In this series, Benoit Beaufils, founding partner of brand consultancy Innate Motion, along with several of his partners, presents the tools that the company uses to develop purposeful, mission-driven brands with their clients. Benoit views their tools as a free “thoughtware” suite, and proposes that readers borrow and reapply.
Tool #1. People immersions.
Jack* rushes into the meeting room, and goes straight for a seat. “How was it?” the others ask. “Unbelievable. Unbelievable.” He pauses, and tells the story:
“I visited this woman called Joanna.* Minutes into the conversation, she told me her husband had died recently, from cancer. And she started telling me everything about how the whole family was in pain for months, as he was dying and they all knew it. I think it’s the first time she was talking so much about it… She needed to talk, but it was really overwhelming. I started to really wonder if I would be able to also talk about our products! At some point she paused. We had talked over an hour already, so I said: ‘You know, I also wanted to talk about food…’ Her eyes started to glitter, and she said: ‘You know… in all this pain, cooking is what saved us.’ She explained that she always had been a good cook, and always had enjoyed preparing meals for her family. In all these months, she made a point to cook every day, and sit at the table with her children. She said taking these moments of pleasure made them all feel alive, it made them feel there was more than the drama they dealt with. It was small, but life-saving. And she even talked about our brand — it was one of those she used, and she said she knew she could count on it, and that was important.”
Jack is a seasoned executive, and he has done countless consumer visits, but this one is different. Here, he explained, he did not rush to the fridge to check the brands the woman used. He took the time to meet her as a person, to discuss important aspects of her life, only to understand how they were the nests where his brand could find a deeper relevance, and serve a purpose.
We call this type of visit a “people immersion.” People immersions have been designed to help executives shift away from their rational, product and category focus, to an empathetic approach of the people that their business serves. They are open, personal conversations with consumers, geared towards human themes that we know underlie the work of the brand. Consumers are seen as “people,” and the business people who visit them also behave as people: they engage, they share thoughts, they allow themselves to be emotionally touched.
We have used immersions with young girls in Brazilian slums, with high net worth banking clients in Singapore, or with engineers in a B2B context. Every time, it creates the same impact, shifting the perceptions of the most blasé marketer away from her own category and brand issues, and towards what really matters for the people her business serves. They are touched, often shaken, and they realize that their brands can make a difference. They see that in the lives of the people they visit, small and large issues mingle, so that a great meal, a moment of confidence, a simple solution to a crippling problem, often are enough to better a life.
How does it work?
The reason why immersions create change lies in the way they force intensity and intimacy on managers, creating an experience that shifts their perceptions. Companies such as Unilever hence embraced them as a core process, training over 300 facilitators and taking every one of their 7000 marketers through a session.
They work at three conditions:
a. The conversations must be conducted on themes that correspond to the human backdrop on which the brand can thrive. The chosen themes must deal with the highest possible human issues, whilst still being closely relevant to the brand.
b. The conversations must create depth and intimacy. They call onto a sense of empathy that is little used in the office, and as such needs to be retrained before the immersion.
c. They must be followed by a debrief that allows for pulling effective learnings, by connecting human learnings to the brand.
The essence of the approach can be used by anyone, by using a simple four-step process:
Step 1 — Preparation.
- Recruit: Conducting immersions with the heaviest users of a brand has given us the best results when it comes to developing a purposeful brand story: They know intuitively how they create real value in their lives, and are a great source of learnings.
- Rewind: To find the themes to discuss with the people you will visit, dive into the history of your brand or business. How was it created? How does the communication speak? What are the themes used there, beyond category and product argumentation? What are the values the brand has stood for — even implicitly? These themes need to be part of the brand, but also deeply relevant.
Step 2 — Briefing.
- Participants need to be readied for the amount of intimacy that comes out of the process, and trained to empathy. To do that, go through the immersion questions for yourself, on your own or even better with a colleague. Diving deep into one’s own reality, creating empathy with yourself, is a critical way to enable empathy for others. And sharing what you found — or a part of it — with a colleague is a perfect way to get ready for intimacy.
- Participants need to know the themes well, or note them down on a simple piece of paper as a reminder, so as not to need an “interview guide” during the conversation.
Step 3 — Immersion.
- Visit respondents at home. Plan a two-hour conversation; this is the time needed to break the ice and have an in-depth, personal conversation.
- Start the conversation by learning to know each other. Volunteer a bit about you, talk about your children, where you live. Engage conversation about the home you are in, the family, the hopes and dreams of the people you meet.
- Move gradually towards your themes. Collects stories, not concepts or insights. Ask about moments, about examples; discuss events that happen earlier in the day or the week, rather than big ideas. Never judge, never try to convince, never discuss what is right or wrong. Feel free to offer your own stories or examples, as a way to push the conversation.
- Let the conversation flow; Guide it softly from theme to theme. Enjoy it, focus on really understanding. Respectfully ask more if you do not understand, if a story or a behavior sounds really foreign to you — this is probably where it gets interesting!
- After about 1.5 hours, move the conversation towards your product category and your brand. Discuss usage, perceptions. Listen to what is being said, but also to what is not being said: You will be able to hear some connections between what is being told about the brand, and the earlier themes.
Step 4 — Debrief.
- Write down the story of the person you visited. Who is he or she? What are her ambitions, her aspirations? Where were you touched?
- Identify the tensions in her life, the struggles.
- Create connections between what has been told about the brand, and what has been told in the context of the themes. How does the brand provide solutions? At a practical level? At a symbolic or emotional level? How does it help the person you met to develop the idea he or she nourishes, the way she wants to see herself?
Respondent after respondent, a new reality will emerge, and opportunities arise.
For Jack, the conversation was an eye-opener as regards the role his brand plays. It’s about food, but essentially, it is about pleasure. And he realized the extent to which pleasure had become absent from the work of the brand. He realized, also, how pleasure needed to be threaded between the marketing work of his brand and its sustainability work. So he and his team developed an ambitious program to source the most important ingredient in their product from sustainable suppliers — when the current sourcing could easily come under activist scrutiny. Given the size of the business, it was an ambitious feat. It means working upstream helping current suppliers move towards better processes, and actually taking an active role in improving the practices of the industry. A role that the brand would be able to claim. Not just towards activists, but also towards consumers, because in Jack’s line of business, sustainable sourcing is associated to better taste — so more pleasure!
Today Jack’s team has aligned on a clear brand vision, where the ideas of pleasure and sustainable sourcing are, finally, bound together at the core. The brand has started advertising its new practice, and business is up. And it all started with immersions.
Part two, the Shared Value Landscape ...