Star Wars, Story and Market Research

Dec 10 2012

Every market researcher dreams of the ideal client, the successful project and the satisfaction of truly understanding the client’s customers to inform a successful business strategy. What could possibly get in the way of this?

An evil empire has descended over market research, which can be summarized in the Edward Tufte quotation, “Power corrupts. PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.”

The evil empire is not just about the tyranny of endless charts and tables in market research presentations. There is a broader trend of increasing remoteness of clients (and researchers) from their customers. While technology is a great enabler, it can also create an artificial barrier between researchers and the real lives of people. Short and narrowly focused questions encourage short and narrowly focused answers, missing the full story of human behaviour and failing to capture the goals, emotions and context of decision making.

Market researchers must think in narratives rather than bullet points. Stories contain our beliefs and knowledge about the world and are the basis of learning, thinking, remembering and sharing. Stories help us understand real lives, real people, real goals, real obstacles and the roles that brands can play in helping customers live richer lives.

How do we fight this evil empire? We need the magic of storytelling, at every stage of the research process. Every project should start with guidance from existing sources of knowledge. In storytelling, there is always a wise woman or man (the Guru). In Star Wars this role is initially taken by Obi-Wan Kenobi (Old Ben) and later in the series by Yoda.

For any business problem there is always a large database of existing stories to be tapped into.  These insights are extremely useful in generating research questions and hypotheses, and building a thinking framework. One tip is that it is also a good way of winning the project in the first place, by demonstrating your knowledge of the business issues.

For example, in researching advertising it always helps to understand the key category codes by reviewing the existing communications. In a recent project in one Asian market, analysis of the communications by mobile service providers revealed that one of the key themes of communications in the category was about exploration, openness, possibilities and options, expressed through imagery of nature, adventure and open space as well as by a focus on different handsets (in this market businesses were selling Apple and Samsung more than their own brands).

Similarly, in product and packaging study, it helps to understand the meaning of different colours, shapes and other sensory touchpoints. For example, yellow is associated with the sun and warmth in Western cultures, whereas in a Chinese context it can mean power and wealth (it was the colour of the Chinese emperors, in the same way that purple was the colour of Roman emperors).

Understanding the existing stories from the client’s business, the category and the cultural context, helps you to ask the right questions in your research.

After framing our questions in the right way,the next stage of most research projects is to understand the individual consumer’s perspective, and storytelling helps here too. This stage of research is all about exploration and discovery, and our mission is to immerse ourselves in the consumer’s world before coming back to our own world. Han Solo is a great model for this stage of research, as an archetypal explorer.

Compare two interviews conducted on the same topic. Here is the first example:

  • Researcher: Do you take your child to school?
  • Participant: Yes, I do.
  • Researcher: And does she take a packed lunch?
  • Participant: Yes, usually.
  • Researcher: When would she not take one?
  • Participant: On fridays, because it is a half-day.
  • Researcher: What do you put in her packed lunch?
  • Participant: A sandwich and some fruit.
  • Researcher: Anything else?
  • Participant: A drink.
  • Researcher: What sort of drink?
  • Participant: Squash, water.

What is your impression of this? This is a pretty standard question and answer dialogue, where the interviewer does get clear answers to all their questions, but are they missing anything?

Here is a second example interview.

  • Researcher: I want to chat with you about how you deal with packed lunches.  Some women I talk to find it quite a chore, but others quite enjoy it.  I don’t know how you feel about it.  But first, tell me a little bit about your little girl.  What is her name?
  • Participant: Marie.
  • Researcher: OK, and does she enjoy school?  Is she a good eater?  Is she picky?
  • Participant: Well she’s seven next month, the youngest, the baby of the family.
  • Researcher: Ah, so you have older children as well?  Are they all having packed lunches or is it different for the others?  How do you sort it all out?
  • Participant: Well Hanna is 11 and Sophie 9.  They all have packed lunches so it’s quite a hassle trying to get it all organized in the morning.  and they all like different things.  I take them with me to the supermarket and they are allowed to choose what drinks they have in their packed lunch.
  • Researcher: Ah, so they only get to choose their drinks? (laugh)
  • Participant: That’s the only thing they’re allowed to choose, otherwise it gets manic.  They have a good breakfast before they go to school and I always give them a cooked meal when they come home, so I’m not over-concerned about lunch.  But I do insist that they have a drink at lunchtime, otherwise they can go the whole day without drinking – that’s why I give them something ……

Do you notice any difference?

Exploration is all about openness and authenticity, and the danger with classic question and answer approaches is that we miss deeper understanding of the underlying motivations and tensions in consumer lives, by focusing on what is important to us and our clients rather than what is important to the customer.

All of us are driven by broader values and goals (our emotional rewards), and these can only be captured in more open, flexible and personalized interactions. Taking relevant images and objects and using these as the basis of the consumers personal stories about the topic can be a great way to capture deeper insights into the drivers of behaviour. For example, in mobile telecommunications, customers who are asked to share pictures that represent an ideal relationship with a mobile service provider, may tell stories about their images using phrases such as ‘being in the know’, ‘afraid of being out of date’, ‘stay smart and efficient at work’, which go deeper than the more functional issues which are often the superficial response to questions (i.e., a clear line, stable connection, etc).

Every consumer has a story to tell, and a treasure that they seek. This leads me to the next stage of research. After collecting data we need to determine what it means for the client. So in interpreting our research data we need a framework which can help us to understand every man and woman, and here Chewbacca (the creature next door) is the perfect guide.

Frameworks based on emotional strategies help to understand the big picture of human behaviour. Our evolutionary success on the planet is built on four key strategies: defend, acquire, bond and learn. In turn these strategies are linked to two key emotional tensions in all our lives. Firstly, do we want to stand out from the crowd or belong to the group? Secondly, do we want to stay in our comfort zone or seek change and new opportunities? These tensions are best expressed in the archetypes that we all understand and which permeate all our cultural stories, including the Everyman, the Warrior, the Explorer, the Guru and the Catalyst (who you will see in a minute). Star Wars has nearly every archetype within its story. And as with all great stories (and life itself), we need help from many different archetypes to help us to be the hero.

In this example, although one of the dominant category codes is in the area of exploration (Han Solo territory), the motivations of consumers are much more about knowledge, control and stability (Yoda, Darth Vader and Princess Leia).

Which leads me to the final part of the research process, the report and presentation. Here we need the Catalyst to help sprinkle some magic on our research data to turn into a compelling story. In Star Wars, R2D2 is the Catalyst, who manages to magically open locked doors and switch off tractor beams so are hero can escape.

All stories have a beginning, middle and end, or if you prefer a context and trigger, some action, and a final result. Within this framework any compelling story must have some key plot points where the action turns and when tension is heightened before being ultimately resolved.

What are the elements of a great story? You always start with the Star of your story, and the Treasure that they seek. In any good story there are always Obstacles for the Star to overcome (tensions, contradictions, barriers).  And a story should always have a big idea, a Right lesson (or moral) and a whY to act as a call to action.

  • Star
  • Treasure
  • Obstacle
  • Right lesson
  • whY

So what’s the big idea (the Right lesson and whY)?

For researchers, the Right lesson is that Storytelling can help you to achieve a richer understanding of business problems, as well as a more compelling communication of the answer to your client. Why is that? Because story can help you to understand, discover, connect and transform with customers and end clients.

In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker learns to balance the power of technology with the magic of his instinct and the unspoken knowledge that lies in the force.

To paraphrase Laurence Nault, “The point of a story can penetrate far deeper than a bulletpoint.”

May the story be with you!

[This is an edited version of a presentation for the Festival of #newMR. You can watch a recording of the presentation at]

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