The persona problem: how to connect with your consumers’ emotional reality

We know what customers say; and what customers do – but for brand marketing we need to know how they feel.

”You’re never more than 10 metres away from a customer” – was the cheeky line in a LinkedIn post enticing user experience experts to apply for a job with the John Lewis product team.

The phrase stuck in my mind. I repeated it a day later in a presentation to senior marketers in Milan about how marketing is changing. John Lewis literally – and I mean literally – keep the customer at the centre of everything they do when it comes to user experience. They have a UX lab right in the centre of their workspace.

Using direct access to customers makes marketing better and makes marketers do better work – keeping their great ideas in the process.

The danger of not connecting with your customer

The success of great creative brand work requires an emotional chain reaction to occur: moving from a creative team through production and activation to the brains and nervous systems of real-life customers. It’s a precarious and high-risk endeavour.

But without a clear connection with the customer, it’s as if we give ourselves a single description of the end-state during the briefing process. This is then backed by some numbers about things we wished were true. We start the process wearing blindfolds – hoping we can remember where the customer was and that we don’t stumble or veer off course.

Ideas are easy. They come thick and fast. It’s selecting the right one that’s the hard part, and then not screwing it up on its way to becoming a campaign.

Love your customer, not your ideas

The danger for marketers is when they fall in love with their idea and forget about the intention of the work: to connect with the emotions of the customer. To connect the brand with an emotional response. I see Coca-Cola and there is an echo of celebrations and good times; I see Apple and there’s a stirring of cool, creative possibilities; I see Patagonia and there is integrity and passion for the environment.

The emotions are felt not considered. The customer doesn’t stand there in the shop or pause the scrolling on their screen to think: “What is my position on this brand?”

For the best ideas to be developed, the customer has to be close to the creative process. For decades, research has been regarded as the answer to this need. With more data and better methods for parsing them and making meaning, there’s more opportunity for marketers to start their brand marketing with customer insights and keep it connected to the customer’s reality.

The persona problem

So, why aren’t personas used? One reason is that they suck. They live until the brief is over and then they gather dust in a corner of the creative studio or on a forgotten corner of someone’s hard drive. They too often don’t feel real (stock photography, over-generalised descriptions) and so they don’t connect with the creative mind. The ideas come, are nurtured and grown and then – just before they’re presented – post-rationalised to connect with the personas. This could be Matteus, the hipster skateboarder who somehow represents all males aged 19–32 in Western Europe; or Patti, an amalgam representing all 43–71 year-old women in North America.

We’ve had success with bringing personas to life by making them more specific and focused on real customers. Another approach that has worked well is to present them in more engaging ways for use by marketing teams. We’ve created chat-bots to represent the customer and screencasts of personas chatting to friends and family to bring them off the page and into a more dynamic, believable existence.

Another reason personas don’t work is we ask the wrong questions. We push them – often subconsciously – to be the shape of someone who is likely to listen to our message or buy our product. Wishful thinking skews the research and the persona, and gives our creatives misleading signals about the people we are trying to reach.

Adding a deeper human dimension

One last thing that troubled me: we are asking people how they feel about things. As any psychologist will tell you, people often don’t know how they feel about things or will consciously or subconsciously misrepresent their feelings.

To have a better chance of understanding what emotional tone is going to connect with a customer we commissioned research based on implicit testing methods. We wanted to understand how to bring to life the reality of how customers feel, to add a deeper human dimension to what they say (through traditional market research), and what they do (what we can measure about their behaviour).

What we’re sharing with this study are some broad findings that we hope will challenge our colleagues in the marketing industry to think more deeply about customers’ emotional needs and how they might speak to them more directly. I believe this approach will result in better insights, better work, and better results. Data on its own isn’t enough, but that doesn’t mean we have to operate on instinct. Psychological research like this can give us a better chance to develop the messages our customers crave – even if they don’t know what they want themselves.

Check out the report here.