14 May 2019

People Myopia: the case for Cultural Forensics

Blinded by an obsession with ‘people as people’ and an infatuation with the brain, marketing and insight are at risk of missing two important pieces of the puzzle – ‘situations’ and culture.

It’s reassuring to think of people as autonomous agents who, driven by idiosyncratic needs and desires, ‘decide’ their way through life. As marketers and researchers, it makes the world appear consistent with how we experience ourselves.

Whilst this idea has been discredited beyond dispute, as an industry we continue to approach people mainly as ‘people’, routinely asking them about their needs, feelings and expectations. And ever since Thinking Fast & Slow we have put decision-making on a pedestal, along with anything to do with the brain.

Yet we cannot hope to understand people without exploring the ‘situations’ in which products and brands acquire meaning. And it’s impossible to appreciate these situations without reference to culture[1].

  1. Situations

Let’s start with situations. These can be understood as ‘exchanges’ where demand (needs, desires) and supply (product and brand benefits) meet. Jobs-To-Be-Done’s are crucial here – they represent the demand side of the equation in a given situation. An example from Clayton Christensen:

Milkshakes are tasty and filling. However, in the US they fulfil another important role – they generally last long enough to bridge the time it takes to travel to work in the morning, providing prolonged distraction (a bit like chewing gum). Dialing this benefit up proved to be a winning strategy. But only for this situation.

It’s important to realize that products and brands mean very little outside of these situations. Studying people in isolation – as insight habitually does – can easily put us on the wrong foot.

  1. Culture

Culture is a powerful force that shapes what we think, feel and do. It’s omnipresent yet easy to underestimate. Olivier Sweet and Ellie Tate of Ipsos define culture as ‘shared meanings and learned behaviours’:

  • a collection of implicit and explicit meanings that enable us to navigate life
  • at set of shared practices that are passed on and transformed from generation to generation

The problem is that culture is also abstract, and cultural phenomena often seem volatile and ambiguous. To pinpoint culture is no mean feat. As a result, even mid-level researchers may struggle. Idem for clients, who also need to justify their actions to higher echelons in simple one-pagers.

A more practical challenge is that cultural insight and understanding situations benefit from ethnographic methods, which are generally expensive. That said, ignoring them has a price too: a limited or distorted version of reality.

Multiple levels                 

Understanding marketing challenges requires insight at three levels:

  1. Culture or Far Context
  2. Situations or Near Context (including JTBD’s)
  3. How individuals deal with these situations in day to day life

A narrow focus on individuals, psychology and decision-making risks misunderstanding the marketing JTBD. Other than optometrists myopia has never served anyone well.

[1] In Behavioural Economics situations and culture are also known as Near and Far Context