Tear up the tickboxes and study the life of mammals

An over-reliance on research has made mass-market ads an unappealing blur. Marketers could learn a lot from Sir David Attenborough, says Gavin McDonald

If anthropologist Sir David Attenborough was a marketer, I believe he would be a multi-platinum award winner whose every campaign is highly successful. Why? Because he has a keen appreciation of insight, knowledge and intuition – weapons that belong in every marketer’s armoury, but sadly are often missing. If mass-media advertising is on its deathbed, the reason for it is that marketers are throwing in these three skills and over-relying on research.

Research is useful – it can help identify and analyse emerging trends and their impact on business. But too many companies have lost sight of the fact that research is only a tool providing practical information.

Behind most great communications is willingness to take a risk. That is often how they become great. No amount of tickbox theorising or focus groups can dispel that truth.

And the vogue for pre-testing new campaigns is a creative mangle that flattens great ideas – especially at a pan-European and global level. This trend is responsible for creating those dumb campaigns that fill our screens and magazines and airwaves, their purpose to gain mass appeal but, in their pursuit of a broad reach, they appeal to nobody.

Attenborough painstakingly watches wildlife in its natural habitat, he studies nuances of time and place, drawing conclusions by comparing similar behaviours in different territories. He relies on the latest equipment and gadgets to help him observe and record, but it is instinct and gut feeling that shape his conclusions and influence his decision-making.

Advertisers would do well to learn from him. They could benefit from spending time in the “wild”, seeing how consumers act in their natural habitat and real environments, not in focus groups or on questionnaires, or hot-wired to a psychologist and his laptop.

The solution is simple: get back to basics and consider consumers from a consumer perspective. This simply means stop thinking about them as consumers and instead consider them as people.

By understanding the small things that are rooted in a particular culture or society, we can find ways of appealing to a generally experienced trend, reality or aspiration – without trampling over what makes it unique.

To deliver remarkable international campaigns, opinion formers are necessary – Manchester trendies may prefer chip butties to ciabatta but they have far more in common with Milanese trendies than their parents. Local accidents of culture are just that – accidental – but what makes people the world over choose the same brands is becoming increasingly similar. Advertisers just need to respect the cultural specifics – though they won’t find them at a market research focus group in a chintzy suburban front room.

Advertisers should throw aside the pseudo-scientific psychobabble and investigate the real life of mammals.

Gavin McDonald is the creative planner of StrawberryFrog

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