Your Customers Are Not Stupid

A client recently told me something to the effect of, “Well, not everybody’s as smart as we are.” It raised a question in my mind: Have you met your target customer?

Target consumers aren’t just ages and demographics. They’re not just quantitative surveys and focus group participants. They can’t always be summed up in data and metrics, or even in a number of Twitter followers. And most of all, they’re not stupid. I know this because I have met them.

Between my in-laws, neighbors, business contacts, old school friends and a couple of married-to-someone’s-brother types of people, I can confidently say that I personally know someone in the market for every single brand name product in America. I have not yet thought of a consumer brand that someone I know would not potentially buy.

Beer, soap, sports equipment, home improvements, farm trucks, mutual funds, credit counseling, private jets, toys, chaw. I’m as middle classy as a guy can get, but yes, I have friends in low places. My brother-in-law drives a dump truck and is the wittiest person at my in-laws house at Thanksgiving. At the other end of the spectrum, my neighbor’s sister is married to an investment banker who owns a private jet.

So, yeah, I can vouch for every consumer from John Deere to Learjet, from Funyuns to fugu. My assertion: They are all perceptive, and smart enough to put two and two together.

They get subtlety. They say nuanced things to each other. They connect dots all the time, in and out of the various forms of media they consume. All the time.

So please, let’s give them something to engage with, and not s-p-e-l-l o-u-t e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g for them like they’re drunk and slow-witted.

It may be the safest solution for those of us sitting behind the glass in the artificial environment of a focus group. Everything-spelled-out ads are easy for us to agree on because they’re easy for focus groups to agree on.

Smart people feel superior to a company that presents an ad like that. And now that communication is uncontrollable and omni-directional in the social media space, it’s more important than ever to understand exactly how consumers engage with marketing messages.

Making advertising strategic is not a about being smarter than our customers. It’s about using ethnography, or observing human culture and interaction, to create effective advertising that resonates.

No focus groups. With ethnography, you get out there where people are — in their homes, in their meeting places — and talk to them. About your product. About things other than your product. About life.

It can be revealing.

It can be humbling, even, when you sit with people reflecting on what’s important in their lives. Try to spend a comfortable hour or so chatting on their sofas.

It doesn’t even have to be that personal. We often give them a journal. We ask them engaging, intriguing questions and activities. We give them instructions to spend a day without using a product, or include $10 to go out and buy a brand they wouldn’t normally buy and explain how they decided. It’s an effective way to get people thinking, so you don’t start from zero when laying the groundwork for a campaign.

Marketers need to meet target consumers in their real lives. In fact, they should even invite their friends. Depending on the product, stand with them in their garages or look under their sinks to see how they really store a product. Watch their friends’ faces for wry grins or telltale giggles that betray the host’s lack of self-awareness when she says, “Oh, I never eat more than one serving,” while her sister rolls her eyes.

You walk away from those ethnographic exercises with insights you can’t get anywhere else. You walk away with respect for people in general, and a little more understanding of the people who buy your product.

And in the end, marketing is about understanding people. Those sales numbers, those metrics of yours — they’re quirky, actual humans. Smart humans.

It’s humans who happen to be driving your sales, and creating (or failing to create) buzz about your product. They deserve your respect. And guess what? If they don’t get respect, well, they’re not going to give any either.

R-e-s-p-e-c-t.

There. I spelled it out for you. Now will you believe it?

Charlie Hopper is a principal and creative director at Young & Laramore. He can be reached at chopper@yandl.com.