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Looking for insights in all the wrong places

What if we know too much about who our target audience is—and not enough about who they are not?

4 min read

Marketing Strategy



Recently, an article appeared in the New York Times titled, “Why You Should Read Books You Hate.” I didn’t read it. I already practice what the article was advocating: I only read writing by those with whom I disagree. 

I have rationalized this habit by proclaiming: I already know what I think, so I am better served by trying to understand what somebody who disagrees with me thinks. But, as of late, I have come to a different realization. The main reason I read books by people I disagree with is to better understand my own thinking and my work as a strategic planner.  

Like brand strategists across the country, our strategic-planning department was “woke” by the 2016 election. Was there something that we were missing about people living in “red states”? So, we sent a team to America’s heartland to do ethnographic research and inform a talk called “100 Million People You Don’t Know, But Should“ at this past year’s SXSW. 

What I found most interesting was the understanding that they brought back about “coastal elites”— about themselves.

Our conclusion was that people like us who work in Santa Monica, Calif., are actually taking cues from everyday living in places like Fargo and Omaha. Commonplace activities like baking pies, knitting and forming close connections with family and heritage are aspirational for my colleagues and me. In Sioux Falls, they are daily life. What we call the “Farmers Market” is just called the market in communities we visited.

For me, this is a fascinating insight about people living in Southern California. It points toward a desire for rootedness or connectedness and brings up questions of how we deal with often competing desires for freedom versus tradition.

Most importantly, this was not the picture of “coastal elites” gained from some of the typical ways we study them. Our team started with an MRI survey and looked for where the coasts differed from the heartland. The profile was of ambitious people, driven by discovery and success. Our team resented this cardboard portrayal of themselves. In the end, our understanding did not come from differences between coasts and heartland, which is what you get from indices. It came from the similarities.

Typically, when marketers study a customer group we look at how they behave, how they live, what motivates them. We do focus groups, ethnographies and look for where they index high in MRI or Simmons. These are all still valid and important. My department has been asking, though, whether this approach leads all marketers to the same place. What if we know too much about who our target audience is—and not enough about who they are not?

As an undergraduate, I studied at Boston University with Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate. His class “Exile and Redemption” looked at exile from a variety of different perspectives. The mark of Wiesel’s teaching was that he didn’t tell us what to conclude. I was led to a simple observation that has stuck to this day: To be redeemed, one must first be exiled. We must venture outside to have a deeper experience on the inside.

As we think about our job in marketing, it strikes me that a similar principle may be true. To understand a particular audience, perhaps we may need to step outside of that audience. Can we enhance our understanding of Gen Z by studying retirees? Can we gain new insights about Hispanics by studying Koreans?

Reading books that you hate is a way to get out of a bubble. We need to start looking for insight and understanding in some counter-intuitive places. Maybe I will see some of you at next year’s Conference on Homelessness, which I will be attending on behalf of several of our home-products clients. To really stretch beyond what we think we know, we must look at the opposite of that truth. It’s true in life and I’m learning that it’s also true in marketing.

David Berne is EVP / chief strategy officer at ad agency RPA.