Our next webinar is inspired by the incredibly rich feedback we received during our keynote at TMRE 2020. Join us on Dec 3 for a webinar on the future of sustainable packaging. Don't forget to register as it's open to the first 100 attendees only.
The philosopher and social scientist Max Weber made a stark judgment of American culture almost a hundred years ago. He noted that unlike society and culture in Europe where one’s social status is rather “fixed” — the family you’re born into, the type of education and vocation you choose being the predominant drivers of said status, in the United States, young people concern themselves more with the desire to make money than with the desire to acquire a traditional education or normative forms of status (as defined in European society). Noting this, he remarked that in the absence of a fixed social status, the American youth find themselves in a constant state of identity crisis (he actually used the term isolation to describe this idea but the Weberian sociologist Peter Berger later rearticulated it as an identity crisis). Curiously enough, this notion of living in a permanent state of identity crisis is remarkably true in today’s context. As a cultural anthropologist, I have been studying American culture extensively for the past decade in various capacities. Over time, I have witnessed first hand, the emergence of new and nuanced forms of symbolic capital (status giving intangible currency). Similar to how globalization and ecommerce has given us all access to luxuries that were just a decade ago the domain of the rich and famous, it has also birthed new and nuanced forms of symbolic currency that now allot us status without any of the traditional requirements of education, wealth, family name, etc. Through unique knowledge about gut health, and some interesting household hacks to improve one’s gut biome, a consumer can acquire symbolic capital in their social circles and trade it for status and recognition (perhaps as the person to go to for advice on healthy living). Choosing to work a certain way — let’s say a maximum of 6 hours a day, with time carved out for meditation and mindfulness, one can establish themselves as an authority on productivity or creativity, gaining the respect and admiration of fellow colleagues and peer groups. And remarkably, one truly does not need to be Jeff Bezos to do so. It can be just about anybody. Our culture today is so fragmented and nuanced that there is truly an absence of a fixed social status. Status can now be acquired in thousands of different ways. But this fragmentation also brings with it certain complexities. Simply put, it lowers the lifespan of certain forms of symbolic capital, quickly depreciating in value as a currency for status and power. The forms of capital that give us status today will be different from the forms that will give us status just a year from now. The mere act of maintaining one’s status is a constant endeavor in acquiring new knowledge and developing and adopting new habits, rituals, and even hacks in one’s life and lifestyle. Today’s consumer has no choice but to remain on the move. Like busy bees that are on what only feels like a never ending journey of hive building, human beings today have no choice but to keep evolving their beliefs and habits to continue to acquire new and emerging forms of symbolic capital in order to maintain or grow their status and power in their social communities.
The intangible currency shaping the future of your business
There's an entire marketplace out there that most of us are blissfully unaware of. This marketplace is where culture really gets created. Where people exchange markers of status with one another every single day. Most of these markers of status are symbolic in nature. They aren't tangible resources but rather function like a symbolic currency that people acquire and trade in order to gain membership, prestige, and power in the communities within which they exist. These markers of status are what we refer to as symbolic capital (a term that was originally coined by French Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu). Symbolic capital shapes the forces driving your category or business today. Perhaps more significantly, it also shapes the future of your category. In my recent keynote at TMRE, I unpacked the concept of symbolic capital and talked about how one can go about identifying the forms of capital driving one's business and use it to predict short and mid-term futures. Using examples across retail, food, and personal care, I outlined a framework to identify and quantify symbolic capital in any context. Take a look.
Keynote: How AI can improve the process and outcomes of Observational Ethnography
There is more to AI than the mere task of speeding up a process or making it more efficient. In the field of ethnography, machine intelligence offers us an incredible opportunity to improve the accuracy of our work, both in our understanding of the present and of the future. In this keynote, I outline the framework of 'maps' that we use in the design and development of their AI Anthropologist. I talk about how our AI systems not only enable new types of analyses (those of you who are our clients know what I mean) but also improve the sheer joy and sense of enjoyment in the act of conducting ethnographic research. In essence, it allows our team of Anthropologists to achieve the feeling of flow and focus on the parts of the research process that they most enjoy doing - using their large brains to interpret the key meanings in the context of a topic or trend without having to worry about organizing, sorting, and managing the data.
Election season is upon us and the issue of “fake news” is all the rage once again. But is “fake news” really that “fake”? Our assumptions about what is or isn’t “fake” is based on our understanding of what makes something true in our society. Truth, however, is one of the most misunderstood ideas in culture. As much as we’d like to think of truth as a singular rational idea — that which is observable and verifiable — the reality is that our minds don’t quite work in such a rational way. We’re not rational beings, as much as we’d like to appear like we are. So as irrational and emotional beings, we’re often susceptible to perceptions and ideas that we seemingly have little control over. Our beliefs and life experiences dictate the instant judgement of whether what we’re hearing is true. You see, truth is actually a question of meaning, rather than the presence of empirical evidence. Of course, the question of truth isn’t a new concern. It has been baffling scientific philosophers for hundreds of years. But two theories of truth in particular popularized by the American Pragmatist Philosophers in the early 20th century are of key concern to us in the discussion of “fake news”. The first theory is what we call the Correspondence Theory. It states that something is true when it has a clear observable phenomenon attached to it. This is the most commonly accepted theory of truth in our modern world. If something is empirically verifiable, then it is true. The second theory of truth is called the Convergence Theory. It basically states that something becomes true when a community of people converge upon it over time. This convergence theory of truth deals particularly well with the idea of meaning. That is, it understands that everything we say or do has meaning, and the more people converge toward one set of meanings, the more those meanings hold true. The discourse on “fake news” on pretty much any and every issue (including the pandemic) shows us that as much as we’d like to hold ourselves and others to the more rational Correspondence Theory of truth, we all actually behave in accordance with the Convergence Theory. Simply put, people with differing beliefs take the same data and conclude different outcomes from it and then brand the other, disagreeable conclusion “fake”. “Fake news” isn’t a Republican or a Democrat. It’s innately human. And curiously enough, it isn’t a new concept. Clearly, it mattered enough that more than a hundred years ago, scientific philosophers and logicians recognized the need to redefine what made something true given human nature and belief systems. The reason it bothers us all so much in today’s environment is that the irrationality of the human mind is more visible and audible now than ever before. Which troubles us as human beings because we don’t like the idea of more than 6 Billion irrational minds walking this earth. We like to think of ourselves rational beings and often judge the action of others based on a rational framework of truth when in reality we are all judging what is and isn’t true based on ‘a feeling’. In a business setting, the irrationality of the human mind is widely accepted. For example, if you look at the meanings around gut health, you’ll find that the strongest proponents of raw fermented foods and beverages are people who believe that a good gut will significantly reduce their chances of getting cancer and increase their life’s longevity. None of which is empirically verifiable of course. At least not yet. But those meanings are strong and they’re furthering the popularity of a multi Billion dollar industry dedicated to foods and beverages with gut health benefits. Another great example that only recently began to unravel is on the issue of racism. If racism had an empirical evaluation it would show just how innately racist most people are. But there isn’t any such truth and therefore what is true is really what is converged upon. Before George Floyd’s death, most people believed that they weren’t racist at all. So most people converged on the idea that racism was a “thing of the past”. Since his death, a lot has changed. There’s greater convergence on the idea that we all need to be more critical of ourselves (especially those of us who aren’t black) and our own ideas of racism. Only now are more and more people talking about the innately racist beliefs and ideas they hold. Showing us just how meanings shape our understanding of issues and ideas and how the convergence of a set of meanings makes something true or false. So why then do we struggle so much with the idea of “fake news”? Because if you really think about it, it’s not any more “fake” than our understanding of racism or our beliefs about the benefits of probiotic or fermented foods or thousands of other issues for that matter. “Fake news” is ultimately just “human news”. Recognizing this will require a deeper recognition of our own beliefs and the role it plays in shaping our worldview and the selective hearing we humans subconsciously practice.
In this series of posts we look at emerging trends that are identified and sized to fall in the zone of innovation using our MotivBase Trends Platform. We then look to identify new innovations that are entering the market and primed to solve for the consumer’s unmet needs. MotivBase Trend identified: Sleep is a big bet for many companies at the moment, and for good reason. By looking at the culture of improving sleep in our MotivBase trends platform we can better understand the potential for this trend in the US market. As of today the idea of improving sleep is relevant to 54.6 million Americans and sits in with the Early Majority. But the culture is primed to grow by almost 74.4% in the next 12 to 24 months. This will place it in the Zone of Innovation. Better yet it shows the consumer associating various emerging meanings around the need for certain ingredients and micro nutrients to enhance one's quality of sleep. Which is exactly what the next product attempts to capitalize on. In-Market Solution: While famous for their caffeinated beverages, PepsiCo is launching a pre-bed beverage designed to help you prepare for sleep. Named “Driftwell”, the new product contains 200 grams of L-theanine which is an amino acid found in green tea and that is linked to having stress-mitigating properties. Plus, each can will feature 10% of the recommended daily intake of magnesium, a mineral supplement commonly taken to improve sleep and mood. As you can read in this CNN article, PepsiCo is taking the world's current state into account. And as Emily Silver, PepsiCo's vice president of innovation, puts it: “PepsiCo sees an opportunity -- especially during these anxiety-inducing times -- to offer stress-relief via beverage form" Conclusion: Many business analysts are looking at functional beverages that feature vitamins, herbs, plants and minerals associated with a potential health or performance benefit as a small or niche category. But when we take a consumer-led approach and look at the culture of improving sleep, we can see that this is not only relevant to a large portion of the American population, but also primed to grow as consumers increasingly look to manage both their stress and anxiety. Sleep is increasingly being seen as a key to managing one’s mood as well as helping improve overall health and performance. Positioning a delicious beverage to aid in the transition to sleep is a big bet, but culturally relevant one for PepsiCo.
We often get asked by clients and friends in the industry about getting a good outline of what we do, how we do it, and most importantly, why. So in this recorded presentation, I've broken out a recent 101 session I did for a client into a series of slides. The whole deck presents itself in 20 mins, but you can explore specific slides or aspects of the content and watch short clips that voices over and explains each slide. Contents include: Slide 3-5: Introduction to MotivBase Slide 6-8: Why study meaning? Slide 9: Quantifications delivered by our app Slide 10-11: Contextual Intelligence – a key point of differentiation for our AI engine Slide 12-14: Sizing a culture Slide 15-17: Calculating maturity Slide 18-20: Predicting the size of the prize and future maturity
Making your CINO look like a rockstar (Pt. 3): Using AI anthropology to educate senior executives.
[Read part 2 of this series here.] In their 2019 Harvard Business Review Article, Darko Lovric and Greig Schneider outlined six types of Chief Innovation Officers (CINO) and expressed that because the role is relatively new, it is still in its infancy. As a result, both the responsibilities and approach to the role vary based on the business challenges the organization is looking to solve. So, what does this mean for a VP or Director that is working in innovation and R&D? Especially if they are tasked with informing and educating the CINO on cultural opportunities and threats to the business? This is the third in a series of six posts, where we build off the HBR article referenced above. We will look at the six main types of Chief Innovation Officers identified by Lovric and Schneider but also, outline the different ways an AI anthropological approach can complement your CINO’s unique personality and skill set. Chief Innovation Officer #3: The Investor Lovric and Schneider identify the Investor as the rarest type of Chief Innovation Officer. Because the Investor sees innovation as a very specific task, with a very specific goal. That goal? Monumental growth. The HBR article describes the Investor as someone who believes that “...successful innovation involves carefully allocating resources in order to optimize selective opportunities.” In other words, plan smart, execute fast and identify the big winners. This group tends to be analytical, data focused, and very competent when it comes to budgeting and finance. The Investor is most comfortable in fast-moving environments where innovation can be inspired by multiple muses — like customers, your competitors, or even by looking to the start-up community. This CINO pushes the team to explore new markets, build better business models and adopt new technologies. This approach makes them a clear fit for CPG (Consumer Packaged Goods) companies. Lovric and Schneider go on to say that “To be at their best, investors should partner with a technical expert who can help them assess the feasibility and future potential of ideas, not just their current performance.” The Investor wants results. So they may get distracted by opportunities that offer short-term results and match the organization's current capabilities. How an AI anthropological approach and its predictive modelling helps CINO’s identify and prioritize the best bet. The Investor prides themselves on “making sense of a mass of complex and conflicting information and betting on the right horse”. But what if the research that was informing innovation didn’t have to be complex? What if instead of getting conflicting inputs from consumer verbatims, you instead took a more purely observational approach to understand the unspoken motivations and needs of the broader consumer set? Better yet, what if the model could actually help you prove to your CINO that you had a clear prioritization of the most relevant opportunities and consumer needs and you had a prediction on when these needs would hit the mainstream? This is what advancements in AI Anthropology have made possible. When dealing with an “Investor”, you are dealing with someone who wants help identifying the biggest, and most impactful opportunities. And if Blue Ocean Strategy taught us anything, the biggest opportunities are solutions with uncontested market space. Fish where the fish are. But never where there are other fishermen. But this is difficult, especially if you are a large Fortune 1000 company. Because almost every single one of our clients has a story about bringing a solution to market too soon. Startups can afford to dabble in niche innovations and solutions that will take five to seven years to be adopted by the mainstream. But large institutions, and the Investors who are likely in the CINO role want big, substantial returns on their innovation efforts. Meaning you need the right solution, but you also need to launch it at the right time. This is why we developed the ZONE OF INNOVATION. Benchmarking the best time to invest in innovation. MotivBase leverages research technology that works with big data. While we have a number of tools in our tool box, the primary tool for innovation teams is MotivBase Trends. Our clients leverage our team of PhD Social Scientists to study any and every culture being shaped by consumers and quantify the maturity of the culture (or trend or idea) and the size of the prize (how many consumers consider it relevant to their lives). In essence, we are studying and measuring how consistently or inconsistently something is understood by the consumer. The visual we use for this maturity calculation is the Diffusion of Innovation Curve, which most of us are very familiar with. But while the theory of the diffusion of innovation works really well conceptually, we found that for practical applications it needed a more precise framework of measurement. Especially if it were to help our clients in answering a really important yet often difficult question. When is the right time to act? That is why we created the Zone of Innovation. Through more than 200 benchmarking experiments, we determined that the key time to launch a solution into the market is when a trend falls between 33% - 55% on the maturity curve. That is, it ideally falls in the second half of the Early Majority Stage. Why? Most of us are led to believe that the mark of a real innovative trend is when it sits in the early adopter stage on the maturity curve. It's not wrong. It just lacks the critical context of the underlying goal of the project. If the goal is to launch a new startup or brand new product that you're willing to give 5+ years to, then the early adopter stage is the place to be. But if you are working with a CINO who is an Investor, the goal is to identify ideas that will have mainstream appeal in a reasonable time frame (12-48 months is the window most of our clients operate in), then you need to look at demand spaces and opportunities that fall in the ZOI within that timeframe. What does this mean for you? Simply put, it provides you with a way of helping your Chief Innovation Officer better understand if an opportunity you are considering is too early, timely, or just too late. It gives you an agile and concise way to look at your innovation pipeline and identify what is currently best suited for success and likely to gain mainstream acceptance. This is how our CPG clients leverage us. They ask us to help them understand the culture of solutions they are considering (like the future of plant based food, or the future of skin care). Our team identifies the most dominant demand spaces, and sizes them to find the ones that are not only growing, but that, in their future state, will enter the ZOI. This is then often presented to the CINO to help prioritize budget and project as it identifies the trends that are primed to be important to a substantial population of consumers, but at the right stage of maturity to allow room for innovation. We identify big opportunities where you can still enjoy true first-mover-advantage. But perhaps even more importantly, when you are dealing with a CINO who is an Investor, you know that they have a tendency to be overly focused on numbers and dismissive of big concepts that may take a long time to execute. This framework delivers the size of the opportunity, the growth trajectory and a prioritization that expedites the innovation process. And best of all, delivers it with the scale (of data) that will make an Investor happy. This is music to this Chief Innovation Officer’s ears. Conclusion: Last month, our CEO, Ujwal Arkalgud was asked to present to a group of food executives about the future of research. They asked him what was the most important thing to think about when it came to understanding how culture can shape a category. Here’s what he said: “Everything has meaning. A french fry. A new skin cream. The car you drive. And the meaning is being shaped and cemented by the consumers that choose to buy or reject your products. Yet, when we want to better understand what is happening, and what will happen, too often we take a generic approach to studying people, instead of taking a focused approach to decode the meanings that is truly driving the adoption of new products and ideas. The companies that understand this, will be the companies that will thrive.” The Investor wants to thrive. They want the big win. They just need help to understand the danger of short term opportunities that can be easily disrupted. And they need guidance on when an opportunity is going to be relevant enough to deliver the ROI that large companies want when investing in innovation. NEXT UP: Chief Innovation Officer # 4: The Advocate
Simply put, Trends helps organizations make sense of cultural shifts and changes so they can make informed decisions about the future of products, brands, and their company. But of course, there's more to the notion of cultural change because it isn't a thing in and of itself. Instead, it is made up of (broadly speaking) three component parts. We consider each part as a track that undergoes constant change and evolution. The first track relates to larger societal and socio-political changes. E.g. The reinvigorated movement for black lives and the renewed fight for civil rights in the United States. The second track/type of change relates to the birth and development of trends that impact people's beliefs, and consequently, their behaviors. E.g. An increased focus on sustainability and waste reduction at the household level. The third track pertains to a change in meanings around a category of product/solution. E.g. Evolving definition of what is considered "natural" in the context of a category or business. Each of these tracks of change impacts all of us, as consumers, and of course, as research and innovation professionals trying to make the right bets at the right time. MotivBase Trends helps you study the implicit meanings behind each of these tracks of change and quantify and predict its impact on your business in two simple ways. The first way involves studying each track of change individually, devoid of any industry or category lens. This method allows us to get a pure understanding of what that change means to people and why it matters. It's the ultimate way to gain empathy for the consumer's underlying purpose and motive. A simple example of this is to study what "racial injustice" means to people today. The second way is to study each track of change in the context of the other. That is, to study the impact of a trend like sustainability on the changing meanings and expectations around cleaning products and packaging. Or to examine the impact of the fight for civil rights and black lives on the meanings associated with certain types of skincare products like moisturizers that claim to "whiten" skin. If we were to assume that there is just one change happening in each track each year (which is not the case in reality), we'd end up with needing to conduct at least six types of ethnographic analyses over the course of the year. Here's an example of what those six projects could/should look like (assuming you're a skincare company): In reality, the pace of change in culture is so immense that each track is undergoing at least two to three major shifts and developments each year. So it's not hard to see why most of our clients conduct more than 30 agile ethnography projects with our PhD Anthropologists each year. The reality is that culture and trends are evolving at an incredible pace, and it is increasingly becoming critical to do more than just pay lip-service to these types of questions. In the midst of all this C-Suite is also becoming more demanding, especially in the COVID-19 era, pushing you to create a more agile and proactive stream of innovation. Which is exactly why we built MotivBase Trends. Through MotivBase Trends, we bring an agile framework of research to your fingertips, enabling these types of intricate ethnographic analyses on a regular basis. This creates a culture of exploration and ensures that topics and ideas aren't just examined when they become an "issue" but rather are understood from the get-go so as to create a clear pipeline of projects that is proactive and agile. That is why hundreds of companies trust TRENDS to drive their innovation pipelines.
Ujwal Arkalgud on This Anthro Life Podcast: The study of meaning with AI.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Adam Gamwell, the host of This Anthro Life - an incredible podcast that delivers a unique look at our culture and humanity through an anthropological lens to tens of thousands of listeners across business and academia. We spoke about the study of meaning and why it's so important in the modern world. How big data and AI tools allow us to do things we couldn't even imagine doing a mere ten years ago. And how this is shaping a better understanding of humanity and culture. You can listen to the episode here. PS: I don't usually get a chance to talk about how I got into this field or reflect on why we feel so passionately about our work. So I'm really grateful to Adam for drawing some of those answers out of me during the conversation. I hope you enjoy the episode and of course, don't forget to subscribe to This Anthro Life.
Starbucks and the grind ahead: Understanding the impact of COVID-19 on the culture of coffee.
In a recent article, called The Uncertain Future of Post Pandemic Starbucks, Steve LeVine outlines the challenges that the mega-brand will face in the days to come. And while the chain has been noted as saying they are optimistic about the shift forced on the company by the Coronavirus, the brand is facing substantial challenges. Namely: COVID-19 has led to the company’s first month-on-month drop in sales since the 2008/2009 financial crash. In Starbucks’ 2020 Q3 earnings call, the brand announced third-quarter sales fell by 40%. Starbucks is on the line for $1.25 billion in rent over the next year at its approximately 16,000 company-operated stores. But despite this, many analysts believe that while it may take time (some say coffee will return to 2019 volumes in 2024) Starbucks will rebound. But while coffee sales will certainly recover as we return to normal, a deeper question specific to Starbucks and premium coffee needs to be asked. Will COVID-19 lead to a larger and more permanent shift in culture that will have a long-term impact on Starbucks’ ability to compete? According to LeVine, there is. “Now, the reality created by the pandemic has played further into the hands of Starbucks’ cheaper rivals. Coffee drinking habits seem to have changed. In Australia, people have snapped up grinders to brew upscale beans at home. In Canada, people are buying both fancy beans and instant coffee in higher quantities, according to a survey.” But perhaps, more frightening is that the pandemic has driven fancy coffee drinkers underground. Or as LeVine puts it, “fancy coffee drinkers are in hibernation.” In order to better understand the impact of the pandemic on Starbucks, we decided to leverage Motivbase.com, our AI Anthropology platform to perform an Ethnographic Analysis on the culture of Fancy Coffee to see what has changed since the emergence of COVID-19 and what this may mean for Starbucks. The culture of Fancy Coffee in America The MotivBase platform is designed to identify the most dominant “meanings” associated with fancy coffee, by studying the broader context of discussions around the topic (not just literally search for mentions of fancy coffee). This allows us to truly decode the implicit and explicit meanings that are important to the consumer today and tomorrow. Note: the culture of fancy coffee refers to those consumers that aren't coffee connoisseurs. It instead refers to the mainstream Starbucks consumer. Which is the consumer that the company is going to continue to struggle with. But, because it's technology-enabled and agile, we can also go back in time. When we examine the culture of Fancy Coffee in MotivBase Trends, but look at pre-COVID data ,we can see that the culture is dominated by “quality” cues. As we can see in this image, consumers are concerned about the “quality of the coffee” and the ability to distinguish “tasting notes” which makes it “real coffee”. But they are also linking the experience to other more upscale components of the experience like access to foods that taste like they come from a “local bakery”, food that has been prepared by a “gourmet chef”, and that “coffee lovers” expect something that feels like an “independent restaurant”. This is why Starbucks' strategy of being the perfect oasis between home and the office was so appealing. It served as a third-place that transcended the coffee alone. But even back in November, we could see consumers questioning if they could replicate fancy coffee and brew their own at home. More on this to follow. As of November this culture of Fancy Coffee was relevant to 87.5 Americans. Back to the future But something has drastically changed, when we look at the culture of fancy coffee today. Now, the culture is dominated by concerns related to price. Consumers are associating concerns with their food budget, their grocery budget and the monthly cost of feeding themselves and their families with the exact same trend of Fancy Coffee. The pampering and sophistication of enjoying a proper coffee with tasting notes has all but disappeared and been replaced with a desire of the consumer to make “their own damn food” and “brew their own coffee". This has expanded the number of consumers who are engaging with the culture of fancy coffee from 87.5 million in November to 97.4 million in the present. But this does not mean consumers are buying more fancy coffee. It means that more consumers have begun to increasingly question the purpose of fancy coffee and what it means in culture. And as we can see in the dominant topics, it is being associated with adding stress and pressure to a person's ability to feed themselves and budget for meals. This growing trend is a negative one for a brand like Starbucks that needs to be countered. The rise of “Own Coffee” Culture As cultural anthropologists, our job is to follow the breadcrumbs left behind by the consumer to determine where culture is headed. In this instance, we clearly saw that making one’s “own coffee” was dominant, back in November, but the emergence of the pandemic has poured gas on the proverbial fire. Because our platform is agile, it allows us to search any and all topics that consumers are naturally linking to trends that are important to our business. So how important and expansive is “own coffee” culture? Well for starters, this culture was only relevant to 82.6 million consumers pre-COVID. Today, the culture is relevant to 108 million consumers. And predicted to grow by another 13.9% in the next 12-24 months. But more importantly, when we look at the meanings that consumers are linking with this idea of “own coffee”, we can see that this entire culture is driven by DIY consumers looking to recreate the Starbucks experience (or something better), in the comfort of their own home. They are looking to find their own “espresso machines”, “Keurig” and “Nespresso machines”. They are exploring the importance of finding their “own beans” that suit their liking and that they can use to make “high quality coffee” at home. And they are looking to educate themselves on ways to achieve this with convenience (remember, this isn't the coffee connoisseur who wants to spend 7 minutes making the perfect cappuccino). We can see that “local coffee shops” are being used to educate and engage with experts to learn what to try and how to improve their craft of making a great cup of coffee or latte at home. All in the context of achieving coffee shop like results comfortably and in a more affordable manner. Conclusion: As LaVine pointed out in his article referenced above, Starbucks is historically more sensitive to economic slowdowns than most other fast-casual dining chains. Which makes sense. When fiscally challenged, coffee lovers don’t give up coffee. They simply trade down driving growth of brands like Dunkin’ and McDonalds. This occurred during the 2008 economic crisis. But when the crisis was over, consumers returned to Starbucks in large numbers. The challenge in this downturn, is that while consumers are trying to trade down on price, they are trying to hack ways to maintain the quality they have come to enjoy. This is opening up DIY and home solutions to a brand new group of consumers, and driving many consumers to discover a broader range of technologies, beans, and flavor profiles available to be experienced in the comfort of their homes. Combine this with the potential long-term abandonment of the traditional workspace, and how Starbucks' heavy dependence on urban office customers may never return to the levels we saw in 2019, and the road ahead will be difficult.
Why it's important to study meaning rather than people.
It's time to ditch that target consumer "persona". Imagine a world where 'the brief' for a brand doesn't consist of a target audience - i.e. a persona. Rather, it conveys the meanings that the brand must embody, and the forms of symbolic capital (commonly referred to as social capital) it must provide to its consumer. That's what this post is about. I'm going to tell you why it's important to shift your thinking away from tired old models, and how you can begin doing so. Let's begin with the brief because even if you work in innovation, there's a very high chance that you are beholden to this "target consumer" despite your best efforts to get yourself and your team out of this mindset. Let's compare the old method with the new one in a simple scenario where we're tasked with exploring emerging demand in the area of sustainable skincare. THE OLD WAY: STUDYING PEOPLE. In this example, we study consumers and identify a type of consumer (mostly millennial women) who best fits with our buyer's profile. The benefits of this kind of approach is clear - It's easier to communicate. It makes the consumer sound more logical and senior leaders like logical statements. It's easy to do research like this because it's commoditized and cheap. But, try to put yourself in the shoes of someone who has to innovate against this persona. Think about how they feel having to constantly answer the question - "but, how does this opportunity apply to Ashley?" It's impossible to innovate in such an environment. Don't get me wrong, it's a useful tool for media buying. Just terrible for innovation or any other kind of initiative aimed at generating new revenue or improving profitability. THE NEW MODEL: STUDYING MEANING. In this example, we identify three major meanings driving consumer demand in the context of sustainable skincare. We don't worry about 'the who' until much later. The greatest benefit of this model is that we don't have to assume that the consumer is monolithic. We can finally acknowledge the reality, which is that today's consumer is highly nuanced and more illogical than ever before. What they do in one category may have no bearing on what they do in another. Decisions are simply made on the basis of which ones grant the consumer greater symbolic capital and therefore, more (symbolic) power in their social circles and communities. Studying the audience (instead of meaning) assumes that the idea of the unified self is true - i.e. that human beings have one central set of beliefs that consistently and logically guide their decisions across contexts and circumstances. While this notion of a unified self and therefore an authentic self may sound comforting to our brains, the truth is that human beings just don't think or work this way. Interestingly, this framework (of using one's decisions to gain symbolic currency and power) isn't anything new and there's hundreds of years of research in cultural anthropology, sociology, and even neuroscience to prove it. In fact, we summarized a lot of this in our most recent book, Microcultures. So, studying meanings in the context of a product, category, or marketplace allows us to decode the consumer's mental model and put ourselves in their context without having to make assumptions about the consistency and logic of a persona's decision making process and lifestyle. It allows us to understand WHY consumers choose certain solutions over others. In the world of big data, it allows us to not only study and decode meanings but also quantify and predict their future states. Which means, we can choose to target certain meanings (or sets of them) knowing that as they evolve and mature they will acquire a more diverse set of consumers along the way. Of course, studying meaning doesn't mean we can't understand the people behind those meanings. We still can get to the underlying demographic skews. It's just not the central focus but rather a byproduct of the analysis. We no longer build solutions for audience personas but rather to solve for specific sets of implicit meanings in the context of our business. These meanings we also refer to as microcultures. RESULTS ARE WHAT MATTER. In the example I shared earlier, our analysis allowed the client to refocus their sustainability efforts on the microculture around preservatives and harmful ingredients. The demographics and attitudes of the consumer were secondary to the underlying meanings their solution needed to solve for. Instead of starting with Ashley and then trying to recruit her into a bunch of co-creation sessions to try and get input on ideas and prototypes, our client focused on specific demand requirements our team was able to uncover within the chosen microculture. This gave the client a clear "recipe for success" with which they were able to create a series of prototypes and test cases. These prototypes were then put in front of the consumer in a series of A/B tests revealing the most appealing outcomes quickly and efficiently. Not only was the process faster, it was significantly more powerful - landing the client in a territory that continues to deliver significant growth despite the ongoing pandemic.