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How telling stories can provide a rich source of consumer insight

… and excellent fodder for product development.

By Wendy Shaw, Partner, Spark Ideas Inc. Article first appeared in the Design Management Review, a publication of the Design Management Institute.

In our work to uncover consumer insights, build marketing strategies and support new product development initiatives we are constantly looking for ways to more deeply understand a consumer’s reality.  Getting inside people’s heads and hearts to understand their behaviour and the beliefs behind their behaviour can help shape product development and positioning.

As we seek to understand the consumer’s context we look for tools that give us as authentic and organic a view as we can find.  Asking people to tell us stories has repeatedly proven to be a rich and productive avenue for important insights.

We ask people to tell us a story about a relevant event or experience.  For instance, tell me about the last time you baked something from scratch.  Or tell me about the last time you purchased a car.  We try not to set too many rules or give too much guidance.  We let them determine where the story will begin.  This, after all, is what we are looking for.  We ask for the story to be in writing – and ideally the story will be handwritten, if the logistics permit.  We ask for the story to be as descriptive as possible – and we ask that the story be illustrated with pictures (hand drawn stick people or cuttings from magazines or from the internet)

The richness and detail in the responses we receive continues to surprise us!   The up-close lens on all the complexity of decision making, human interaction, expectations, consumption, emotional triggers, memory, and associations is rich with potential for us as marketers.

We hear the story in the tellers own words – literally.  We see what words they choose to use – without any spell or grammar check – which is why we prefer to see the story in their own handwriting.  We see how they combine words.  What the words mean to them.  This is so helpful in developing consumer communications – from advertising to packaging to user materials.  We learn about triggers and the sequence of events – what happened to start the ball rolling?  Was it the weather that got you thinking about baking?  Or was it a craving?  Or impending guests?  Or boredom?  And what happened next?  And then what?

For instance, we have used this approach with insurance clients working in new product development.  In one particular project the storytelling helped us understand the deep fears consumers had about making a poor choice for themselves and their families.  Their lack of product and category understanding made them feel insecure and worried that they would be exploited.  They would come into this transaction with strong and negative feelings…or they would just avoid the situation completely.   We were able to help the client address and allay the concerns proactively by understanding the beliefs behind the consumer’s behaviour.  By carefully crafting communications – choosing appropriate words and language and development of relevant and credible assurances – the client was able to tap into a potential problem and deliver a powerful offering.

In banking we asked customers to tell us a story about “how they pay for things”.  A broad topic indeed but these stories revealed that some banking products are so deeply integrated in a person’s life that the product itself becomes invisible.  It is the “heart” of their day-to-day financial transactions – essential but invisible.  Therefore the placement of limits on how they use these products feels restrictive and excessive – it’s all about the bank and not about me.  The collection and analysis of hundreds of these stories across the country fed a product development cycle that resulted in our client’s most successful product launch – a product both new for their customers and new to the category.

It was also through storytelling that we first identified the phenomenon of the age of the oldest child as a determinant of all other children’s activities in the family.  We learned that a 5 year old in a family with a 7 year old and a 9 year old will generally be allowed a broader range of activities and more freedom than a 5 year old eldest child.  This wasn’t what we had set out to learn but it was a very important insight as we worked with our client to build appropriate internet related tools for families.  It never would have occurred to us to ask about birth position of children – but it was a happy revelation!  It also indicated the need for collection of different data elements!

In many ways storytelling can be like ethnography without being there.   And people of all kinds seem to enjoy telling their own stories.  That’s what they tell us.  And we like the insights that the stories reveal.