Move Beyond Interest to Understanding Identity

“Marketers, it’s time to move beyond interest to understanding identity”. So says Bob Deutsch in his latest column bringing insights from the field of cognitive anthropology to the world of marketing.

Finally, marketers are acknowledging the necessity of listening to consumers, aka “people”, and brands are adjusting to the social networked environment by opening conversations. Market researchers cannot ignore these developments since they dictate the necessity of understanding peoples’ identities, not only their interests.

Bob Deutsch Time to Move Beyond Interest

We Are People, Not Data Points – See Us Live

Times of societal stress demand that marketers comprehend the authentic experience of individuals’ personal worlds, which includes one’s illogical preferences, innocent desires, messy assumptions, and untested deductions. The key to making a successful transition will be found in focusing on the changing ethos; in short, taking note of what tongues are saying.

This emotional-cognitive progression is ceaselessly informed by the development of one’s self-identity, which underlies their unconscious purchase calculus. Understanding this process entails a shift in perspective from seeing consumers as data points to valuing consumers as people. Traditional attitude and usage studies, surveys and focus groups, are not adequate to the task.

Identities Moving Beyond Interests

Traditional methods of inquiry that focus on product attributes often catch the superficial, top-of-mind impulses. But to succeed, brands must fit into peoples’ lives, rather than the other way round. So let’s focus there.

People buy into things that fit their personal brand of meaning. The core task of marketing is, therefore, to entrain peoples’ emotional based logic that shapes self-identity and product-identity, into narrative. That force wins sales and boosts profits.

Brand is that spasm of sentiment, illogical, immediate, and rock-solid, that convulses us when we perceive a product as a venue to manifest our latent selves; brand is about what people wish to become, i.e. Just Do It, not what they are.

A critical implication for marketers is the need to understand peoples’ identities, not just interests. Satisfying consumer needs is but commodity, not brand. Marketers should not waste time asking what people like, need or want. They will do better to discover who these people are.

Hearing, Not Just Listening. Seeing, Not Just Watching

Listening for identities requires the skills of a “loving Interrogator” into the process by which people make meaning, justify it, and author a vision of their future selves. To elicit peoples’ “self-stories” requires establishing an environment in which people can live at the level of “themselves as an idea.” This demands skills beyond the moderator in terms of the questioner’s subjectivity and courage. As Samuel Beckett said, “let peoples’ words do what they want to do and do what they have to do.”

Within this stance, peoples’ words are heard from several perspectives: as outward communications, as self-talk, and as shadow (what is talked about is more than what is said). Recurrences and derailments of logic in self-narratives provide critical information that people should be held accountable for if we hope to reveal what they will give up and what they will hold fast to.

This is not psychotherapy, demographics or personalities. This approach exposes the cognitive zigzags of mind that lead to the formation of beliefs and attachments. This is the currency of marketing since people are at their core pattern, symbol and metaphor makers, makers of meaning and storytellers.

The Grand Narrative Leads To ROI

Once self-stories about I and their world are understood, the analytical task is to locate the “core metaphor and mythology” that composes the “grand narrative.” Such a report from the interior represents a primordial expression that embodies folk dreams as well as one’s fears. Such analysis can produce ideas that balance poetic abstraction with mundane specificity, a story well honed and vivid, that may be called an exercise in “spontaneous craftsmanship.”

The goal is the unexpected insight into how our internal emotional dialog connects to the outside tangle of societal structures. In other words, we need to find in each subject the cultural detritus of ALL minds, the controlling cultural ideas that exist in everyone’s mind.

From such deep insights can arise potent communication plans that have the maximum chance of increasing ROI, as it is here that marketers can tap the primal structure of the authentic human experience.

When it all works, marketers can create messages, campaigns, content and multi-platform strategies that lodge indelibly into peoples’ lives so that even when they do not think about it, their existence resonates.

Whether Campbell’s or Hermes, this act is required of all market leaders, of any corporation that seeks to profit through brand magic.

About Dr. Bob Deutsch

From contributing to Military Review, “The Droning of Strategic Communications and Public Diplomacy (Sept/Oct. 2009) Joint Force Quarterly magazines, “Ambassadors to the World” (January 2010), to wining a Cicero Best Speech of 2009 Award for an address to the USG Intra-agency Committee of Strategic Communications (Vital Speeches of the Day, December, 2009) to portraying a college professor in a McDonald’s commercial, cognitive anthropologist Dr. Bob Deutsch breaks the mold.

The founder and president of consulting firm Brain Sells (, Boston, MA), Bob has worked in the primeval forest and on Pennsylvania and Madison Avenues. His focus, since the mid- ’70s, when he was living with pre-literate tribes and chimpanzees, has been tounderstand how leading ideas take hold in cultures.

Since opening Brain Sells, in 1990, he has applied this understanding to how people attach to products, persons and performances. He is fond of saying, “Reasoned judgment about attributes is not the issue. The brain evolved to act, NOT to think.” Bran Sells’ retail clients include: TJ Maxx, Marshall’s, Johns Hopkins Hospital, Home Goods, Radio Shack, Sephora, Verizon stores, McDonald’s, Dunkin Donuts, and Toyota.

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