humans that experience a myriad of emotions. Much of it we call predictably irrational.



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