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Lessons from My Mother’s Purse

The purse looked like a tropical fish, stippled by horizontal black and white stripes, with a neon pink bow in the middle of it that I could see from across the store. Either my mother would love it or she would hate it. But given that it was marked down from $89 to $38, I took the gamble. That purse went into the Mother’s Day gift basket, along with a mix of music I knew she’d like, a freshly baked banana bread that provided both deliciousness and the fiber I knew she needed, and my husband’s old Tablet that I knew she probably wouldn’t be able to use because the soft keys were too small for her arthritic fingers.

Why am I blogging about the gifts I gave on Mother’s Day? Because there’s a lesson to be learned from what comes so naturally on that day, and it’s this: I and you and every human being who isn’t a psychopath has deep and generally accurate intuition about the people we know and love best. We don’t need statistical significance to feel confident in our judgments about what they’ll like. We don’t need tracking studies to know what they’ll be frustrated or intrigued or repulsed by. We can intuit those things as a result of deep, ongoing, and generally affectionate interpersonal experience. After all, what is intuition but what psychologist Gary Klein defines as “a pattern-matching process, a means by which we use previous experiences to categorize and interpret unfolding events.”

And yet when we put on our marketing hats, we tend to disregard that essential human capacity. We either hide from our consumers behind Twitter avatars or Focus Group windows or assume we’re just like them. We fear them, scorn them, struggle to decipher them, when what we should be doing is simply trying to get to know them, deeply and consistently. And if we did, the affection would follow. Instead, by inserting distance, by deducing from their data instead of learning who they are through real interaction – we exacerbate the very risk we’re trying to mitigate through research.

Of course it’s impossible to personally recognize and get to know more than a fraction of a company’s real consumers, and inevitable that they’ll diverge from each other in terms of tastes and habits. But just as public speakers are trained to make eye contact with individuals in the audience – to connect and not just to project — marketers should see real people in their mind’s eye as they make decisions about product, pricing, placement, and promises. Asking “What will this mean for Maria?” is very different than asking “What will this mean for margins?” And ultimately, it’s the answer to the former question that will influence the answer to the latter.

So take some consumers to lunch, or better still, invite yourself to their place. Hang their pictures up in your office, and give them a call now and then? Write down their names and some stories they’ve told you in a little notebook. Then stick it in your pocket or purse, right next to the half-eaten roll of lifesavers and the wadded up tissue with the crescent-shaped lipstick marks on it. Or failing that, just carry them in your hearts.

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