We’re Not The Consumer.

Working in marketing, this caveat is commonly overheard in boardrooms and research facilities. It’s typically attached to a personal critique about a new offering — an easy way to make an offhand remark without assuming accountability. To me, more often than not, it also feels a little patronizing, subtly suggesting that marketers make for more informed consumers. But beyond any undertones, the casual use of “we’re not the consumer” is bad for business for a few other reasons:

It discourages empathy. Experienced marketers are also experienced consumers. Armed with a touch of self-awareness, a marketer’s individual shopping motivations, attitudes, and behaviors are hugely valuable inputs across product categories. Research professionals will hate me for saying this, but I believe kitchen research matters. If a marketer is not the target consumer herself, she should know of someone who is. Consumer empathy is a more essential design input than ever — so rather than disregarding our instincts, we should be seeking out ways to better imagine ourselves as the consumer.   

It suggests segmentation is spot on. Amidst today’s complex consumer landscape, marketers should know better than to imagine clearly defined consumer groups that make purchases in isolation from other segments. Real people don’t fit squarely into buckets. Today, more so than ever, people interact and are influenced across demographic and psychographic borders.

Its a competitive disadvantage. Entrepreneurs make for great brand builders. Countless commercial success stories begin with a founder who developed a product for him or herself, after identifying a gap in the market in which he or she is a consumer. Today’s fledgling Maker Movement is littered with start-ups driven by people who are making things they want for themselves. And if I’m betting on a company comprised of employees who use their products versus one that isn’t, it’s a no brainer where I invest my money.

Were not going to serve what people want. Were not doing a focus group. Were going to serve what we think is good David Chang, Momofuku

It’s a cop out. Deferring to research ignores our expertise as marketers and our instincts as consumers. There’s a reason why the majority of national talent contest winners of shows like The X Factor don’t become superstars. Sometimes the experience of professional A&R people make them wiser than the crowd when it comes to picking winners. Similarly, there seems to be a rise in bold leaders challenging traditional research and trumpeting observational and immersive approaches.

the author

Sean Hazell

Sean Hazell is head of brand innovation at Idea Couture. He is based in Toronto, Canada.