Beauty is in the Eye of Beholder…or is it?

‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, a phrase coined in 1878 by Margaret Wolfe Hungerford.  It’s an innocuous quote, as it stands, however, I dare say we have bastardized it to the point that we are hurting ourselves, and our morals; the very fiber of who we are a society.

This is not my typical blog post, and for that I seek your forgiveness, however, as of late, things have really touched me to the deepest core of my ‘sociological’ self.  The news, and our everyday media, is laden with stories and images that portray ‘beauty’ and I simply ask the next time you view something as beautiful consider not only ‘the why’, but ‘the how’.

It is ‘the how’ that most concerns me.  ‘The how’ is the process that folks knowingly forge ahead, and act upon, as they seek ‘beauty’.  A tiny waist, a tan visage, a most perfect tomato, a horse with a winning gait; all beautiful, right?  Sure, on the surface all those things are coveted by our culture, they have become our very definition of ‘beauty.  However, I ask you to take a step back and consider ‘the how’; how did that woman, or man, achieve that most ‘perfect’ size body?  What lengths did one go through to tan their ‘hide’?  Why does that tomato look as though painted by Rembrandt not by nature’s paintbrush?  How is it that the beautiful Tennessee Walking Horse, with those most trusting eyes and strong stature, presents with a gait that may well never have be seen had it not have been ‘trained’?

‘The why’ is so engrained in us as a culture, we’ve worked centuries to get to our most refined, narrow definition of beauty.  Yes…consider that a tiny waist is a sign of malnourishment and weakness in many a culture (as it was ours not too long ago), and a tan face is seen as weathered and worn…a perfect tomato is seen as suspect because everyone knows that fruit borne of natural means, just like people, suffer some blemish and a horses gait, oh, those beautiful and kind creatures, they were not meant to walk, work or be treated as they are simply for us to look upon them and judge them within the scope of what we define as beautiful.  Now, mind you, there are those that present and uphold our standard of ‘beauty’, naturally, and for that I give no condemnation, it is for the others, those that have to work too hard, do things unnatural, inhumane, or simply amoral, that I beg the questions of, ‘why?’

Rethink beauty, redefine your standards, reset your internal compass and consider beauty in a more natural form.  Allow for blemishes, allow of deviation from our current set of norms, give each other, yourself, all creatures and nature a break and consider ‘the how’ when you assign your stamp of beauty.  For this, you will not only find life a bit easier, but in fact, a lot more beautiful.


Change…It’s a Good Thing (as long as you see it coming)

Let’s say you have a small business.  You have a retail shop where you sell baskets from all over the world.  You’d been successfully established for over ten years when you notice that basket sales are down compared to previous years.  Interestingly, a few years back you brought in stuffed bears of every shape and size, including those children can build, because people were always asking for cuddly animals to put into the baskets they purchased.  You even rolled with it and changed your business name to tell the new story.  For a few years, the bears actually outsold the baskets but then they started to lose momentum as well.  You began to think that perhaps your shop had run its course but decided, before throwing in the towel, to poll your customers as they left the store.  An informal poll showed you that the demographics of the shopping population were changing with the growth of more retail shops on your block.  Wisely realizing that customers were the key to your success, you hired a firm to do a few focus groups, surveys, and analysis.

To your amazement, the demographics of your customers and wanna-be customers had changed radically.  You started your business as an out-of-the-way shop in an off-beat environment catering to a particular client base with financial means and large homes.  When the base changed, you were well positioned with the bears to accommodate the newer client with young families.  Noticing the market trend shift again, your consultant revealed that your new customer base was largely tourists brought into the now hugely popular area because of the exponential growth of retail establishments, restaurants and attractions.  When you recognized the character and makeup of your new customer base, you changed your product line and your name to accommodate their wishes.  Business boomed and yours is now the oldest established business in that area, and going strong … but not without your finger always, always on the pulse of your ever-changing customer base.

So, here’s the bottom line to my story (which, by the way is a true story of a small, but very successful business in Georgia):  Sure it’s great to understand the market, get a feel for what your competition is doing and certainly get a handle on where your industry is going in said market, but that’s nothing without a deep understanding of your customers.  Face it, without your customers, well I hate to say it, but…you’re nothing.  Are those words a bit strong for you?  Better to hear the words than deal with a harsh reality because customers weren’t given enough credit for the success of your business. 

Simply put, there’s more than just the text book learning and even the quantifiable ‘facts’ when running a business.  There’s ALWAYS a person behind the business, product, service, concept, etc and without taking the time to understand their needs and wants there’s little need to even bother opening your doors.  Now, do not be alarmed.  All is not lost.  This is where ethnographies and qualitative research come into play.

By understanding the story behind the person you are able to best fit your product line or service into their lives.  YOU CAN GIVE THEM WHAT THEY WANT, NOT WHAT YOU WANT THEM TO WANT!  Again, just to make sure that was understood…by understanding the story behind the person you are able TO BEST FIT your product or service into their lives.  Now how simple is that?

Do you want monkeys?

 Imagine yourself as a contestant in a game show where you can actually choose your prize, then design a plan to capture it.  You are given a limited bankroll to finance the venture and a group of people to whom you must answer.  With each decision you make you must convince them that you are spending your bankroll carefully and wisely. 

Life in the business world is kind of like that, isn’t it?  You have your eye on the goal and you must use every available means to achieve it.  Trouble is, an unlimited budget is a luxury in today’s business climate, so the reasonable goal is to wring every last penny of value out of each precious dollar spent.  Now that sounds like the right thing to do, but sadly, the first impulse is to tighten the purse strings at every portion of the project without taking the long-range view.  The end result is this … you get what you pay for.  Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, Henry Ford, W. Clement Stone and others of their ilk have created their own version of James Goldsmith’s quote, “if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys.”   Although it’s an amusing statement, it’s sobering in a business setting.  Yet, time after time, companies will choose to pay peanuts (or cut corners) and still expect high rewards.    

Here’s an example: 

‘THE’ Company has decided to launch a new product.  However, they are uncertain whether their product will resonate with their customers and prospects.  They interview two research and marketing consultants (Company A and Company B) and hire the one which offers focus groups for less (B), knowing they will need several to cover every possible scenario.  Bear in mind, however, that Company A had guaranteed ‘THE’ Company that the results could be generated from four focus groups.  ‘B’ Company did not.  For the sake of a visual, let’s say that Company A charges $1000 per group to moderate (4 guaranteed groups = $4000).  Company B charges $700.   Oh, what a savings, right?  Only $2,800 with Company B.

Once hired, Company B finds that they need five or six groups to glean the information ‘THE’ Company is looking for = $3500-$4200.  On the surface, it appears that $3500 for 5 or even $4200 for 6 groups can be reported to your overseeing group as more value, as Company B was at $4000 for JUST four groups. 

Let’s dive deeper and see if it is.  Every focus group requires secondary expenses … room and equipment rental, travel expenses for the moderator, time spent by ‘THE’ Company to sit in on groups, group costs – recruiting, incentives, meals, etc., adding up to possibly another $2500+ per group.  Company A – 4 groups $4000 + $10,000 = $14,000.  Company B – 6 groups $4200 + $15,000 = $19,200.  Suddenly the perceived value (not to mention the typically tight timeline) vaporizes into thin air.   It is far better to review the track record of the competing companies, get referrals, and analyze where the true value lies.  A talented moderator gets results and it’s not the letters behind the name, or even all the training courses completed, that generates the value it’s the moderator themselves.  This comes through a mix of experience and personality.  Know who you’re getting and what they bring to the table.  Don’t be afraid to follow up on references, it could, afterall, save you many peanuts in the end.

Bottom line question … do you want monkeys or practical results?

When the Jungle Meets Main Street – Anthropology in Market Research

If it sounds like this essay refers to opposing worlds … it does, and it doesn’t.  While the word ‘Jungle’ may turn your thoughts to famous anthropologists studying apes and aboriginal people, the Main Street investigator considers societal sub-sets within today’s culture, i.e., professionals, workers, homemakers, using socio-cultural anthropology or ethnographic research.  Whether the researcher is studying aboriginal people in Samoa, gorillas in Rwanda, or people on Main Street, Anytown, USA, you’ll be surprised to find that there are more similarities than differences. 
Take a moment and imagine a market researcher (perhaps carrying a laptop, wearing business attire instead of bush clothes) talking to you or your colleagues in an effort to understand how people come to make consumer decisions, why they use product/service ‘A’ over product/service ‘B,’ or, perhaps, how they build a product or service into their lives.  The seemingly disparate research endeavors between the Jungle anthropologists and the Main street researchers truly have the same objective in common.  The examiners all seek to understand – FULLY and COMPLETELY!  They desire to tell the entire story.  They don’t want a snapshot … they want a full-length movie.

Today’s ethnographic researchers use timelines for longitudinal studies, and methods of triangulation, utilizing some of the following:  In-depth Interviews (IDIs), observation/shadowing, surveys, focus groups, webcams, journals, etc.  In summary, they study the situation ethnographically.  Throughout these diverse studies, they take time to listen and learn.  They begin with an objective to fully understand; they build a framework of several methodologies and then allow nature to take its course while remaining flexible and open to shifts in tactic (this is key!).  They listen, watch, and then listen and watch some more; they combine and compare assorted study results for a fine-tuned picture.  Only then are they able to come away confident that what they saw and heard was not a one-time thing.  Fortified with this conclusive information they can then devise ways to work within the subjects’ environments so as to make changes and influence decisions, or to leave well enough alone, if appropriate. 

Bottom line:  testing an ad campaign, building a product’s packaging or asking about needs/wants are quite easily accomplished through our current ad hoc methods.  However, there can be circumstances which warrant deeper exploration.  For example, you may be seeking a clearer understanding of how consumers use a product (yours or one like yours) – how it fits into their lives, how and why they choose it, or if it meets their needs.   Depending on the insights gleaned through these varied research methods, you will be equipped with the information you need to change a consumer’s behavior in a way which shines positively on YOUR brand.   Unlike the TV game show where you had to pick one door from three, you get the advantage of seeing what’s behind all three doors. 

Frankly, you cannot have an ethnographic study without studying the consumers from within the worlds in which they live.  Bringing them into your world to ask questions about their world (for example: focus groups only) is not ethnography.   One test – one result … and you only see what’s behind door number one.

My challenge to you is to look at market research not as simply researching ‘the market.’   Rather, look at it as exploring deeper to understand the people who will inevitably use your products or services and truly get to know them.  By learning in depth about your present and potential clients, you will acquire the tools needed to produce the movie that tells the story of your product more finitely than any one singularly focused research study could ever do.