Then, the campaign options were TV, radio, print, outdoor (generally frowned upon, I recall), and a strange department in Newcastle that would send letters to people.

Instead of agonising too much about the detail of campaign media, the importance of customer understanding and insight was drummed into you, and this was where you spent much of your time. Agreeing on the target consumer, working out the key insight about them that would give your product permission to talk to them, working out the right brand territory, then crafting the right benefit and reasons to believe to feed into the creative process, were seen as the essential foundations of successful marketing.

They were (and are) surprisingly tricky to master, and time-consuming to do properly. A seductive blend of art and science, magic and logic. Long hours in focus groups, reading verbatims or poring over data, and suddenly one phrase or saying or stat leaps out and becomes the anchor of a more detailed investigation and ultimately a campaign.

This type of work – frontline contact with the consumer if you like – is still the foundation of good marketing, and yet seems to be one that companies and marketers are increasingly tempted to skip in favour of the siren’s lure of instant digital action, instant feedback data and instant results.

But if you can’t describe and picture the consumer you are trying to pitch your product or service to, then how can you make informed choices about what to say to them, how to say it, and where and when to say it.

I don’t think you can. And if you can’t, there’s a big risk you fall into one of the two big traps of marketing.

Trap 1: You as the consumer

Or more often the most senior person in the room as consumer. Or the CEO’s partner.

In the absence of a clear and agreed view of who is the consumer you’re trying to appeal to, and some useful insight about how they live their lives, then it’s guesswork. Which inevitably comes with personal bias. Working in the car industry for example, you find well-meaning people who pepper their work with jargon in the believe that people buying cars are just as interested as they are in all the details and language of model, engine capacity, finance and optional extras

haynes manual

Trap 2: Everyone as the consumer

The idea at the heart of good targeting and branding, which is that in appealing strongly to some consumers, you will potentially (or actively) put off others, is a hard concept for non-marketers (and indeed some marketers) to get their heads round.

“But why would we not want to appeal to as wider group as possible” is a common refrain.

The problem here being that intending to appeal to everyone often means you appeal to no-one. Brands, messages and executions become more and more beige so as not to offend, making you less and less appealing at the same time. Nokia fell into this trap when it thought it ‘owned’ the mobile phone market (only to be unseated by Apple, who have always had a cool, soho-based designer as their core target) and more recently I would argue that Tesco made the same mistake, allowing themselves to be picked off by Waitrose/Sainsbury/M&S at one end and Asda/Aldi/Lidl at the other.

nokia covers

Image via MiNe on Flickr

One or other of these traps was a significant root cause of marketing problems in all of the businesses I have worked in since leaving P&G. And fixing them started to generate results surprisingly quickly.

Spending proper time on working with consumers, and with the wider business, to establish who is at the heart of your targeting, is time well spent. Done well, not only can it help you avoid ‘you as the consumer / everyone as the consumer’ but it can also create a valuable bridge with departments like sales, helping discussions move from a powerplay of opinions to something more like ‘what would our customer think of this’.

Critically, it also means you will be in a better position to brief your agencies and get them to produce better work for you – whether that’s buying media, creating content, or developing advertising. It’s so much easier to give feedback citing the reason you believe this is not right for the customer you have briefed as the targeting than it is to try and explain a more personal reason why you don’t like it.

For someone just starting a career in marketing, the tricky thing about getting into the mind of the consumer is that it’s not, in my opinion, an easy or quick thing to learn. Experience is very helpful in listening or looking out for the odd phrase, saying or stat in consumer research. But that’s no excuse not to start. Here’s four tips;

Be interested in people and what makes them tick

Some of the best marketers I have worked with have either studied psychology, or are very adept at it through life experience and interest. Coming from outside a group of people or category is a useful prompt as if behaviours are unfamiliar to you it forces you to try and work out why they exist.

When I first worked in luxury, as the owner of a swatch watch, spending thousands of pounds telling the time seemed utterly irrational to me, so I had to spend time in and around these customers and the people to who sold to them to understand ‘why?’.


Be curious about the world around you

Curious children are particularly good at constantly asking ‘why?’, so take a lead from how they learn about the world. Don’t just ask it once, keep asking it until you get to the real reason that can often be deeply buried (you will have to listen very carefully).

Advertising legend Robin Wight (the ‘W’ of WCRS) is famous for defining the principle of ’product interrogation’, suggesting that you ’interrogate a product until it confesses to its strengths’. He’s a master at asking ‘but why?’, sometimes to an irritating degree. The same is true with consumers (but watch the irritation factor)

Embrace your inner polymath

Reading as broadly as you can around and even a long way from the product or category is also important (and another sign of curiosity). Embrace your inner polymath and supplement your industry or professional reading with something less obvious.

My particular favourites are Wired and The Economist, where this week I learnt (amongst other things) about how the video game Fortnite came to be, which made me briefly credible with my 12 and 14 year olds.

Increase your chances of making unexpected connections

Reading around your profession also helps you make connections between topics that might not normally ‘meet’, and I believe that the best marketing comes from making such connections.

The new Francis Crick Institute in London is designed such that scientists from different disciplines who would normally work in very separate locations are housed under one roof and bump into each other over coffee. Making sure you circulate as widely as possible in your business will help with this – don’t just stay in the marketing department, get out and about. One of the highlights of working at the AA was to dress in high-viz and go out on patrol with one of our breakdown people.

None of the above necessarily cost money, and all are within your control. So get out there and get into the heads of your consumers. Because it turns out that in order to be an effective marketer in today’s fast, complex world, you still need the same foundation that you always did – good, old-fashioned consumer understanding.

Learn more about Econsultancy’s Modern Marketing Model (M3) and our Fast Track to Modern Marketing online training course.