Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The limits of experience or how the non-fan can help

Whenever I take on a new project I’m often asked if I buy the particular brand or “do” the particular activity (play golf, drink wine, watch spots, etc.). The working assumption is that personal experience will provide greater insight into the consumer experience. And sometimes that’s definitely true., especially in experiences that have very deep cultural roots.

Race, class and gender have been such profound sources of cultural division in our country partially because it is so hard for people to imagine the experience and perspective of people different from themselves.

In my experience, however, having personal experience doesn’t always help. Sometimes it provides insight, and sometimes it gets in the way of seeing the behavior clearly or freshly. This is particularly true of enthusiast brands and categories that people in our industry care a lot about: for guys, this means cars or sports or video games.

I’ll use sports as an example. I like playing sports, but I’d rather wash the dishes than spend 5 hours watching a game on TV. (Why? It just seems pointless.) So, whenever I work on a sports-related brand, the other members of the team almost always tell they me they have it figured out. They know the sport or product or fan-experience so well that I –an admitted non-fan--couldn’t possibly tell them something that they don’t know. This is, they say, a no-brainer (usually a red flag).

What generally happens, however, is that they have a really hard time escaping from their own experience and emotional investments. They care too much. And end up creating a lot of familiar, cliché-ridden work and ideas. They need a fresh perspective—a non fan-perspective—to see the same stories in a new way. It’s not that I’m hearing anything new most of the time. I mean, is there anything more repetitive than fan stories? "So it was the seventh inning..." I’m just hearing them from a different perspective.

We all see this with clients; more than half the time, our new ideas aren’t new at all. They already know what we are telling them; they just can’t see it clearly, because they are too deeply involved in their own concerns, frustrations, ambitions, turf battles, etc.

Maybe I’m just making a virtue out of a deficiency. The truth is I use and/or buy very few of the products I work on, but whenever I do care too much about a particular brand, I try and bounce my ideas off a non-fan to make sure I’m not reciting the familiar brand cant. And I usually am.


erin said...

I agree and then I don't. At times, I play the "fresh perspective" card and it seems to suit the situation because they NEED a fresh perspective. In other situations, perhaps a strong connection needs to be made to solidify a brand's position with a certain audience. Here, it would make sense to tap into a fan for an angle that hasn't been played yet.

As far as sports goes, it would be interesting to know an insight you provided that would trump a fan's idea. I think there's something about sports that only fans get. Sometimes I have an AH HA moment with sports, but a lot of the time I'm like you, rather be washing dishes than watching a game on TV.

I like your line: "Maybe I'm making a virtue out of a deficiency." You're an optimist. :)

sk said...

Fair challenge, E. And I agree. Can't name client names but let's say it was a well-known sports brand with a strong history of good advertising, so good, in fact, the creatives couldn't escape the influence of the past.

So here was the insight that our fans couldn't see because it was too revealing about their own emotional lives:

Sports are romance novels for guys. They laugh, they cry, they bond. When the game goes badly, they sulk for the rest of weekend. When the big game goes badly, they sulk until next season. They can consume an infinite amount of slight variations. And what they value, all above else, in a fan is loyalty and commitment. A true fan is a fan that stick to his team through thick and thin. Just like a good man.