Why Consumers Don't Want to Talk to You

People Are Primarily Interested in Themselves, Not Product Benefits

By Published on .

David Grzelak
David Grzelak
Meet Jack. He has an abiding interest in soy protein isolate. Or carob-seed gum. Or high-oleic sunflower oil. And can't stop talking about any of it.

Jack just met Jill. Yet Jill is edging away from Jack at the gallery opening. Or "unfriending" him on Facebook.

And we don't blame Jill.

Yet, this is precisely the opening gambit used by many marketers trying to engage with people. This self-absorbed approach is incompatible with basic human nature. And this should come as no surprise, as it is also incompatible with common sense.

Yet, it's a trap brands fall into too often, obsessing over the minutiae of what separates them from other brands within a particular category.

When we think of brands as existing in a particular category, we immediately limit the role of brands within the lives of consumers. However, when we think of our brand within the context of consumer culture, we open up a brand to an endless source of inspiration and fodder for meaningful, relationship-building conversations.

Spending time with consumers -- I mean, really spending time with consumers, in homes, in stores, in the real world -- is often a good wake-up call for marketers. You're forced to deal with the realities of what is and isn't interesting to people. Unfortunately, you realize that a lot of what we focus on as marketers isn't that interesting.

As a cultural anthropologist, I've spent countless hours in people's homes. I go into kitchens and look in pantries and refrigerators in a relentless search for cues and unspoken evidence of what people really want, not what they say they want. It's incredibly difficult for people to articulate why certain product benefits drove them to purchase.

In almost every instance, people resist a deep dialogue around a product's benefits. They simply don't want to talk about the product, the ingredients or what those ingredients did or didn't do. However, after thousands of hours of research, I've learned what people don't mind at all and never once resist or get tired of talking about is ... themselves.

Consumers are, after all, people. They engage with things and products that are interesting and meaningful to them. In order to get beyond the uninteresting and, oftentimes, undifferentiating focus on product features, marketers must position their brand not within a category, but within consumer culture.

The most obvious example is Nike. It isn't just an athletic shoe. It connects with consumer culture around the idea of "sport," and so today it's shoes, shirts, golf clubs, basketballs, skate gear and swim gear. It's a content producer helping runners map their routes and helping organize pickup basketball games in cities across the country. Nike has become a brand people want to interact with.

To invite the type of interaction that can lead to mutually enriching relationships, brands and marketers need to work from the outside in. Because today, with the proliferation of brands in the market, consumers don't just choose the best or cheapest when it comes to consumption. They choose brands for the meaning they represent.

So let's try this again: Jack, meet Jill. She is a health-conscious endurance runner. She especially likes hill climbing. You do, too. Why don't you ask her about it?

Now that sounds like the start of an interesting conversation.

David Grzelak is executive director of behavioral brand planning at Engauge.
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