People Are Alike

Digging Past The Surface Differences

The problem with a lot of market research is that we try to tease out the differences between people, thinking that when we’ve examined their idiosyncrasies and segmented them into subgroups, we’ll finally understand them. But I believe that the most useful insights for effective marketing strategies often come from unearthing that which people have in common, underneath their more easily observed differences.

We tend to define ourselves by the ways in which we are different, which means we end up downplaying all the many important things we hold in common. Although this issue comes up a lot in our work at Brandtrust, I recently had an insight of my own: that it’s just part of human nature to look at people that way.

I have a young friend who’s quirky, interesting and cerebral. When he shared his online dating profile to get my perspective, it struck me that all his unique characteristics came across to such an extent that he might seem to be something of an oddball to the young women he’s trying to interest. Nothing could be further from the truth. But the fact that he’s normal, well-adjusted, kind, loyal and dependable doesn’t really seem that interesting to him. And he might be right that it’s not that interesting to single young ladies, either.

Under the Skin We’re All the Same

It makes sense that the things we have in common are often assumed, and therefore not worth talking about, at least when it comes to dating. But focusing too fixedly on the unique attributes by which people differ can be a mistake in consumer research. One of the most fascinating aspects of the work we do is when we conduct studies across geographies, even international borders, and discover the extent to which people’s core emotional motivations just don’t vary that much.

Now don’t get me wrong. I know that people vary enormously, and I am nothing but grateful for it. But I maintain that our variations are mostly in the surface layer of cultural expression that we can see most easily. Being exposed to new languages, customs, aesthetics and cuisines are the great joys of travel, as well as some of travel’s greatest challenges. I’ve been lucky enough to travel to some pretty far-flung places for work. And getting off a plane in Lanzhou, China in the middle of the night, I have experienced culture shock so searing that I hope never to feel the same again. Yet on that very trip we were conducting research into certain deep-seated emotional drivers motivating people in their lives and work, and our findings were strikingly consistent, in almost all particulars, to what people told us in response to the same questions in the U.S., Germany, Brazil and India.

Seeing the Big Picture

I come back again to the issue of “what” vs. “why” that we talk about so often, and which my colleague Lacey Mason wrote about in a previous post. The discrete data points that describe the “whats” of consumer behavior are really important to know, but they’re also like the pointillist dots in an Impressionist painting. When you’re looking at them, you’re up so close that all you can see is dots. It’s only when you step back and let the points blur together that you are able to see the larger picture of “why” people do what they do.

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