OPINION5 November 2014

Who wants to be a consumer?


Brands with purpose. Sustainability as a business driver. Social innovation. It seems like marketers and consultants everywhere are starting to explore new ways to make business a force of progress. The days of destructive business practices may well soon be over.


But one aspect of business remains stuck in its ancient ways, which poses a critical risk for real progress and change, because it is very often the genesis of thinking behind brands.

Market research today largely operates in the same way as it did 20 years ago. Most of our research conversations are framed within the context of a category, and seek to understand why and how consumers make their choices. We ask the same questions, so we keep getting the same answers.

In reality, the whole world has changed. Our research processes have missed an essential point in human history. We are no longer mere consumers, but have evolved to become social identity shapers, and it transforms the way we look at everything.

As human beings, we are men, women, fathers, husbands, daughters, wives. We are activists, nature buffs, cooks, bloggers or working mums. A generation ago, identities were bestowed on us and all we had to do was deliver on them. But today those identities have imploded in a society that values individuality more than any society and history.

The Internet age has brought with it a world that is more open and diverse than ever imagined. Who we are is not just an individual construct, but a matter of social currency. Each of us lives by a patchwork of social identities that shift and evolve because it makes our world richer. But it also makes the notion of the “consumer” terribly passé. “Consuming” is just a fraction of who I am, and is influenced by every other part of my identity.

When research questions the consumer, it can only get consumer answers that obstruct the cause for positive change. It stifles innovation and traps marketers into old bad habits. It is a missed opportunity for those who believe in a better business world, and also a risk for their business. Behind every consumer, there is a myriad of identities. As researchers, we fail to talk to them – and so miss their views, the things they care about and how our businesses can serve them.

To move forward, we as researchers need to engage three changes:

A change in framework

Research work is by default framed in a category context. It needs to redefine its context to take into account the social identities of the people it talks to. Exploring shaving products is not just about shaving. It’s about men – what it means to be a man, and how the way men’s vision of themselves impacts the societies they live in. Every category is shaped, similarly, by a broader human arena – and understanding the category cannot be done without diving into the human space.

A change in depth

Research is not about listening to what is being told. It is about hearing what is not said, decoding influences, tensions and struggles – reading through the lines of each individual conversation and deciphering who people want to be.

A change in engagement

Empathy cannot be outsourced. For marketers to really understand the reality people live in, they have to talk to them, wrestle with findings and own the analysis that they will work with. There is no effective research without hands-on empathy.

“When research questions the consumer, it can only get consumer answers that obstruct the cause for positive change”

Earlier this year, we ran a research project with one of our clients to nurture the development of a global hair brand. We invited 80 young women from around the world to meet and engage as a Facebook community. For a few weeks, we moderated the conversations by posting a topic a day, mingling personal questions like “What was your ambition as a child?” and hair-related topics like “Share a hair tip that saved your day.”

For us, it was an experiment in social engagement. For the girls, it seemed like the most natural thing to do: posting selfies, talking about their hairstyles of the day, making new girlfriends from countries they have never visited, caring for their newfound “virtual sisters” by sending words of encouragement or hairstyling advice.

In just a few days, the group site became its own living, breathing research facility. The project generated incredibly intimate and candid insights into how the girls lived and the way hair products were woven into their lives. Girls in Thailand explained how the political situation worried them – and how looking great could be a way for life to go on that little bit better. Girls in India discussed arranged marriages with girls in Brazil – and exchanged ideas on freedom, realising that looking the way you wanted to was a part of it. After a few weeks, we had enough material to nurture the innovation work on that brand for years.

At the workshop to conclude the project, we decided to invite some of the young women who participated. One of them was a young woman called Athena. When she introduced herself, she said with a wink, “I am a consumer, but that’s the boring part.” The entire room burst with laughter, and she proceeded to describe her life as a mother, a hospitality manager, a wife and more generally, the wonderful warm human being she is.

The laughter in the room felt good. It made one point clear: as researchers, and more importantly, as a business community, the day that we erase the word “consumer” from our language, is the day that we will all emerge winners.

Christophe Fauconier is CEO and founder of brand consultancy Innate Motion; Benoit Beaufils is a founding partner.