Today I was at the Advertising Research Foundation meetings in New York City. This was organized by the esteemed Joe Plummer of ARF. Joe asked the panel I was on to address issues that emerged in his recent interviews with Gerry Zaltman.
I have long observed the Zaltman research enterprise. Gerry was once a colleague at HBS and I believe him to be one of the nicest human being God ever created. (I once did a drive around Carmel with Gerry and his wife, and I came away thinking that there was something positively saintly about the guy. Coming as it does from a low church Protestant, this is very high praise indeed.) My regard for Gerry was enough to make me hold my tongue when I came across examples of his work.
But now that I had been asked to comment publicly, I felt obliged to speak candidly. As I said this morning during the panel, I believe that there is something wrong with the Zaltman model. I believe the model is missing something. That something is culture.
This wouldn’t matter if Gerry were just talking about brain structure, function or chemistry. But that is not what Gerry does, not for consulting purposes anyhow. What Gerry does is solicit images from consumers (as pictured, to Gerry’s right) and then presume to tell us what these images mean. I understand that Gerry’s book is called "how customers think" but when he hires out for consulting purposes what he gives us is "what customers think."
I have friends in the marketing world who have used Gerry’s Zmet technique to great effect. And I believe all of methodological infighting and territory claiming must defer to this. If the method works, the method is good. The proof of the pudding has nothing to do with the theory of the pudding or the method of the pudding. The proof of the pudding is a client who says, "this was illuminating. I understand my consumer and my market in ways that I did not, could not before."
I am obliged to say that Gerry is making unsound assumptions. He believes that culture and cultures don’t matter. In How the Customer Thinks, he speaks blithely of "human universals" and the "myth of diversity."
Here’s the thing: If cultural diversity doesn’t matter, marketing doesn’t matter. Is this not precisely what we do: account for the ways in which one group of consumers is different from another group of consumers? Segmentation, I believe we call it. Changes in consumer trends? Isn’t this what we do? Aren’t we always looking for not the state of human universals, but the changes in culture that have changed our consumers? What matters for marketing purposes, is always human specifics, not human universals. My target, this brand, the marketing opportunity, right now. What would have happened at Motorola if Geoffrey Frost had been driven by a pursuit of human universals instead of his exquisitely particular understanding of what the technology could do and what the culture would respond to, right now?
I believe that these cultural differences and developments are the very bread and butter, the very point of marketing. But, if what Dr. Zaltman is correct, marketers may strike their tents and surrender the world of marketing to those who are prepared to posit a few simple human universals. Really? Shouldn’t we take exception to this savage act of intellectual reduction? Shouldn’t we insist that consumers are more complicated than this. A few deep and universal meanings inhabiting and informing all human consciousness? Really? Perhaps human beings are actually a little more various, nuanced, and multiple than this. (And if this is not the case, marketing is just so much sound and fury.)
When Dr. Zaltman sits down with composite images and claims to see what they mean, I get nervous. To suppose, for marketing purposes, that a single individual can use this technique to capture what anyone from any culture must mean, this is not a persuasive claim.
The problem is not just that Gerry doesn’t get culture. The problem is that he doesn’t understand American culture. In fact, Gerry doesn’t understand contemporary American culture. And this is crucial. God help the marketer who loses touch with where and what his or her culture is at any given moment.
Now, granted, Gerry thinks that knowledge of culture, American culture, and contemporary culture, is gratuitous. And maybe for some analytical purposes it is. But you cannot talk about consumer meanings unless you have a very clear idea of the cultures that supply these meanings. It is important to know how consumers think, and Gerry’s work here is interesting and important. But if we are going to talk about what they think, we have to do what marketers have always done, understand the world in which the consumer lives, understand the life the consumer leads, and understand the cultures that make these worlds and lives make sense.
Zaltman, Gerald. 2003. How Customers Think. Essential Insights into the mind of the market. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.