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Stop Talking to Your Customers

Article by Alastair Herbert // Founder of Linguabrand

New products fail far too often. Brand campaigns are largely hit and miss. And marketers have far too little control over channel consistency. All this despite spending large sums of money and time talking to customers. So what’s going wrong and how do we put it right?

By stopping talking to your customers and starting listening better.

Listening surfaces the deeper emotional connections driving customer decisions. It gets you behind the big ideas underpinning the psychology of your market and brand. And that leads to better brand communications, happier customers and less risk in new product launches.

For generations, when marketing professionals want to know what their customers think they’ve gone out to talk to them. Usually they put them into a group and ask them to focus on a moderator. Often this is followed up by surveys, asking people yes/no questions or wanting their levels of agreement with a presented statement.

So what’s wrong with that? Well, if all you need to find out is how people use your products or services functionally, not very much. If you sell single malt whiskies it makes sense to know when people drink it, how often and who they drink it with. If you make breakfast cereals, knowing what families have for breakfast and how this might change between weekdays and weekends is vital. And if you’re a cancer charity you need to know how treatments are affecting patients.

But functionality is only half the story. The other half is emotional psychology. Successful brands recognise humans aren’t thinking beings with emotions – we’re emotional beings that think. Growing brands appeal to emotional needs as much as the functional. It’s the emotional connection that lifts a brand from a commodity to receiving a price premium. Emotional connection extends loyalty and customer longevity. And when a brand has damaging issues, emotional connection buys time to correct them.

But, if you speak to customers about their emotional connections, their answers will be mostly wrong. People just don’t know why they have emotional connections or how to express them. But they’ll give you rational answers. Believing these rational reasons about
emotions can be highly misleading. In some cases, it is disastrous…

…Tesco, the UK’s largest supermarket chain were looking to expand internationally. They identified Southern California to launch a new, upmarket, brand. They carried out extensive group-based research into people’s needs and desires. All this talking said that people wanted the ease of supermarket shopping but with better, fresher and healthier food. As a
result, Tesco invested in a new chain called ‘Fresh and Easy’.

Right from the start there were problems. The biggest one was a lack of demand. They just couldn’t attract enough customers. After two years and £2billion, Tesco sold Fresh and Easy. A retail turnaround specialist bought it for peanuts. But even these local specialists couldn’t make money from the concept. They shut down the whole operation. All of this because people didn’t actually want what they said they wanted. Customers had fibbed. Not deliberately, but because the researchers were talking and not listening.

What’s so important about listening? Social psychology research has discovered that we are three times more likely to start relations when we share the same language style rather than simply having things in common. So it’s much more important to listen to how customers are talking about things rather than what they are talking about.

Let me share some examples with you.

When we listened to how people talk about malt whisky they used the language of religion. And brands used similar imagery and language. Distilleries are like monasteries, isolated workers are like monks and they work with ingredients given mystical properties. The best malt whiskies are ranked every year in The Whisky Bible. Once we understood this, we were able to differentiate several malt whisky brands while keeping them anchored in the core religious language and imagery.

If malt whisky is like a religion, what is rum? In emotional terms rum is a safe adventure. It’s based on a father figure who made a travelled to a far-away island. Only rum takes you on a similar exotic journey. We took a big rum brand upmarket simply by moving it away from the island beach into the lush, tropical interior.

Listening to people means using much more open methods of research. Sometimes you can find out what’s happening inside people’s heads without even talking to them. Cancer charities frame the idea of cancer as an enemy – patients are soldiers in a battle. But, just by analysing blogs, we discovered women with breast cancer think differently. To them, their
cancer is a force affecting their ability to move ahead in life. As a result our client never talks about ‘battling cancer’. They help ‘reduce the impact of breast cancer, quicker’.

What holds all these examples together is that we weren’t listening for functional descriptions of things. Yes, malt whisky is made from barley and rum from sugar cane. But what we wanted to know is what they were like not what they actually are. Humans are unique in being able to describe one thing in terms of another. Listening to how your customers describe what things are like is the key to understanding their psychology. We all use this picture language of metaphors constantly – and we don’t even realise we’re doing it.

Listening, rather than talking, means moving marketing mindsets. Traditional research is designed almost entirely for the convenience of researchers. But listening means bending our techniques to fit customers and the way they live and behave. There are great online research tools that enable you to set people tasks, write diaries and make their own videos. All this provides a rich resource for deeper listening, either by people or machines.

Like all good techniques it takes time to learn to listen well. But you can make a quick start by checking out the videos here.

For more about neuromarketing, see here.