“When you look at consumer behavior, it’s like there’s a firewall between people’s behavior and the motivation behind it,” he says. Gina Fong“and you have to break that firewall.”
To access this deeper understanding, Gina Fong interacts with customers in their natural environment: as they order coffee, choose their work clothes, and mop their floors. As a consumer anthropologist, Fong gains insights from these encounters that would never be visible on a spreadsheet.
“There’s a saying in anthropology about making the unfamiliar familiar,” says Fong, clinical assistant professor of marketing at the Kellogg School and principal of Fong Insight, a marketing consulting firm in Chicago. “My goal is to make consumers feel more familiar with brand teams so those teams can figure out how to surprise and delight them.”
Fong offers three tips for looking beyond the data to understand how to better reach customers.
Look for information, not just data
When clients hire Fong, they often have a lot of data about how customers behave, but much less insight into what motivates customers to behave the way they do. So when a brand launches a new product that fails to gain traction or is looking for opportunities for its next innovation, looking beyond the data for insight into consumer behavior can provide new courses of action.
“Big data is having a real moment right now,” says Fong. “Numbers don’t lie—and big numbers sometimes give people more confidence in the data. But they only give you the what. Consumer anthropology and qualitative research are there to address it Why behind people’s choices”.
For example, one of Fong’s colleagues liked to eat avocados but had stopped buying them at the grocery store. By looking solely at patterns in the data, the store’s branding team might conclude that he and others like him didn’t like avocados anymore, or that avocados had become too expensive. Armed with this information, the team can react by discounting the avocados or displaying them elsewhere in the store.
But his motivation for skipping avocados was more complicated.
“He really liked avocados, but he didn’t know how to pick one when it was fully ripe,” says Fong. “Either the avocado would ripen too quickly and spoil, or it would ripen too late and forget about it. That was frustrating for him, so he just flagged all the activity.”
On a recent visit to the store, she saw a display of avocados sorted into three groups: “ripe today,” “ripe in a few days,” and “ripe in four to five days.” This led him to buy avocados again.
Fong recommends creating a question stage in your market research, where your team goes behind the data and interviews buyers to better understand why the numbers look the way they do.
“People fall into a trap when they think they’ve done the job of market research by conducting a survey,” says Fong. “They think they’ve crossed the finish line, but they’ve only made it to the 50-yard line. As a company, if you understand that they don’t know how to choose them, it helps you create effective solutions.”
Inhabit the perspectives of others
At the core of consumer anthropology is the customer perspective. However, somewhat counterintuitively, Fong usually begins this process by focusing on the questions she might have about a brand she’s studying.
Recently, Fong and her colleagues were looking for information that could lead to donations to a micro-lending platform for small businesses in Africa. The group’s research began with each reflecting on and writing a short essay about what charitable giving means to them.
By reflecting on their own emotional connections to charitable giving, they hoped to develop a set of open-ended questions that they could then use to identify the motivations and feelings of future donors to the platform.
But using this kind of self-reflection wisely requires taking extra steps, he says.
“Before interviewing potential donors for this site, we needed to understand how similar or different we were to the target audience and why,” says Fong. “We’ve had to identify our biases so we can check them at the door, because we might have a completely different view of charity than the people we’re inviting and that can cloud our judgement.”
Checking your biases at the door makes your team more likely to ask open-ended questions that seek discovery. For example, if you believe that giving to charity is primarily about sacrificing your own needs for the needs of someone else, this might lead to a question like “Why is giving to charity a sacrifice to you?” But if your subject’s motivation helps in small, incremental ways, the word “sacrifice” can add flavor to the conversation.
Because at the end of the day, it’s not about you – it’s about your customers.
“I’ve had marketers get to know their consumers so well that they work to keep their stories alive long after the research is done,” says Fong. “They have framed pictures of their clients in their desks or brought cardboard cutouts of them to meetings to remind themselves of the specific people they want to serve.”
Turn Insights into Action
Ultimately, getting closer to consumers means not only understanding why they are making certain decisions now, but also improving the ability to design campaigns that respond to those underlying motivations. Once marketers gain insights from their customers, they can plan their next moves with greater confidence.
“Think about your spouse or partner,” says Fong. “When you come home from a long day at work, they’ve made dinner or otherwise anticipated what you’ll need when you walk through the door. When brands are able to do that, it’s like, “You get me.”
A few years ago, Fong was working with a trash bag company that had a customer segment willing to spend two to three times what a typical customer might spend on the right trash bag. The point was, the company didn’t know why these consumers were so deeply invested in a utility product.
Through Fong’s ethnographic research, she discovered that this customer segment lived in high-rise apartments or buildings. Every day, they would have to drag their trash bag down a hallway or down the stairs to the trash can.
“If their trash bag broke at any point in the process, they would be at least 20 minutes late to work,” says Fong. “For them, the trash bag was an investment in their ability to start their day off on the right foot.”
Armed with this insight, the company was able to better differentiate itself from its competitors in its advertising by promoting the toughness of the bags.
In another study, Fong worked with a cleaning brand whose new, automated products were being rejected by its core consumers. As Fong watched them clean their homes, she realized that these customers believed in the power of their own hands to actually clean surfaces.
“It was no surprise because they were rejecting all these gizmos and gadgets,” he says. “These were old-fashioned people who wanted to get on their hands and knees and scrub. Knowing this has helped the company develop new fragrances and more environmentally friendly packaging, without sacrificing the time-tested formula of its products.”