Kellogg World Alumni Magazine Spring 2007Kellogg School of Management
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Teaque Lenahan and the Gravity Tank team
Teaque Lenahan '01 (pointing with marker) and his Gravity Tank team discuss a project in the company's office, which features movable furniture and adjustable walls that double as bulletin boards. The office is designed to encourage creative problem solving.  Photo courtesy of Gravity Tank
Stalking the wild consumer

Using qualitative approaches to marketing, some Kellogg alumni are leading their teams out of the office and into the heart of the marketplace, looking for deeper connections with customers

By Aubrey Henretty

Teaque Lenahan's marketing mantra is based on a radical assumption.

"Assume that you know basically nothing about the consumer," says Lenahan '01, a team leader at Chicago-based Gravity Tank Inc., a creative consultancy promising fully integrated marketing solutions.

What might seem at first blush a heretical proposition for a profession that has made customer-centricity an article of faith actually suggests a quest for innovation and value. If that means reassessing cherished beliefs, so be it.

"What we thought was true isn't necessarily true," Lenahan says.

Taking curiosity as a starting point for learning about a group of people is not quite new. Ethnographers have provided windows into far-flung societies and subcultures for many years. In 1978, for instance, then Kellogg School marketing scholar Sidney J. Levy was asking American Behavioral Scientist readers why the industry had been loath to embrace direct-observation marketing research: "Does the field of marketing need anthropology, as it so evidently needs and employs mathematics, psychology, and economics? Implicitly, there can be no doubt of it—although explicit interest has been less noticeable."[1]

Today, Kellogg alumni like Lenahan are bridging the gap between the two disciplines, and academics are not the only ones noticing.

Gravity Tank is one of a new breed of holistic marketing agencies where teams, armed with data gleaned from conventional research, venture out into the field, ask questions, suggest ways to improve old products or packaging or develop new ones — in other words, agencies concerned with every detail of the consumer experience. "A large part of our job is to read between the lines," says Lenahan, "to ask questions [people] don't expect to be asked." One that consistently surprises is "Why?"

If a marketer is working with a company that is trying to improve its line of personal deodorants (as Gravity Tank's team recently did), he might find himself in the bathrooms of strangers. There, he would try to glean consumer insights, no matter how seemingly trivial, by watching them apply deodorant and asking why they applied the product just so.

On another project with an electronics company, Lenahan and his team traveled the world in search of attitudes about what constitutes "premium." They visited homes and asked people to show them something premium. Lenahan says it was an eye-opening experience: "Some guys showed us their big flat-screen TV — which was very interesting for our client — but some people showed us a drawing their grandmother did on a kibbutz in Israel."

The desire to look at an ordinary word with new eyes, to share in the customer experience, can be an invaluable tool for the pioneering marketer.

"I think a big part of being innovative is in how you understand customer needs," says Mike Docherty '88, founder and CEO of Venture2, a Florida-based firm that helps companies bring fresh ideas to life, either by helping clients develop new platforms or by connecting them with fledgling partners whose work complements the companies' goals.

Docherty says it is important to distinguish between creativity and innovation in marketing: innovation is "the will to implement" creative ideas. "It comes down to solving a problem in a new way," he adds, a skill he honed while pursuing his MBA. "Kellogg really does train you well to set aside the solution and make sure you understand the problem."

One facet of the marketer's problem is how to discover what customers expect. "People can't always articulate what they need," Docherty says, "and the job of creative innovators is to ask the right questions."

But sometimes even asking the right questions won't help marketers find the answers they're looking for, he says. In a collaboration with kitchen appliance manufacturer Oster, Docherty's team was charged with helping the company build a better blender. On a project like this, Docherty says, the limitations of conventional consumer-marketer discourse quickly become apparent.

According to Docherty, if a marketer asks a person how to improve the common blender, the person is likely to ask for more buttons. After visiting a series of kitchens, however, Venture2 found that most people did not have any idea what they might want those extra buttons to do, nor did they know the difference between "chop" and "purée" — options already available on most blenders. With this knowledge, the company helped Oster develop an intuitive four-button blender.

Andrew Simon '94 has also found success in some unconventional places. In marketing, he says, innovation means "finding new ways to reach the customer. It means going places you wouldn't normally think are viable. It means taking some calculated risks."

Simon is the senior vice president and creative director of DDB Canada, a Toronto-based firm whose recent projects included a push for greater U.S. tourist traffic to Canada in conjunction with the Canadian Tourism Commission. "Nobody [in the United States] knows what Canada's about," says Simon. "It's cold, and that's it."

Since their stateside neighbors weren't visiting Canada, Simon and his team thought they should bring Canada to their stateside neighbors — via dozens of miniature USB-powered flash disk drives. The team created a fictional young couple and artifacts from the couple's recent vacation to Canada: itinerary, hotel and travel information, photos of sights seen and even some mp3 files containing recorded music by Canadian artists, and then planted them throughout select neighborhoods in Chicago. The story came to life once local residents, many of whom fit the target demographic, plugged the drives into their computers. An Internet link embedded in the materials revealed a 25 percent response rate, indicating a campaign many times more successful than direct mail.

Though the average urbanite is bombarded daily with thousands of advertisements, Simon maintains that the clutter is no match for the innovator: "It doesn't mean you have to be edgy — it just means you have to use your talents to break through."

Brian Sternthal, the Kellogg School's Kraft Professor of Marketing, agrees. He points out that the demise of print media — especially periodicals like newspapers and magazines — has been predicted for years, yet college students and young commuters continue to read the Chicago Tribune's RedEye because the tabloid is free and because it's inconvenient to use the Internet on public transportation. As for television ads, billboards and other strategically placed advertisements, these are unlikely to vanish anytime soon either. "We have not lost a single medium other than the afternoon newspaper in the last 100 years," says Sternthal. "What will happen is media will reinvent themselves."

Meanwhile, as new technology races forward, Simon says marketers must take care to understand it, respect it and approach it in fresh ways. Too many, he says, naïvely assume they can recreate the success others have found in leveraging difficult marketing vehicles, such as the viral video. "Marketers don't fully grasp [what's required to produce a worthwhile viral video]. They just say, 'Get me one of those viral things.'" But if the video doesn't strike a chord with the first handful of people who see it, prompting each to forward it to friends and declare, "This is the coolest thing I have ever seen," it's a waste of everyone's time.

Still, if the risks of cutting-edge marketing are great, the rewards can prove even greater. A hit viral video might be viewed a few hundred thousand times during peak hours any weekday on YouTube.

Simon says that kind of exposure, while not strictly quantifiable, is priceless. "If [marketing messages] extend the brand image, they might not sell hard — like, go to your grocery store right now and buy this — but it goes a long way."

[1] Hunger and Work in a Civilized Tribe, Or: The Anthropology of Marketing." American Behavioral Scientist, 21(4), 557-570. 1978: Sage Publications Inc.  Go Back

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