Part of the planning: think like a therapist
Planners are frequently described as "the voice of the consumer in the agency." Some say obeying that voice unquestioningly has been deemed the only accurate way to develop effective advertising. I believe this approach is a mistake.
We should spend more time interpreting what consumers say, much as therapists do. They don't take everything as gospel. They listen for omissions. They observe body language as closely as verbal language.
Planners can take this approach to understanding brands and consumers. Because consumers are the ultimate arbiters of advertising, traditional researchers will want to listen to everything they say. Yet consumers' views should be qualified: Their attitudes toward brands may sound more entrenched than is actually the case; they display cultural and generational biases; their marketing insights are uninformed.
Planners need several skills to listen to consumers and interpret what they say (or do not say).
They should start with an understanding based on their experiences as ad people of what makes great ads. They should apply a knowledge of the product's strengths, past advertising effectiveness, the target audience, the client's strategic goals, etc.
Planners also need to be aware of fundamental human tendencies:
1) Tendency to act like a creative.
Consumers may give irrelevant executional advice, commenting on where the ad should be shot, what people should wear, etc. Risk: Cheesy ads can result. Listen: When there is genuine confusion owing to executional elements. Ignore: When there is no confusion and they just feel creative.
2) Tendency to mirror the therapist.
Consumers may try to be planners/ strategists, suggesting how other people would probably react to an idea.
Risk: Accepting unsound strategic advice. Listen: When you've asked them to project how someone else would probably react (helpful to discuss sensitive subjects). Ignore: When they are detached and intellectualizing about what you are showing them. You want their opinion, not their view of someone else's.
3) Tendency to normalize.
Consumers are tempted to damn anything too aspirational or unusual, because life isn't like that. Risk: Ads cease to be entertaining, interesting or aspirational and become slice-of-life vignettes. Listen: When the main campaign message may not be believable. Ignore: Whenever they believe the main message.
4) Tendency to dislike challenges.
People experience an uncomfortable feeling when a firmly held belief is challenged by a sound argument. A sensitive brand therapist helps them stomach this and builds on their former beliefs. Risk: If we avoid challenging consumers, we'll get ads that nobody notices. Listen: When the ad makes consumers feel less good about themselves. Ignore: When consumers resist the idea of change out of habit.
As our understanding of human nature deepens, we will know when to pay attention and how to understand a consumer's relationships to brands on a more honest level.
Sarah Warley is a partner at Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG in New York