The Compassionate Creative: Calling for Advertisers to Let Empathy and Insight Drive Design


I don’t know a lot about makeup. When Organic started the pitch process for a major pitch for a cosmetics company, I thought Bobbi Brown was married to Whitney and that MAC was a line of Apple products. How could we get smart about women’s cosmetics? The answer was to immerse the team in the lives of women who use the product.

We canvassed industry experts, talked to salespeople in department stores, filled a war room with shots from beauty magazines, and ran intercept interviews at makeup counters. But for me, the ‘a-ha’ moment came from talking directly to a customer in her natural environment. I was out at the home of a retired school teacher, getting a tour of her apartment and asking almost as an aside about the brands she cared about. She was on a budget, and she talked with pride about various bargains in her kitchen and living room. When we got to the bathroom, her sink was filled with Clinique and Prescriptives products- all bought at full price from a department store. “These are essentials,” she said. “I would never skimp on any of this.” I understood in an instant why cosmetics are an $8 billion-a-year business.

It’s moments like this that help explain why Organic, an interactive agency, has made empathetic customer research an integral part of our process. We use ethnography and personas to help our clients uncover hidden insights that lead to groundbreaking ideas.

How can you bring more empathy into your own work? It doesn’t necessarily require a team of experts or weeks of preparation. Here are a few of the different techniques that we use to gather insights and aid our understanding of what matters to customers:

Stakeholder Interviews.
Why not start with the people who (hopefully) know their customers’ best- your clients. But don’t limit yourself to your immediate contacts. Reach out to anyone in the organization for interacts directly with customers. Call centers are a particularly rich trove of people who know what’s on customers’ minds.

Secondary Research.
In addition to professional resources, including this publication, the Internet has created an explosion of user-generated content. There’s a nice synergy between our desire to better understand consumer behavior and motivations and the explosion of sites that allow regular people to catalog their lives online. I love combing through Flickr photo pools and sites like Grocery Lists or Squirl, a social catalogue.

Quantitative Research
Clients are usually most comfortable and familiar with this kind of traditional market research. We usually offer closed-end surveys to random samples of site visitors, and more directed questions to panels. Online surveys are less expensive than phone surveys, and are particularly useful for web-only brands.

Qualitative Research
This is a broad category that includes conversational discussions with customers, in-depth interviews, intercept surveys, and focus groups. These are typical methods used in advertising to find the voice of the customer. Customers can say what they want to if they are asked to make choices within a familiar product category, for example, how seat leather should smell. You run into limitations when you ask customers about the unknown. Nobody ever asked for an iPod in a focus group.


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