That Whacked-Out Idea You Had Today May Be a Great Idea Tomorrow
By: Ken Forbes, MBA
We knew the Jeep Cherokee buyer was a little bit different than competitive sport utility buyers. The Cherokee buyer had a higher income, was younger and more educated than the competitors at the time. Working in the market research department of Jeep’s ad agency in the 1990’s, we concerned ourselves with these types of things. Providing a robust description of our buyer would enable the creative types in the agency to come up with better ads. Agency employees who decided what shows to advertise on and what newspapers to advertise in, would be able to devise a more effective media plan if they had a deeper profile of the Cherokee buyer.
But what tool could be employed to provide a richer, more detailed profile than just demographic differences? My boss had recently finished an article on ethnography and how it was being used in business. Forget the highfalutin, academic name ethnography. It’s quite simply a technique used to study how people interact with a product in a real environment – like their own home. Rather than invite people to a sterile environment like a conference room to evaluate a product, they use and interact with the product in their living room, garage, wherever. Why not use ethnography to get a better understanding of the Jeep buyer, the competition and how they used their vehicles?
The pitch meeting to sell the client on using ethnography did not go well. “Ethno-what?” “You’re only interviewing 10 of our buyers and 20 of our competitors, how representative can that be?” “What’s wrong with the demographic surveys we’ve been using?” And my favorite: “ethno-silliness”. We high-tailed it out of the meeting and didn’t bring up ethnography again.
Some months later, our client was bemoaning the fact that new sport utility competitors were appearing almost monthly and we didn’t have any break-through advertising that would separate Jeep from the competition. “Wait a minute” the client asked. “What was that market research technique you proposed some time back? Hey, let’s at least try it”. A study was designed that would hopefully uncover some differentiating characteristics of the Jeep buyer.
We learned that the Jeep buyer was more likely to have a European or Asian luxury garage-mate than the competition. Also, they saw their Jeeps as a way of blasting off into nature, an escape vehicle that would take them from the hustle and bustle of a high pressure job. Finally, the Jeep was able to bridge two worlds, the refined and the rustic. A favorite internal slogan, ultimately appropriated by the competition, was “as good at the opera, as the outback.” Our creatives had some real meat now from which to create ads. The media department started placing ads in the specialized publications that the Jeep buyers read.
The crazy idea that had gotten us thrown out of the room had become a useful tool. Credit my boss for bringing an unconventional idea forward. Credit the client for taking a chance on it. Ethnography is used all the time now in business and is hardly a radical idea anymore.
The point is this: if you’ve got an idea that’s a little off or even full blown crazy, go ahead and float it out there. It may just be a little ahead of its time.
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Ken Forbes is a Partner in Oak Hill Business Partners, specializing in marketing and market planning. He has more than 25 years of marketing leadership experience in a variety of industries.