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Advertising anthropology: A conversation with Young & Laramore's Tom Denari



Hardly a day goes by there isn't news of some new poll or market research study in which Americans — just like you and me! — tell about what we do, what we like or what our plans are for the future.

This "research" amounts to what Tom Denari, president of Indianapolis ad agency Young and Laramore, calls "malpractice." Denari used that word in a provocative essay called "Don't Make My Mom Your Marketing Director," written for the trade magazine Advertising Age.

Denari joined Y and L, the award-winning firm founded by David Young and Jeff Laramore, 21 years ago, upon graduating from the Indiana University School of Business – now the Kelley School, named for the past chairman of restaurant chain Steak 'n Shake, a company whose brand Y and L burnished with a landmark ad campaign, and for whom Denari served as account manager.

Denari has also worked on notable campaigns for Stanley Steemer, Brizo faucets and the Carmelite Sisters' "Pray the News" initiative.

Denari took time to talk with NUVO about why he thinks some forms of market research aren't all they're cracked up to be — and why he thinks it's more important to learn about what people feel than what they think.

NUVO: In your Advertising Age column you call certain forms of market research "malpractice." Why?

Denari: There's been enough psychological and biological research done to demonstrate how decision-making really happens. It largely happens in a part of the brain that doesn't have a capacity for language. But the vast majority of market research requires consumers to use language to describe what are really emotional responses. I call it malpractice, because you're going to get an answer, and you're going to get data, and you're going to feel like you've heard from consumers, but you're asking them questions that they almost can't give a right response to. When you say, "This brand feels different from this brand, Target feels better than WalMart," you're probably going to give me some rational reasons why, but, ultimately, there's a different feeling you have when you go in one place than when you go in another that you probably can't articulate.

NUVO: How do rationality and emotion affect the ways we relate to brands?

Denari: Brands only exist because of emotion. If products were all commodities, it would just be a rational computation. There are two cans of corn. This one's cheaper than the other, I'll buy it. As soon as you insert a brand, there's another dimension, a feeling about this can of corn versus that can or corn. I can't tell you why Del Monte feels different than Marsh, but I feel better about one, even though it's a little more expensive. Actually, a higher price can make me feel better about buying it. Rationally, I shouldn't want to buy it, because theoretically I should want to keep more money. But things that I buy inform the way I feel about myself — and inform everyone else about who I am, fortunately or unfortunately.

NUVO: When people participate in research, do they play roles?

Denari: I think in a focus group situation they do. You have the dynamics you find in any group where, typically, there's a leader, a more vocal person, and someone who's subservient. People start convincing each other of certain things. There's a social dynamic that happens, which is why we don't put people in groups. We prefer to have people in their homes, where they're comfortable, not worried about what someone else thinks. From a research standpoint, I want to know what people do more than what they say they do. A lot of research tries to get at purchase intent — do you think you will buy this? But think about your own life. I don't know what I'll do for lunch tomorrow; there are a lot of things that might impact that.

NUVO: It seems research is about trying to predict the future. But is it, in fact, creating the future?

Denari: The best marketers — look at Apple and Steve Jobs — are leading people to things, as opposed to asking people what they want. They are watching behavior and creating products that people aspire to have. I think it was Ford who said that if he asked consumers what they wanted, they'd say a faster horse and carriage. People only have the capacity to tell you what they know.

NUVO: How would like to see research done?

Denari: First, study people's behavior and understand what their decision making process is. Then dig a little deeper and understand who these people are. When you're trying to sell someone something, you are developing a relationship. The better I understand your general motivations, the easier it is for me to fit my product into your life. People can't always give you a reason for why they do what they do, but you'll see body language, a shrug or the roll of an eye. There's something in their behavior that begins to tell you what the feeling is.

NUVO: This sounds like anthropology.

Denari: At a couple of our retreats we've had professors from IU come to talk about what they do in their study of other cultures. Anthropology is not a quantitative science. It's going in and studying a family or a village. It's not taking surveys and asking people in the village what they think about certain things. It's getting to know them, distilling who they are and making interpretations about why things happen.

NUVO: When you take this information back to the client do you find, sometimes, it means the client will have to change their own behavior?

Denari: We often talk about there being an unlearning process. You let go of your conventional wisdom. And you build yourself back up through the eyes of the consumers you are trying to appeal to. Things you often think are really important aren't that important to these people. When you start seeing consumers as people, you realize you're not a very big part of their world. It's kind of liberating once you get that part because then you can say, "O.K, how can I fit?"

NUVO: You've also written about negative campaign advertising. Here again is irrationality rearing its head.

Denari: People make decisions based on irrational instincts. If you're a candidate, the best thing you can do is try to appeal to that. The best way to have an election would be to have a computer, where there would be a series of questions about issues. Loaded into that computer would be an algorithm that, based on your belief system, would identify the most suitable candidate and register your vote based on that. It doesn't work that way. People are attracted to stories. Using tension, using conflict is almost necessary to create a story worth paying attention to. To illustrate that, I compare what people say they hate — negative advertising — with things they really love — which are Disney movies. These operate the same way. There's a set-up, a conflict, a villain that must be overcome and a resolution with a hero at the end. I try to help clients understand that, in many cases, you can and should use conflict. That doesn't mean you need to treat people horribly. It doesn't mean making another person or brand the villain. It could simply be a condition, complacency, for example. But negative ads create a story that draws people in. Political advertising is not about changing minds so much as making sure the people behind you actually go to the polls and vanquish the villain you have set up.

NUVO: Given your observations about market research, are there lessons for arts organizations that want to build or enhance their audiences?

Denari: Often people think they'll get some focus groups together and talk about things and get some answers. The expedience of this flies in the face of effectiveness. You need to sit down with people in the target audience and understand their behavior. If you want to understand young people, don't talk to them about the arts. Talk to them about what they do on a Friday night. If you can learn about how they spend their time and all the pressure competing for their time, then you can say, these are the things they are attracted to. How do we shape our offering — and are we willing to shape our offering — to fit into their lives.


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