Don't ask, won't tell
Are consumers hiding their most important desires and motivations from marketers – and maybe even from themselves? That’s the key question explored in Secrets & Lies, a new global research study from Young & Rubicam. Executive vice-president Chip Walker takes us through the findings, and the implications.
What’s the big idea?
In a nutshell: The post-modern consumer is a bundle of contradictions who keeps secrets from us and sometimes lies. Specifically, we found that consumers appear to be hiding some of their most important desires and brand perceptions from marketers. We asked about consumer personal values and their liking of brands in two ways:
- Traditional survey research, which reveals what people think consciously;
- Indirect questioning, using an approach called Implicit Association that reveals unconscious attitudes.
We discovered that not only do conscious and unconscious attitudes not match – they are often the polar opposite of each other. For example, in the USA, consumers rank Google near the top on liking consciously, but near the bottom unconsciously. Globally the top conscious values are “meaning in life” and “choosing your own path,” but unconsciously it’s “sexual fulfilment” and “honouring tradition”.
Again in the USA, consumers say that helpfulness is their top-ranked value, but unconsciously it’s the bottom ranked value. Sexual satisfaction is number one unconsciously in the three countries we looked at: the US, Brazil and China. It appears that the life of the new consumer runs on conflict.
While some consumers find this state of inner conflict stressful and overwhelming, a large group takes these contradictions in its stride. Respondents’ top attitudes all reflect a comfort level with a fluid, evolving, multi-faceted identity.
- Individualistic: 60% agree that “People should be free to marry, live and work however they want”
- Empowered: 60% agree that “It’s up to me to get what I want in life”
- Self-directed: 51% agree that “Success is about how you see yourself, not how other people think of you”
- Ageless: 55% agree that “my age doesn’t define me; it’s not central to who I am”
- Evolving: 53% agree that “my identity – who I really am – is a work in progress”
Our CEO, David Sable, has called this group “Generation World” – though they aren’t a generation in the age-driven sense. As David puts it: “People are more complicated today than in past generations. They defy traditional stereotypes within their own local cultures. You can’t adequately describe these people by placing them into traditional market segments, demographic or even geographic groups. That’s why we call them Generation World.”
What does this mean for my business?
There’s three big implications for marketers:
Rethink traditional research: Marketers who rely on traditional surveys and focus groups alone (which in my experience is most of them) are probably only getting half the story.
Rethink traditional targeting: As marketers we typical put target audiences into uniform segments and expect them to behave in consistent ways (e.g., soccer mom drives a mini van and wears mom jeans.) This research indicates she is much more complex than that.
Rethink traditional positioning: We’ve been programed to believe that ‘single-mindedness’ is the foundation of all good branding. Yet this research shows consumers aren’t singular today. It may sound like heresy but…is it time brands move away from the single-minded idea and embrace conflict and tension?
OK. So what’s the plan of action?
At Y&R we are helping clients to go out and find their ‘brand tension’. This is the idea that break-away brands – like the new consumer – thrive on conflict and polarity (e.g., Land Rover is both hardworking and luxury.) Brands that are one-note (e.g., K-Mart = cheap) are simply less interesting to consumers today than those that show more depth of character by embracing a tension (e.g., Target = Cheap + Chic.)
Patagonia’s new campaign (not by Y&R) takes this concept to an extreme – by embracing eco-friendliness while simultaneously acknowledging all the ways they currently harm the environment. It will be interesting to see if this bold approach succeeds.
Now we know all this, what questions should we be asking next?
Is there a ‘hidden’ (unconscious) side of brand equity that is completely unexplored? Can this new side of brand equity help us unlock brands’ hidden vulnerabilities (e.g., secretly disliked brands like Google and Starbucks) and/or hidden potential (e.g., secretly liked brands like Exxon and Facebook)? That’s probably where we are going next with this research and thinking.
Chip Walker is executive vice-president and director of brand planning and innovation at Y&R, New York. The full Secrets & Lies presentation is available here.