Tim Parker
Mar 9, 2017

The obligation to understand (it's tougher than you think)

Marketers must know their customers. But doing so requires a massive effort to overcome a quirk of human nature, according to Flamingo's Tim Parker.

Tim Parker
Tim Parker

Recent events have highlighted an interesting quirk of human nature. Fundamentally, we seem to either think people are just like us (see what advertisers think ‘normal’ people get up to) or that they are completely and irreconcilably different (witness the incredulity and emotionality between opposing parties in Brexit or the recent US elections).

We live bubble-like lives, with some people on the inside (like me) and others on the outside (not like me). Whilst this has always been human nature, nowadays we increasingly have the means to ensure that our bubble is ever more homogeneous and ever less overlapping with those who are different from us.

This is not just a social media / echo chamber thing. It plays out across who we socialise with, where we live and work. The great shifts that were meant to bring people together and make boundaries a thing of the past have largely failed to do so.

Take globalisation. Whilst people around the world may drink Coke, wear Nike or listen to Beyoncé, it doesn’t make them any more meaningfully similar. Furthermore, a recent article even suggests a certain reversal in this unifying movement of consumer choice.

The great melting pot of the internet is also less bubble-popping than originally predicted. At a most basic level, even the fundamental concept that there is such a thing as ‘the’ internet—annulling geographies and cultural boundaries—is increasingly being revealed as a myth. National firewalls, different scripts and different languages, combined with the echo chambers of social media, which increasingly act as our window to the world, mean that in reality there are multiple internets. Even in humanity’s greatest arena for collisions thus far, separation thrives.

This article is part of the Cultural Radar series

Moreover, commonly heralded examples of diversity thriving are not always the clear-cut success stories they appear to be. Superficial difference can often mask underlying similarity. Whilst we may work, socialise or live with people from a widespread mix of ethnicities, it’s likely that similarities in education, wealth, outlook and values greatly outweigh any surface impressions of diversity and difference.

This matters for a number of reasons. As human beings we are undoubtedly better off when we come into contact with people who are different from us. It opens up our field of experiences, our viewpoints and assumptions benefit from being challenged, we learn and we grow. It’s also fundamental in helping develop a deeper sense of empathy, a function sitting at the core of our humanity.

On a much more micro level, as marketing professionals we have an obligation to understand people who are different from us. Our customers and audiences, the people we sell to, service, or communicate to, are rarely our mirror image.

If we are instinctively drawn to assume most people are the same as us, that those who are not are bafflingly different (and hence barely worth making the effort to understand), and if it’s become ever easier to live out our lives surrounded by ‘people like us’, what can we do about it?

The first step, as in addiction counselling, is to admit there is a problem. If we’re aware of this tendency, we’re more likely to pick up on it when we are defaulting to automated assumptions of similarity.

Second, we need to actively break with this tendency. This means personally doing things that bring us in contact with people and viewpoints that are different from our own. Get news from a wide and deliberately contrasting range of sources, not just favourites. Watch prime time TV, instead of remaining confined to Netflix’s ‘just for you’ suggestions. Drink in hipster bars as well as sticky-floored locals. Shop at a major grocery chain sometimes, instead of the local market. Take up any opportunity that brings us into contact with people we would normally never meet or spend time with. The opportunities are endless.

Freeing ourselves from the pervasive limitations of our bubble won’t happen without conscious effort. But doing so will help us be better at our jobs, and in the long run, better and more empathetic human beings.

Tim Parker is director at Flamingo London

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