Wow. Researchers and their clients are missing the boat. In our effort to find genuine meaning we sort and sift through mass amounts of data. We draw clean lines. We glean an insight that unequivocally tells us what decision to make. Sounds good right? Not so fast. We may miss out on an opportunity to make a real connection with our consumer. It’s time for that to change.

I started thinking more about connections as I sat in on numerous presentations from global insights professionals, gathered at the AQR/QRCA Worldwide Qualitative Researchers Conference held in Valencia, Spain. The range of presentations and conversation about the state of insights around the world reinforced the importance of making a connection.

Marketing is about connecting with a person in order to persuade them to buy your product or service. Persuasion comes from tapping into and aligning with the emotions of your consumer. That’s how you connect with them. In the last 10+ years, we’ve all had a laser focus on ‘authenticity’ – being true to our (brand)selves. Where has it gotten us? Has all that authenticity really connected with our consumers or are we merely navel gazing?

Connections are formed by shared experiences and emotion that resonate on a deeper level. Authenticity is important because your brand needs to be its real self. No one likes a liar. But without the underpinning of a connection, all that authenticity is only as good as the ‘data’ and the workshop it came from. Millions of dollars have been spent worrying about a brand’s authenticity. What we’ve been missing is the ‘data’ to build connection with the consumer. An authentic message is great, but if it doesn’t resonate and connect on an emotional level, then you won’t move the needle.

The consequences of a missed connection can be devastating to a business.

An early presentation from Lydia Fuller at Full Colour Research illuminated the perils and rewards of speaking to your consumers for who they really are.

On the one end was the 2017 Kendall Jenner/Pepsi misfire - an example of good intentions that were, at best, tone deaf. On the other, Fuller pointed to the repositioning of Axe (Lynx overseas). The old/original Axe positioning used a typical "guy gets girl" framework. However, the new Axe presents a far more relatable representation of men and what it means to be male in today’s world. 

Not only does it feel “authentic” but, since you can see yourself in the spot, it has more of a “connection.”

You need to see and hear from your consumer however in order to speak authentically and build a connection. If you aren’t bringing in the right consumer, or are holding onto your own biases and outdated stereotypes, how can you hope to speak to them in a way that resonates?

Beyond rethinking recruiting, the questions you ask and how you ask them can make a difference.

Andy Dexter from The Culturise Collaboration and Kevin McLean of Wardle McLean shared their exploration of the underlying narratives and attitudes toward Brexit. Part of what they uncovered was that, with a deeper dive and better questions that peeled apart stereotypes and nuance, you are able to uncover truths that can inform actionable insights. That would have led to better political advertising to assuage the fears of the “Leave” group and further galvanize “Remain” voters. Instead of flash polling and relying on “data,” we have to take the time to really get to know and understand who our constituents are as people if we ever hope to change their ways of thinking and behaving.

While the example is from the UK, the same is true of U.S. politics as well. That’s why messages from either party often feel so empty and flat – they are missing the deeper insight of what’s driving us on an emotional level, including fear (although one candidate did manage to get it intuitively, tap into it, and now sits in the Oval Office).

And don't think this is just limited to the political arena. I’ve had plenty of corporate clients stay shallow instead of going deep. Clients often insist on a method of inquiry that’s more convenient for them rather than eliciting the most appropriately deep answers.

Along with the research method, the questions we researchers ask are driven by the objective and key questions that clients come to us with. It’s up to us to get curious with our clients. ‘Moderate’ them a bit to find out what they are really trying to understand. Discover what decisions the learning will inform. Explore what biases already exist in the form of previous learning and prevailing attitudes on the client team.

A client recently told me that some of the marketers on her team thought of their own packaged food product line as “bomb shelter food.” My jaw dropped when I heard that. Sadly, it wasn’t the first time I’d heard something like that. I accept that it probably won’t be the last. That poor attitude is not just bias. It’s a complete lack of empathy. Insulting the people who gladly make the choice to buy the product, which in turn, creates the revenue to pay the marketer’s salary? Talk about biting the hand that feeds you!

As crazy as it sounds, those attitudes are out there and aren’t isolated cases. As a researcher, working with that type of team, you have to make sure you are coaching the clients on how to build and apply empathy from the start if you ever hope to build a connection between the client and their consumer.

Which brings me to “who” you are speaking to.

Roben Allong of Lightbeam Communications gave a fantastic presentation encouraging all of us to pay more attention to the sub-cultures that now make-up “mainstream” society. It’s important to understand the nuances of these sub-cultures and how they interact with each other. Allong gave the example of the princess emoji, which is used to convey success in the black community but in the mainstream white community says “spoiled.” Your brand needs to understand the princess emoji across sub-cultures before blithely using it in marketing. Social media has allowed these misfires to spread quickly and mercilessly, regardless of how niche or targeted the marketing was meant to be. Get it right or risk the wrath of the Twitterverse.

As we move to a minority-majority population in the US, the psychographics of our consumers are going to take precedence over the demographics. We need to go deep to learn what makes people tick, regardless of demos. The deep psychological understanding of “who” consumers are as people is what our clients love about our deep dive qualitative work. As our great melting pot continues to blend, now is the time to switch toward this more transcultural perspective. It’s not enough to accept white middle-class America as representative of “gen pop” anymore. Lean into the discomfort of learning about people who are different from you and you’ll find rich rewards for yourself and your business.

I left the conference in Valencia inspired. There were more than 20 great presentations from researchers around the world. I learned from each of them. We are culturally obsessed with ‘data’ in the quantitative sense. But what we need most is the right qualitative ‘data’ in order to help clients make the right connection to their consumer.

Here are three tips for your next research project:

Tip #1: Challenge the method.

How deep do you need to go? What’s the best way to get there? Get out of your comfort zone and put the plan together that gets the depth you need.

Tip #2: Solve for bias at the start.

Moderate your internal stakeholders and external clients. Get curious about their questions. Understand pre-existing data or biases that could negatively inform the research.

Tip #3: Recruit for the true consumer.

Expand horizons and include the sub-cultures within your consumer base to get a better representation of the real consumer. Help your client connect on a psychographic level. Who’s the 20% that is contributing 80% of your business? You should have a connection with them like you do your best friend.

For more information on good consumer understanding habits to transform your business, including our Empathy Camp workshops, contact us at or join the conversation on FacebookLinkedInTwitter or Instagram.