Much to the delight of marketers that turn their attention to the top segments of all of the market segmentation studies listed earlier, the groups who respond most to sustainability also typically represent the most affluent and educated consumers—the ones marketers of all kinds treasure the most. These groups also represent the consumers who are most receptive to products, services, and events with improved social and environmental performance, so designers and developers should seek to understand these customers well—from social and behavioral perspectives, not merely demographic perspectives.
This requires us to explore market research techniques more deeply and to supplement them with our own user – or design-research techniques. In particular, quantitative techniques rarely illuminate details of social and environmental values. In order to understand customers in these ways, it’s necessary to use ethnographic techniques, which are often more difficult, more time-consuming, and more ambiguous.
Designers, engineers, and other developers are often suspect of market data, partly because they don’t get to see where it comes from (and how it was generated and summarized) and partly because it doesn’t align often with what developers already understand about customers. For sure, many designers and developers firmly keep themselves in a little world, separate from the reality of markets that don’t cater
to their wants and desires. However, many are keenly aware of the world around them and constantly filter messages intended for many audiences. It is these designers that often have a better “read” on the culture of their customers, even if they lack the figures to validate these impressions.
Marketing is the inhale. Sales, promotion, advertising, and PR are the exhale.
One of the most common misunderstandings about marketing is that it is most often combined with sales, advertising, PR (public relations), and other forms of promotions and messaging. Lumped together, this means that true marketing is often never undertaken within a company, or if it is, it’s done shallowly. A better way to think of marketing is as the inhale process an organization does in order to learn from customers, competitors, the markets, and industries. It is the complement to the exhale representing what organizations attempt to message to these constituents (often at the expense
of understanding who they are addressing). Organizations can’t exhale effectively without inhaling effectively, which is one of the reasons so many traditional companies and industries are finding innovation so difficult.
Most marketing plans erroneously focus on the exhale at the expense of the inhale. Most marketing departments don’t even know how to inhale very well. Sticking to traditional market research techniques (like surveys, polls, focus groups, and mall intercepts), where they do attempt to inhale customer insight, they usually focus on shallow, quantitative methods in an attempt to “go wide” and include as many customers as possible, but at the expense of “deeper” understanding of customers that can only be obtained through ethnographic techniques. This is another place in the process where designers’ skills can benefit an organization because design research techniques favor ethnography, and they have tools to integrate what is found into actionable learning that can inform innovative development of products, services, and new kinds of solutions.
Most marketing plans erroneously focus on the exhale at the expense of the inhale.
This isn’t to say that traditional techniques have no value. The best research comes from a combination of quantitative and qualitative research methods. Ideally, initial qualitative research will uncover important factors that can be explored more widely with smart quantitative research. The results of this research can be used in even deeper qualitative investigations that uncover important aspects of these factors. The process is never-ending because patterns and people shift over time, but moving back and forth between ethnographic and traditional techniques lets each inform the other, yielding better insights overall.
For forays into sustainability and describing benefits to social, environmental, and financial values, it’s imperative that everyone on the development team truly understands not only what their customers need, desire, and feel, but how they express these feelings and why. Emotions, values, and meanings transcend price and features and often negate their value when customers become excited and engaged on these higher levels.
The best research comes from a combination of quantitative and qualitative research methods.
The way to understand this mechanism is to observe it first and then experiment with it. This experimentation is the only way to become familiar enough with how customers take in messaging relating to their values. Only then can organizations manipulate performance and message to work effectively together.