We’ve been in business long enough to know that terms like empathy can feel a little squishy to the more traditionally-minded executives among us. Because we have more access to more data than ever before, it’s easy to lean on that data, since shareholders, investors, and the C-suite like to see hard numbers rather than what they perceive as vague banalities about needs and desires and the like. But bear with us, and keep an open mind to empathy and experience. As difficult as it may be to put hard, rational value on things like emotions, it’s not impossible. And we promise you that it’s worth it.
Few things are as disheartening as watching companies pour endless amounts of money, time, and talent down the drain because they are afraid to fearlessly pursue other paths to success. And we want you to trust us when we say that venturing into consumers’ souls and experiences is directly translatable to a more precise, profitable product. But don’t just take our word for it. History can offer us a few good examples to lean on.
Jane Goodall: Anthropologist and Marketing Guru
We’re not sure how she’d think about this—being a discerning scientist, we hope she would appreciate it— but we’re pretty sure that Jane Goodall was one of the standard-bearers when it came to working from an empathetic perspective. Granted, she was working with a slightly different group (primates in their natural habitat) and in a very different time (fifty years ago or so), but Goodall’s work studying the social structure and habits of chimpanzees, in particular, is something that remains very relevant to us as we work to help companies discover what it is their consumers really crave.
When Goodall first went into the jungle, the work she did was mind-blowing to the scientific community of which she was part. Her peers had a set way of looking at their subjects, and they took for granted that they knew all there was to know about these primates. They ate bananas; they climbed around on trees and hung around one another. But Goodall went in with a different purpose, to be open to the nuances of what it was to be a chimpanzee, and her immersive approach to understanding their environment resulted in a much more complex—and ultimately, complete—picture of their world.
If you were to throw these comparisons in a post- modern marketing blender of sorts, you’d easily see how Goodall’s research and outlook were resolutely consumer-focused.
One doesn’t need to make much of a logical leap to find the corollary in the marketing world. Most efforts get boiled down to creative briefs describing target audiences but don’t see consumers as individuals with unique needs, relationships, and preferences.
Precious few companies are doing what Jane Goodall did. She uncovered the secrets about how each chimp interacted with the others, as a parent or a lover, a sibling or a child. She understood the relationships between these chimps and could deconstruct the pecking order in their social sphere, their rituals, and all the complex decisions they made and the actions they took, all by seeing the group through the unique lens of each animal’s perspective.
An enterprise-focused company trying to make money off of the chimpanzee population would look at this scenario and say, “Chimps like bananas. We want to make money from chimps. We’ll make more bananas, sell them to the chimps, and make more money.” A consumer-accountable company would look past the surface and into the building blocks that are the drivers of demand for bananas. This company would think like Goodall thought, understanding the role of the bananas, knowing who picks the bananas, who accepts the bananas, and how the bananas are involved in day-to-day social hierarchy.
This company would save a heck of a lot of money in the long run, because it has in its arsenal a complete understanding of what its consumers want, and this understanding would decrease the expensive uncertainty that comes with guesswork and incomplete (or ineffective) research.
Lexus: A Luxury Banana
Moving to a more directly applicable example, Lexus has been the gold standard of this kind of consumer-accountable approach.
Back in its early days on the market in America, no one would have ever confused Toyota with a luxury car company. But in the 1990s, when the company decided to break into the luxury segment of the market, that all changed.
At first, it seemed like a ludicrous idea. To enter a category dominated by the likes of Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and other high-end automobiles that had become synonymous with privilege and luxury, after decades of focusing on how accessible and unassuming its own cars were, looked like a fool’s errand. But looking back, the results are indisputable. According to a study released by the Columbia Business School in 2005 (we can’t recommend this reading enough: The Secrets To Lexus’ Success: How Toyota Motor Went From Zero To Sixty In The Luxury Car Market), “Lexus sales surpassed Mercedes Benz and Cadillac sales—the two granddaddies of luxury cars—in the United States quite easily.”
To what does Toyota owe the success it still enjoys with its Lexus line? Going back to Goodall, the truth is that Toyota succeeded with Lexus because it immersed itself in the natural habitat of its consumers, infiltrating their circles of empathy and gaining a true understanding of what the Demand Drivers were.
Toyota knew that it could never hope to compete by staying cloistered in Japan and just knocking off the luxury design and lifestyle touchstones that its competitors offered. That would be the equivalent of just putting more bananas in the jungle.
Instead, they sent teams of engineers to Laguna Beach, California, to immerse themselves in the world of the consumers they hoped to reach. They spent an incredible amount of time and money watching and recording the habits of these future customers: sitting in the parking lots of upscale shopping centers and watching them load and unload bags into their cars, visiting country clubs and watching women in tennis skirts and men in impeccable slacks slide into and out of their vehicles, and so on.
To fine-tune the often-underestimated minute details that culminate in our overall experience of a product, Toyota had its designers apply false nails to their fingers as they designed the steering wheels in an effort to better understand the driving experience of women with manicures.
Designers stayed in the same luxury hotel suites that these discerning customers stayed in when they traveled, vacationed at resorts in the Côte d’Azur and villas in the South of France, and deconstructed and scrutinized the craftsmanship of other luxury goods that this market segment purchased. When all was said and done, they had walked the walk. Now they were ready to get back home and get to work.
If more companies built products from the deeply authentic and empathetic understanding that birthed the Lexus, there would be less worry – and more resonance – with consumers about whether or not what they’ve made actually has a market to sell to.
Excerpted from “Think Round: How To Own The Future By Focusing 100% Of Your Company On Customers & Consumers 100% Of The Time” by Martha R. Pease. Copyright © 2015 by Martha R. Pease and Michael J. Campbell. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved.