For Creative Thinkers: Lessons From the Dairy Case

Get Out and Observe Consumers in Action, You'll Gain Insights That Data Can't Show

By Published on .

The dairy aisle isn't the most inviting hangout spot. It's a cold, fluorescent-lit place where shoppers' eyes can glaze over before a massive wall of yogurt options in the search for something Greeker or cheaper among all those plastic tubs. Most people grab their favorite brand and a gallon of milk and get the hell out of there.

But people in advertising are not "most people." I once stood in the dairy aisle of my local Wegmans for over 30 minutes, looking a bit suspect, if not entirely creepy, I am sure, to the grocery retailer's many employees. I was watching people buy cottage cheese.

We were pitching a regional brand of cottage cheese at the time called Friendship Dairies. Our quantitative data told us that when buying cottage cheese, shoppers are most influenced by what they see in the store and on the package. But the data couldn't tell us what on the package consumers were responding to.

It was only with observations from the dairy stakeout that we arrived at an insight that inspired our overall creative strategy, which was to use boldly redesigned packaging as in-store media. It ultimately drove a double-digit sales increase.

I don't want to knock data, because professional research reports offer an incredible amount of information about what shoppers do. But in 30 years of creative work, I've rarely seen this data turned into a leverageable insight. Quantitative data have one giant shortcoming: they don 't come from observing human behavior through human eyes.

In-person observation can reveal how consumers physically interact with the brand in the purchase environment, how they interact with each other in experiencing the brand, and what other brands are considered before the purchase decision is made. The nuances of body language can reveal valuable information.

In-person investigation also allows us to adjust to feedback in real-time. Surveys can't play off the dynamics of a group or push someone to explain what they mean. Doing the digging ourselves, we are invested in understanding what's going on in the moment, which leads to bigger, better ideas.

Account planning is an invaluable part of our business, but we've been careful not to silo the discovery phase in this department. Creative types and account leaders take part in the fun as well, and their input helps us craft original, customized approaches to getting great data of our own.

When we wanted to learn more about the people who bought our client Thule's roof racks, we sponsored the local Fat Tire Festival and shared a few beers in the parking lot with off-road cyclists and other outdoor enthusiasts. (Once you hear a guy refer to his muddy old kayak as his "baby," you know you're in rich creative territory.)

When we pitched a restaurant chain, we approached couples at competitors' bars and bought them a drink in exchange for a quick conversation. We held our focus groups at the restaurant, where we heard people's opinions about their experience in real time.

We've watched people hunt for lingerie at Victoria's Secret, and visited people in nursing homes to learn about macular degeneration. We've commissioned photo documentaries with disposable cameras. We've blind taste-tested what seemed like every energy drink in existence and survived. We've hosted wine-and-cheese parties, and sweated it out in firemen's bunker gear.

These experiences told us things that we'd never have gotten from a research report. Why? Because what motivates people's behavior is not purely rational, and what people say they do and what they actually do isn't always the same thing.

Observation and human interaction are a crucial part of the creative process. Quantitative data should absolutely be included in that process, but it should never replace bold, creative, be-there-as-it-is-happening exploration.

Jeff Gabel is chief creative officer, Partners & Napier.

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