It means that you need to get into the minds of whoever you are selling to. For example, advertisers ask questions like: Why do people want to buy an iPhone instead of a Blackberry? Why should one use an online bank over a brick and mortar one? More importantly, What problem do they have that we can solve? And Why should they care about our product?
When a consumer sees that a company “gets” them (i.e., by clearly communicating the problem that she is facing), she might be more amenable to the company’s solution (i.e., our smartphone is easy to use and looks great, or our bank offers more money back and no annoying fees, etc.).
It’s a simple lesson that most people know, but people rarely apply this to other parts of their life. Sometimes, marketers forget this too (see an intriguing video about how condom marketers failed to understand the Congolese mindset). It boggles my mind when I see someone presenting in front of a group and completely boring the audience (which I believe is most of the time). The simple reason isn’t necessarily because the presenter is a poor speaker, but because he is not engaging the audience’s interest. He should be asking himself questions such as, What do they care about? How can I make it easier for them to be engaged?
The same goes for an employee communicating with a boss (or vice versa), a teacher engaging her students, parents teaching a child, and even a politician trying to raise campaign funds. Knowing your audience is the only thing you can control, and in some cases, the economic well-being of our nation depends on it.
Recently, the U.S. has been considering sanctions against China for devaluing its currency, essentially putting us at a trade disadvantage. China’s products have been costing less to produce and export while costing ours more — bad, if we want the world’s second largest economy to buy our stuff. It also encourages the export of American jobs (due to cheaper labor costs in China), which hurts our economy. The problem only arises, however, if the U.S. decides to impose sanctions that force China into revaluing its currency as a way to rescue American jobs.
Forget the fact that China is in the driver’s seat and knows that America is desperate. By passing a bill hinting at stiff tariffs, the U.S. Senate is taking coercive action that could lead to a disastrous trade war — all because we don’t know the target audience. As Rana Foroohar, the Curious Capitalist writer for Time warned: “If you really want the Chinese to do something, never pressure them about it in public. Loss of face is anathema in the Middle Kingdom.” In fact, it has made them even more defiant, lowering the renminbi even more.
This is why an educated society is so crucial — ignorance of cultural sensitivities goes against the golden rule in advertising. You cannot sell them something if you don’t know them. Better approach it the way Henry Kissinger did in the 1970s, through closed-doored cooperation that allows the Chinese to maintain their dignity and harmony with the U.S. Wouldn’t employees prefer private one-on-one conversations with management over misunderstandings instead of public grievances? How about students or teachers at a principal’s office? Or a coach-athlete dispute in the locker room instead of in front of the press?
Hearing Republican primary candidates like Gov. Mitt Romney in the GOP debate recently insist on public sanctions on China makes him appear unworldly in a global stage, which can further damage America’s image. However, his opponent, Jon Huntsman — a former U.S. ambassador to China — has shown a more nuanced understanding in his answers (which goes back to my theory that informed people tend to be worldly travelers while the least informed tend to travel and live abroad much less — a future topic to address). Belligerent posturing will get nowhere with an emerging superpower that has endured centuries of humiliation and submission.
In fact, cultural context is so essential that it can even affect conclusions drawn from cross-cultural research studies, as I discovered recently. In surveys given to diverse students, I found that Asian students appeared to score themselves lower on various questions of ability, despite the fact that there is little discernible differences in such. Reviews of past research reveal that they tend to underestimate their abilities and uniqueness (compared with Americans or westerners) due to of their Confucian culture of modesty. This phenomenon is called self-effacing bias. In fact, there was a 1991 study that compared perceptions of Japanese undergraduate students with American counterparts on estimations of one’s intellectual ability. An American student, on average, felt only 30% of his university’s peers have higher abilities than himself, compared with 50% for a Japanese student. This sense of false-uniqueness can affect the validity of any study if one’s responses are colored by complicated factors such as cultural and personal orientation. Something to keep in mind next time a political candidate offers simple solutions to complex problems.
The bottom line: own your target audience by knowing everything about what makes them tick; this mindset is part of having a broader and wiser perspective. Without it, we are just living in our own world — a parochialism that I fear is becoming an increasing part of the American identity.