Forget Surveys. Move In With Your Customers

Consumer advocate and branding guru Martin Lindstrom sheds light on why the travel industry needs a fresh new approach to customer research

By Diane Merlino

If you really want to understand your customers, move in with them for a couple of days.

That’s exactly the kind of ethnographic research the travel industry sorely needs, according to Martin Lindstrom, an expert in that area and an innovative branding guru who has authored six major books on the topic over the last two decades, including Buyology and, most recently, Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy (Crown Publishing, 2011).

Lindstrom’s books are squarely on the side of the consumer, based on years of up close and personal research that studies consumer behavior across a wide international swath of countries, cultures and belief systems. At the same time he’s a corporate ‘brand fixer’ who has advised executives at a variety of Fortune 100 companies including Microsoft, McDonald’s, and Proctor & Gamble.

The work Lindstrom does is infused with an abiding curiosity about human nature, “to understand the deep psychology of why we make decisions in our lives. It may be why we decide to buy a brand, or move to a country, or go through a paradigm shift from how we live now to another version of how we want to live in the future. That deep psychology really drives everything I do.”

It doesn’t stop there. Says Lindstrom, “I’m motivated the most by solving a challenge nobody else has managed to solve before, and to add a twist or angle so I take people on a journey from one view they have of life to a different view of life, or some aspect of life. It’s that journey that is interesting.”

Case in point: The story about the new vodka brand Lindstrom helped introduce in Russia (now the #2 brand) while simultaneously changing drinking habits in the country to prolong the lives of vodka drinkers. (See Q&A below.)

Lindstrom’s first book on branding, Brand Child, published in 1994 and focused on the relationship between children and brands. Subsequent books, most of which became best sellers, examined online branding, the relationship between neuroscience and marketing, and how some of the best-known brands in the world manipulate their customers.

“In the beginning I started out with branding and I still work with branding,” Lindstrom said. “That’s been my life’s path. Brands are in the center, deep psychology is surrounding it, and then typically I find a new topic that gives a twist to the world of consumer psychology and consumption.”

Lindstrom spoke with Travel Weekly PLUS Editor-in-Chief Diane Merlino about how his branding expertise might benefit companies in the travel industry.

You started out as a marketing maven pretty early in life, when Lego asked you to be on their advisory board when you were 12 years old. How did that experience influence your work?
The first thing I learned is if you specialize in something, and at the same time have a helicopter view, that’s really where you start to have an enormous influence in society. When you combine those two different dimensions you /uploadedImages/TW_Plus/xTW_Plus_Images_ONLY/LegoCMS(1).jpgget some very different types of conclusions out of it.

That’s what I learned from childhood, from my experience with Legoland. I learned how it was to become specialized in one field and then use that experience and add different layers, look at it from a very broad point of view that connects dots across all types of industries and across all types of views of life. The weakness a lot of people have is they forget the helicopter view.

How would that approach look in the travel industry?
I don’t think the travel industry should learn from travel industry: the travel industry should learn from other industries, maybe the fast food industry or the beverage industry or the car industry. I fundamentally believe that the way you evolve in life is not to copy other people around you; it is to look at totally different industries and seek inspiration.

You’ve been deeply involved in the ‘marketing and branding jungle’ for a couple of decades, and did work for companies like Pepsico, Disney, McDonald's and Microsoft. Is there a particular experience or insight you’ve gained that would be valuable for travel industry decision makers?
I think the travel industry is interesting in the way that it deals with so many people across the world, with so many cultural differences. Yet, in my experience, the industry quite often has limited understanding about what the true consumer needs are.

I’ve spent an enormous amount of time in consumer homes trying to understand the deep psychology of different aspects of products and services. I typically move in with consumers and live with them for several days in order to understand, for example, how they brush their teeth, or how they go out shopping, or how they party, or how they wash their clothes. Because that gives me a certain insight into obstacles or challenges they meet — which they may not be able to articulate later on in a questionnaire — but once you observe them you can create the foundation for some new product or new service innovation.

It’s kind of difficult to picture how that would work.
One example of that is my work with a Russian vodka brand, where the Russian government contacted me and asked if I could invent a new vodka brand for them. I went to Russia and spent time in consumer homes conducting what we call ethnographic visits across Siberia and Russia. What I was so fascinated by was why people died at such a young age in Russia: the average life expectancy is 56 years of age. It’s such a scary number and my question was is it possible to change that?

So I had this dilemma. On the one hand I was really interested in developing this new vodka brand. There were 2,000 brands ahead of me so to develop another brand would be extremely challenging. On the other hand could I do that from an ethical point of view and solve the challenge of changing people’s life expectancy at the same time as releasing a new vodka brand.

That sounds incredibly ambitious and almost impossible.
Well, I realized that the reason why the life expectancy of people in Russia was so low was because men were drinking a whole glass of vodka at one time, they weren’t sipping it as you or I would do, or mixing it with something else. Fairly quickly I learned that if I could change the way people were drinking vodka I would in fact be able to change the life expectancy issue because — based on hundreds of interviews I conducted with professors and doctors across Russia — this is exactly the number one reason why people are dying in Russia at such a young age.

Conducing all those interviews, I realized you could not just introduce a new way of drinking and the Russians would take that on and start sipping vodka, because you are seen to be feminine if you are sipping vodka. Instead, I realized if I could find another methodology to change people’s drinking behavior that would probably be the answer.

And how did you do that?
As I was sitting in one home, this family invited me to drink a Russian cognac with them. They literally were putting this cognac in a balloon glass and yet they were sipping out of it. I asked why and they said ‘that’s how you do it with Russian cognac.’ And that was the moment I realized that the fact that the Russian population does not like to sip their vodka is not because it would be seen as feminine but because people had been branded to believe it was a feminine way of doing things.

As I continued I found there was a consumer group Russia looked up to — men in Finland — mainly because Russian men thought they were masculine and they knew how to drink vodka. I said to the Russian government vodkabottleswhy don’t we produce the vodka in Finland, build the factories in Finland, import this vodka back to Russia, and promote it as this Finnish brand. But promote it as a brand that you have to sip, because that’s the way you have to drink this very unique vodka brand — not to drink all of it at once, but to take it a little bit at the time. 

After we spent a considerable amount of time figuring out how we would seed this message across the Russian population, we in fact managed to change the way people today are drinking vodka in Russia. To put this into perspective, before I began this project less than half a percent of the Russian male population was sipping vodka. Today 17% of the Russian population is sipping vodka out of a glass, and this brand indeed is #2 in Russia.

This story indicates that if you live with the consumer you can understand the deep psychology of why people are doing what they are doing, and you will be able to find or discover aspects of your brand or your service which you didn’t know before and which you can use to create a point of differentiation.

And you think this approach will work in the travel industry?
The issue I have with the travel industry — it may be mostly the hotel industry, or just the transportation part of the industry — is that they are too busy reading reports, too busy sitting in their offices reading feedback from LindstromHSquestionnaires.

But rarely do you see that the industry actually lives with the consumer, asking how does it work when a businessman wants to travel from A to B? Let’s follow that businessman. Let’s move in with him, see how he wakes up in the morning, see how his secretary has booked that trip or how he booked that trip for himself, travel with him to the airport, check in to the plane with him, and so forth. Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of that person to see what every aspect of the trip looks like from their point of view.

I think a lot of people in the travel industry should work much more like that.

Do you have any examples of actual companies in the travel industry who have used the kind of market research you’re describing?
I worked with a major cruise operator in the U.K. that catered to people of a senior age. One of the things we did with all the staff was to have them put on a sort of uniform, a really heavy shirt and very heavy pants that were so heavy you felt 15 or 20 kilos heavier than you normally would, and you felt restrained because of the clothes you were wearing.

The staff checked in to the ships that way, went up and down stairs. We did that because we wanted people to get a sense of what it feels like not to be mobile. By doing that with all the staff we got a sense of what it feels like to be older on a ship, and not being very mobile. And that created the entire idea for how this ship looks and is designed and constructed, looking at it from the consumer’s point of view.

That’s my message to the whole travel industry. They think they know what people want, in fact they read about it every day in surveys and questionnaires, but in fact they are rarely in the shoes of the actual consumer. 

Next issue: Martin Lindstrom on: how travel brands can differentiate themselves; why customer surveys won’t tell you what you need to know; ethics guidelines for business, based on talking with 2,000 consumers; marketing without manipulating; and more

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