Reaching the right brain to connect with consumers | Articles

What, why and what’s next?

Editor’s note: Jennifer Adams is the SVP, Digital Hives at Big Village. This is an edited version of an article that originally appeared under the title “Reaching the Right-Brain with Digital Hives.”

Traditional qualitative research has long been obsessed with “why.” Why did you, Consumer A, make that decision? Why did you buy this, but not that? Why is that concept preferred over the other? And certainly, why matters. But “why,” like its quantitative counterpart “what,” is grounded resolutely and superficially in the immediate past and falls short in cultivating the empathy required to truly understand the messy emotions, the chaotic maelstrom of sheer humanness, that propels us into the “what’s next.”

In periods of relative calm and order, “what happened” and “why did it happen” are logical questions, left-brained signposts to a predictable, visible future. But what about when things aren’t so calm and orderly? What about when big change comes and the future gets murkier, emotions get higher, logic comes up short and the only way to truly get to “what’s next” is through right-brained empathy, ingenuity and creativity?

A life example

If we look at the data of Jennifer Adams over the past year, we’d see that my personal expenditures in the wellness category have skyrocketed. I’ve shopped Whole Foods online and Thrive Market for the first time, I’ve bought an infrared sauna blanket and joined a vegan meal delivery service. I’ve purchased 20 new cookbooks, joined a new gym, bought an Apple Watch, new sneakers and downloaded the Calm app. Now, you could make some suppositions, or you could even ask me why. I’d tell you the logical reason: I received a serious autoimmune diagnosis and started doing my own research into holistic healing. That would give you one piece of the picture…but what would it tell you about what I need – practically and emotionally? What would it tell you about how I am feeling and how those feelings drive me forward? What would it tell you about the future I envision and how I want to get there and what products and brands I want with me on the next phase(s) of the journey?

Does knowing the simple “why” fully activate your empathy toward me as a customer or prospect? Does it really show you in what ways and at what critical emotional moments to connect, imagine and invent with me? 

In the last couple of years, ALL of us have lived through profound changes – a global pandemic, escalating political divisions, inflation, fluctuating costs of essential goods and services, local effects of climate change and so much more on personal levels (multigenerational homes and sandwich generations, life-stage changes, births, deaths, illnesses, recoveries). Change for most people is anxiety-inducing. Fear of change is rooted in a sense of loss of control. When things change or we fear they are changing, the left brain – responsible for logic and order and sequence – can’t keep up alone. Thankfully, our right brain is there to help with synthesis, spatial orientation, empathy, intuition, creativity and imagination. As Daniel Pink put it in his seminal work, A Whole New Mind, “The future belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different mind – creators and empathizers, pattern recognizers and meaning makers…we are moving from an economy and society built on the logical, linear, computerlike capabilities of the Information Age, to an economy and society built on the inventive, empathic, big-picture capabilities of what’s rising in its place – the Conceptual Age.”

What does this all mean for brands and market research? It means that to truly understand consumers, especially in a newborn post-COVID-19 world, you must walk with them through these changes to come out the other side more connected and in tune. It requires more than asking (and getting quick answers to) the basic what and why. It requires more than just listening. It involves activating empathy and imagination and engaging in creative problem-solving with customers and prospects to focus on the collective what’s next. I’d argue that we all have Pink’s “different kind of mind,” we just have to learn to harness it for positive action.

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