Where, Indeed, is Waldo? Or, on the necessity of analysis

I want to formulate a notion about the role of analysis in determining what we are happy to call the truth. I know—a rather grand ambition for a blog post. But I think by raising this issue we will find ourselves fairly quickly at the heart of a process critical to our work: listening to a welter of consumer voices and creating out of that welter meaning that we can act on to improve our businesses.

To begin the formulation let’s start with Nietzsche and a chicken. (Don’t worry—we’ll get there.)

A few nights ago, taking my full measure on our four-year-old daughter’s bed and holding splayed for her and me a random volume of the Where’s Waldo opus, I spotted, amidst the riot of cartoon figures performing cartoon actions, a cartoon chicken. “Look,” I said to Zoe, “there’s a chicken.” “Is it a real chicken?” she asked, deadly serious. “Well,” I said, feeling very wise, “it’s a chicken in a book.” “Is it a real chicken in a book?” she asked.

“Truth,” wrote Nietzsche “is a mobile army of metaphor.”

Most of us have a model of truth that lies somewhere between the extreme naiveté of my daughter’s belief that a chicken in a cartoon book can, in a very real sense, be real, and Nietzsche’s claim that truth is metaphor. Most of us know, in simple terms, that there are multiple sides to any story, and that our readiness to believe or disbelieve a representation of truth depends in part on who is making that representation and how artful and convincing they are in making it.

And so it is with primary consumer research. Those of us who tap directly into the viewpoints of consumers, who listen to their ideas and opinions in our daily rounds, know that simply listening and documenting are insufficient. We are not neutral conduits, piping raw opinions directly to a waiting audience. Instead we are interpreters, analyzers—we are those empowered to take the raw data as it comes to us and shape it along patterns that emerge so that it tells a convincing and compelling story. Through this process—a process of witnessing, connecting, interpolating, combining, analyzing, selecting, marshalling evidence—we assume a role in the manufacturing of the truth.

It is the voice of the consumer that so many companies are seeking, but what they truly seek is the voice winnowed out of the noise, given the proper context, and brought together in a narrative that not only makes sense, but makes a difference.