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23 Marketing Hypotheses, In 7 Categories, For 3 Products (Life As A Marketing Case Study)

Photo by Renee S. Suen via Flickr; permission to share with attribution


"The purpose of business is to create a customer." - Peter Drucker

Preface - Journaling To Learn

When I taught consumer behavior at GW University in Washington, I made the students go to the mall. There they stood with notebook and paper, tracking people as they walked through the stores. Observing their buying behavior. It was great!

Most market research we get in the news is massive in scale. Quantitative surveys, useful to a point but in my view biased toward the sponsor. It is therefore helpful to balance research sources - survey, interview, focus group, and observation.

One underutilized tool is the personal case study. This is where you observe yourself in the process of buying, then take the time to write what you see and extrapolate the lessons learned. These are probably better stated as "hypotheses" because they're just one experience from one person's perspective.

In that spirit here is an unfinished personal case study from the experience of redecorating. The experience is followed by a hypothesis, put in italics. These are organized in the next section for quick reference.

The 23 Hypotheses

1. Branding
  • In the absence of information people go to the brands they know first. 
  • Customers prefer to buy from vendors who have sold them good merchandise previously.
2. Customer Service
  • Customer service representatives who take the time to talk to the customer win business. 
  • Customers notice and get nervous when you are inconsistent or don't keep your word. 
  • Customers notice when your company doesn't seem to operate in unison. 
3. Gender
  • Women connect the dots. So for us shopping has a domino effect. It makes us see related needs. 
  • Men have no patience for shopping. 
  • Men are more swayed by quality than women. 
  • Men are more sensitive to price than women. Men are also more spatially oriented. They want to know the specs. 
  • Men are more practical shoppers. 
4. Mass Media
  • People want the things they see on TV. 
  • Repeat advertising works. People remember catchy mass-media ads. 
5. Internet
  • Better Business Bureau accreditation sounds good. Angie's List has credibility. 
  • Customers use retail outlets to find what they want and then go online to get a better deal. 
  • Online shopping is about trust. 
  • Even a single complaint can ruin your online business. 
  • Google paid search is a good investment. 
6. Price
  • Lacking other indicators, people assume that a higher price means the quality is better especially as compared with other merchandise. 
  • Bundling products together for a single price makes the customer think they are getting a better deal. 
  • Making the customer pay for an estimate saves money and elicits a commitment. 
  • It's not enough to provide the customer information transparently. They are mentally benchmarking your cost against a theoretical baseline. If it's too high, they will walk away. 
7. Sales
  • Know why your customers call you and be ready to answer their doubts before they are even articulated. 
  • If you sound confident your customer will have confidence in you.

The Case 

1. Buying a Sofa

It started with the couch.

Me: "It's not comfortable."

My husband: "What's wrong with it?"

Me: "Look how we have to sit on this thing."

One unflattering pose later we were on our way to the store.

In the car, me: "I want the couch that Chandler had on Friends."

People want the things they see on TV.

My husband: "And where are we going to get that?"

Repeat advertising works.

Me: "The Cinema Store. I've seen their ads over and over again." 

Go to the store. Try out chair. Nice. 

My husband: "We are paying retail prices though."

Me: "Go over there."

I take out my iPhone and take a picture of the tag on the couch. Search the Web. Find it cheaper.

Customers use retail outlets to find what they want and then go online to get a better deal.

Me: "Let's go now. Let's go. We can get it cheaper online."

While my husband drives I talk to him about the different vendors I am finding on the iPhone. 

"I think we should check on the home computer first," he says. "I want to see if there are any complaints."

Online shopping is about trust.

Indeed one of the vendors is part of a complaint war on the Internet. 

Me: "I think it's fine."

My husband: "No. I don't want any problems. This isn't Amazon."

Even a single complaint can ruin your online business.

Finally we settle on a vendor.

2. Dining Room

I realize then that the dining room set is old.

Women connect the dots. So for us shopping has a domino effect. It makes us see related needs.

My husband goes on the computer. 

Men have no patience for shopping.

"Don't we have to look at a new set first?" I say.

"You were at the store the other day, what set did you like? We got this other piece from them, right?"

Customers prefer to buy from vendors who have sold them good merchandise previously. 

"Well is it quality?" He says.

Men are more swayed by quality than women.

"It was more expensive than the other sets," I say. 

Lacking other indicators, people assume that a higher price means the quality is better especially as compared with other merchandise.

"It looks good. Let's just get it. The price is reasonable. Let's measure everything first."

Men are more sensitive to price than women. Men are also more spatially oriented. They want to know the specs.

We take out the measuring tape, do the measurements, put the stuff in the cart. The different pieces make it look expensive even though it's not, terribly.

"Wait, there's a package deal," I say.

We put the package in the cart and now there's one price. We start the checkout process.

Bundling products together for a single price makes the customer think they are getting a better deal.

3. Flooring

At this point we realize the floor is no good. It's been awhile since we carpeted. There is dust.

We try to buy new floor online but realize you have to see it first. I head over to the Home Depot. I remembered their tagline, "More Saving, More Doing, That's The Power of the Home Depot."

In the absence of information people go to the brands they know first. 

They remember catchy mass-media ads.

"Hello? Is anybody here?" I say in the flooring department.

"They all went home, I will stay and help you," somebody says. I have a half hour conversation during which I am convinced to buy a certain kind of flooring.

A second customer service representative talks to me about timeframes and walks with me to the display. 

Customer service representatives who take the time to talk to the customer win business.

I go home and tell my husband about that flooring.

"Oh no," he says. "If we ever want to sell this place people will only want genuine hardwood."

Again, men are more practical shoppers.

Home Depot sends someone to measure. I pay for the privilege.

Making the customer pay for an estimate saves money and elicits a commitment.

I am ready to buy the flooring from Home Depot. But they don't contact me right away with a time window as promised. I call them twice. The call is dropped the first time. The second time I am told that "the manager has gone to lunch."

Customers notice and get nervous when you are inconsistent or don't keep your word.

I use the web-based interface to contact Home Depot customer service and get a call back the same day. However, this call crosses with the call from the third-party estimate provider.

Customers notice when your company doesn't seem to operate in unison. 

The estimate provider spends a lot of time on the phone with me. He breaks down the charges point by point. I get a written estimate by email. The estimate seems very high. I tell my husband. He says, "No way. That's a ripoff."

It's not enough to provide the customer information transparently. They are mentally benchmarking your cost against a theoretical baseline. If it's too high, they will walk away.

"What are we going to do?" my husband says to me. "We need to coordinate the floor and the furniture."

Out of desperation, while I'm on the train I do a Google search on my iPhone. I key in our town and the words "hardwood flooring." Three paid search results come up.

Google paid search is a good investment.

I choose the one with the name connoting the lowest cost and the highest trust factor. The ad says "family owned."

Someone picks up the phone right away and shows up the same day to measure. With samples.

When you get the call you must be prepared.

The first words out of this person's mouth: "How did you find us?"

"Google paid search," I say. "I guess that works."

The salesperson says: "We're accredited on the Better Business Bureau. We have hundreds of good ratings on Angie's List."

Know why your customers call you and be ready to answer their doubts before they are even articulated.

If you sound confident your customer will have confidence in you.

Better Business Bureau accreditation sounds good.

Angie's List has credibility.

To Be Continued

We're not even close to done yet. But looking over what's happened so far, we're immersed in marketing takeaways.

Let's see how things close out - a possible Part 2 of this case study, perhaps for another day.













Break Yourself To Make The Brand



We fundamentally misunderstand branding.

It is not an ad exercise alone - at least, not anymore.

Branding is the creation of a facade which you must then deliver on in reality.

Reality means you do the work. You "operationalize."

Executives tend to think they are immune from the process. "Hey, don't bother us -- we're visionaries!"

But we aren't immune. We are not.

To make the brand we must break ourselves. Sufficient to be in a team, the team, our team. It is not about "me" -- again, not anymore.

The painful thing about life is that you aren't ever done with the breaking. You make one grade only to face another. What worked before does not work now.

To make matters worse -- at least for many of us who prefer the realm of intellectually challenging ideas-- often reaching our goals means breaking our mental mindsets. Really these are invisible chains, and we may not even see that we are in them.

Emotion work is intangible. Much harder to do. More painful to experience. But you can't grow, change and deliver without it.

Branding get slammed as fun for the superficial. But I say it's just shorthand for a goal. Customer satisfaction is the external marker but the real customer is you and your life's journey.

If you can dream it, be it and believe it my dad says. But then again, words are just mist and vapor.

To paraphrase Iyanla: "You can't get there without doing the work."

All I Need To Know I Did Not Learn In Fifth Grade


Photo by Aislinn Ritchie via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Actual words written in marker on a large white Post-it sheet. Left up on a wall at an elementary school.

Astonishingly similar to every group retreat I've ever been on except that in the adult version we don't talk about #2.

Especially considering the waste involved, what happens between fifth grade and adulthood (or does not happen) that prevents us from overcoming these obstacles to group work?

1. "Problems"
Having to redo work
Disagreements
One person does all the work
Paired with someone you don't like
Distractions
One person takes over
Sabotage
Having to compromise
Different answers
One person does no work

2. "Problems I Cause"
Goofing off
Taking advantage of others
Getting frustrated
Not getting it
Talking too much
Absences
Getting angry
Taking out anger on others
Not concentrating
Procrastination
Needing to feel in charge/I can be bossy
Pushed over (around?)
Not communicating
Don't know what to do

3. "Working Together"
Divide tasks
Check on others - help?
Compromise
Talk out the workload so it is shared
Talk to a teacher
Explain your ideas
Listen
Be self-aware

Crying for Steubenville

It was actually a normal party scene that Saturday night, August 11, 2012:
"For the lucky ones on the Steubenville High School football team, it would be the start of another season of possible glory as stars in this football-crazy county. Some in the crowd, which would grow to close to 50 people, arrived with beer. Those who did not were met by cases of it and a makeshift bar of vodka, rum and whiskey, all for the taking, no identification needed.....'Huge party!!! Banger!!!!' Trent Mays, a sophomore quarterback on Steubenville’s team, posted on Twitter, referring to one of the bashes that evening." - The New York Times, December 26, 2012
On Sunday, March 17, 2013, two football players, Trent Mays and Ma'lik Richmond, were found guilty and sentenced to juvenile jail for raping one of the girls who attended that party while she was unconscious. They dragged her around from house to house as if she were a "toy".
"Mays was accused of assaulting her in a car on the way from one party to another, after she had already vomited and been stumbling and slurring her words. Mays and Richmond were then both accused of assaulting her again at a house party in a basement." - The Guardian
It was an ordinary party and the rape was ordinary too. The kids took photos and circulated them as part of the party's story:
"Twitter posts, videos and photographs circulated by some who attended the nightlong set of parties suggested that an unconscious girl had been sexually assaulted over several hours while others watched. She may have even been urinated on. 
"In one photograph posted on Instagram by a Steubenville High football player, the girl, who was from across the Ohio River in Weirton, W.Va., is shown looking unresponsive as two boys carry her by her wrists and ankles. Twitter users wrote the words 'rape' and 'drunk girl' in their posts." - The New York Times, December 26, 2012 
The incident was so normal that some people in Steubenville actually weren't sure what the big deal was. A blogger and Anonymous forced the world to join that conversation.

Last night (March 18, 2013) on CNN I watched Piers Morgan interview Richmond's father. He was outraged. For his son. He was sorry for the girl. But he also hoped she would eventually clear up some "misunderstandings."

Piers thanked the father and turned to the lawyer for that young man.  "I want to take this to a higher level," the lawyer started by saying.

Piers did not want to go to that level. He probed the lawyer with very specific questions. "Would you have advised your client to apologize?" As Richmond did. He said, not to the victim but to her family after the verdict: "I am sorry for the trouble I have caused you."

Indeed it was an emotional courtroom, noted the lawyer. "There was not a dry eye." (Original.)

The lawyer said that people were crying for the rapist. Piers said, "I am crying for the girl."

Not everyone is crying for her. The girl is receiving death threats - from other girls in town. Similar to another rape case in an insular community of Williamsburg, New York, the Weberman case - where the victim was intimidated by the group but would not back down.

People can't understand why the coverage of the Steubenville trial has been so sympathetic to the attackers. But I think they are missing the point. We are not sympathetic for these boys.

We are crying for our sons who seem to lack any sense of how to treat a girl.

We are crying for our daughters who have been trained to think like prostitutes.

We are crying for our schools which have become callous and brutal playpens.

We are crying for the breakdown of our families and their values.

We are crying for our loss of innocence.

We are crying for what has happened to Steubenville. Because Steubenville isn't an alien planet.

Steubenville is the rest of us.





The Sociology of SOPs

So I spend a lot of time on standard operating procedures (SOPs) and it occurs to me that they say a lot about workplace culture.

There is a branch of sociology that deals with things like this. It is called "ethnomethodology" or the study of everyday life.

Consider the concept of SOPs in the first place. They are rules. They are more likely to be followed in a rule-driven work environment, naturally. Conversely a work culture that prizes innovation and creativity will be rule-averse.

In an innovative environment the people who occupy the highest status will likely demonstrate that status by flouting the rules. As if to say: "What are you going to do about it, fire me?"

In a creative culture the people who must follow the rules are of a lower class. They are not the designated innovators. For them, rules apply.

Think of an ad agency. How esteemed are the accountants as versus the genius who writes a catchy slogan?

This is why we see Hollywood portrayals of powerful, out-of-control types dumping receipts on their helpers as if to say, "You're the shlepper (Yiddish for lowly helper) -- fix it."

There are other workplace cultures where rules are celebrated. They are everything! People wave around field manuals, routing sheets, approval sheets with pride.

I remember one time getting handwritten edits from the CEO, and we had to follow those edits exactly then mark the item "approved" on the routing slip. What a rush!

The other noteworthy thing about SOPs is that no procedure covers everything. You have to know the difference between formal and informal culture so that work can get done. This can take a lot of time and practice and it's helpful if you can get someone to explain.

Generally SOPs are a key but undervalued and understudied element of corporate culture. Observing these details gives a window into the bigger picture.


Have Your Data Talk To My Data


About thirty years ago on a short winter Sunday the sun went down and my room got dark. I flicked the light switch but no light went on.

“Ma,” I called out. “What’s with the lights?”

“I don’t know,” she answered. “Talk to your father.”

My father wasn’t home but when he did arrive the lights were still out.

“Daddy, what’s with the lights?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I paid the power company.” (You are thinking at this point that I grew up in a hardscrabble part of town in a shack perhaps, that we were poor, and that my dad was trying to salvage his dignity. No.)

What a mystery, I thought to myself. Hmm.

My kids cannot figure out my parents’ relationship at all. Each one is absolutely independent and yet they are also a team.

If my parents were a government agency, we would say that they lacked a “dashboard” and “metadata.”

I can imagine the meeting of the senior leadership team of Passaic, New Jersey. “Commissioner Stroli,” someone might ask. “There is a new tool that can house all your power utility related information, including the current status of your bill payments.”

“That would be out-standing,” my father would say. “Because I know I definitely put that check in the mail. Those darn power companies!”

Deputy Commissioner Stroli might chime in at this point. “Commissioner, with all due respect. You have tried these dashboards over and over again with no success. Continuous investment in failed tracking tools is a problem for us.” Then she would go take dinner out of the microwave.

“Well then what do you propose?” my father would say, gesturing toward the leadership team assembled. “Certainly we all want to improve the quality of our power in the Stroli home. Efficiency and effectiveness, that’s our motto!”

“Stop the proceedings!” This is where the Senior Advisor for Communication (guess who?) might chime in. “We must sit down and work out the issues.” A look of frustration crosses her face and she wearily takes a slug from her coffee mug.

“Issues? We don’t have issues,” the Commissioner might say. “That’s not even a data-driven word. Focus on the evidence and not your personal opinions.

There in a nutshell is government and Big Data.

We use a lot of new and fancy words to avoid dealing with the age-old problems of any social institution:

* We do not want to talk to each other.
* We cannot fix unfixable problems.
* We do not like to share power.
* It is easier to kick the can down the road.

A man wrote this letter to his first and favorite boss and posted it on the Internet.

The job was doing manual labor caring for plants and things like that.

When it was time to collect salary the boss wrote the young man a note: “Go to the shoebox on the counter and take what we owe you.”

That right there is the essence of it. When the owner tells me where the cash box is, it strips away his power. I could steal it. He can’t be the Wizard of Oz anymore.

When on the job all my documents become a case, and the cases are entered into the system, and the system has shared tags so that everyone doing the same kind of work can find it – that’s big data.

When people can access my case without asking me – that’s my loss of control right there.

We can call big meetings, pay big money, and wait for big evidence. But time is up and the money has run out.

Want to know why taxpayers are mad? Correction – not just mad, furious. They are sick of us treating their money as ours. They want us to act like responsible grownups. Not irresponsible stewards of the cash box, holding them hostage to power struggles, and then making piles of excuses for it. Sinking yet more money into the pit that we created.

For the sake of our broken and bankrupt country, let’s get our data together already.

Transparency doesn’t start in a complicated, expensive, impossible-to-understand system. It lives in a simple shoebox. If we can’t trust each other to take just what we’ve earned for watering the plants, then we ought not be working together on the farm.

* All opinions my own.