Time for marketers to ditch outdated consumer cages

michael solomonWhy is our urge to label our customers so pervasive? One simple answer: This is the way our brains work. Psychologists know that when we encounter a new object (or person), within milliseconds our immediate response is to put it into a familiar category. Good or bad? Weak or strong? Binary code: 0 or 1? Regular or decaf? Ready-to-wear or haute couture? Swipe left or swipe right?

If you stop to think about it, just about everything you know belongs to a category. In some cases, your brain has done the heavy lifting of assigning an object a label, but often each of us simply obeys pre-existing structures our culture has taught us. Meanings that we impart to products reflect underlying cultural categories, which correspond to the basic ways we characterise the world.

Our culture makes distinctions between different times of the day, such as between leisure and work hours, as well as many other differences, such as between genders, occasions, groups of people, and so on.

And the marketing system conveniently provides us with products that signify these categories. For example, the clothing industry gives us labels to denote certain times and wearing occasions such as formal, business professional, business casual, resort wear and even (shudder) “dress-down Fridays”. It differentiates between leisure clothes and work clothes, and it promotes masculine, feminine or unisex styles. It labels itself in other ways to denote price points and suitable age groups, such as haute couture, designer, ready to wear, bridge or contemporary.

We find similar gradations no matter where we look across the cultural spectrum. Think about the following categories we use every day: appetizer, entrée, or dessert? Danish modern, rustic, shabby chic or industrial? Sedan, coupe, convertible or SUV?

These taxonomic structures often are logical, comprehensive, and quite useful. The problem is, they don’t necessarily mirror how people actually think. So, you may sort your own wardrobe in your own way, perhaps with labels such as “good for clubbing”, “out of style”, or “no longer fits”.

Customers may need help to translate the language an industry uses into parameters they understand. Thus, a perfumer distinguishes among fragrances in terms of their top notes, heart notes, and base notes. A customer is more likely to label competing brands as citrusy, bold, pricey, feminine, or the one that Kim Kardashian recently blogged about.

To truly understand today’s customer, it’s often smart to use naturalistic techniques that require researchers to “live with the natives”.

Breach the cage that separates you from your customers. Get out of your office and meet the people who love your brand. Be sure to talk to some who don’t as well. What do they love about your brand? What do they hate? What would they improve? And perhaps most importantly: What categories do they use when they evaluate what you sell? Instead of relying on them to learn your language, take the time to understand theirs.

Michael Solomon is a global consumer behaviour expert and the author of The New Chameleons: How to Connect with Consumers Who Defy Categorization, published by Kogan Page

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