Focus group: America

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The director of brand strategy at Grey San Francisco gives a briefing on the lessons learned from the surprising results of the election.

The outcome of the election may have been unexpected, but we just got to observe how half of the country sees the world and what motivates them to action. As marketers, these are some of the same things we try to understand, so what better focus group could give us a sense of the country right now than this?

So, what did we learn? The big takeaway seems pretty clear: Hillary may have lost the election, but the biggest loser seems to have been our overall capacity for empathy.

It's important that we take a step back, think about what we can learn and how this should impact the way we think about our brands and the audiences they serve.

Our world lens is deeply personal. It's easy to see why so many people were shocked with the outcome of the election. We coddled ourselves with a comfortable view of the world that reinforces what we believe. We don't spend enough time talking to people who think differently than us. We don't try to understand; instead we argue and discard their POV. The same could be said of the other side that looked past the faults of their candidate in the service of the issues in their own backyard. This is how it works; we make up our mind and act based on a very personal lens that informs how we see everything else.

Implication: We need to do a better job of trying to understand other people around us. This goes for consumers, our clients and even others within our own organizations. When was the last time you sat in the back of a focus group and didn't make fun of the people you paid to listen to? How often do agencies and clients go in to their office black holes and lose sight of each other's perspective? "Clients just want to be safe." "Agencies just want to win awards." It's easy to cast each other in these clichés, but let's try to do better. Let's try to break down these deeply personal blinders and get some perspective.

Change is a great motivator. Hillary ran a campaign based on optimism and a path forward that continues a lot of what President Obama started. Donald, on the other hand, promised change to a group of people feeling disenfranchised. Ultimately, the promise of change was the winner.

Implication: If change is the great motivator, we need to better attune ourselves to what that change needs to be. Don't just give consumers a slightly better version of your existing product, come up with new solutions. Innovation and disruption are words that have been beaten to a bloody pulp, but for good reason. People are tired of the status quo, they want change. Look at what Dollar Shave Club has done, or what Casper is doing (who knew mattresses were in such dire need of disruption?), Toms, Warby Parker, etc. Tech brands do this well and are some of the most loved and highest valued brands that exist. If product innovation isn't possible, how can marketing add innovation to the consumer experience?

Just the facts that support my beliefs, ma'am. This has always been true, but it was hard to ignore in this election. Hillary said economists and third-party experts reviewed her plan, that it will increase jobs and that Trump's plan will lose them. This ran right in the face of Trump's promise to bring back jobs to those who have lost it to bad trade deals, etc. Well, it turns out that people didn't care about the experts because they didn't trust them. This has been part of what is so hard for people on both sides, it's what pushed us so far apart, we can't even agree on what the facts are. Our journalistic institution's credibility have been undercut and facts have been replaced by what we want to believe is true.

Implication: We need to focus more on empathizing with what our consumers aspire to, and less on the talking points that we want to hear. While Hillary would counter Trump with facts, many Americans just didn't care. They just wanted to believe what Trump was telling them. As the great philosopher of our time, Stephen Colbert, would say, this is what we call "truthiness." Brands are always quick to point out how amazing their products are and how much better they are than the competition. We obsess over features that got rated No. 1 by some third party. "Our cell service is better." "Our cars are safer." "Our tech is faster." Fine, perhaps it is, but if you really want me to believe you, don't just tell me the facts, make me want to believe you.

So, let's hope that the country can come together and move in the right direction. In the meantime, let's think about these important lessons as we help guide our brands into this new America. Let's all practice a little more empathy amongst ourselves and with our consumers.

Lenny Karpel is the Director of Brand Strategy at Grey San Francisco

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