Brand Kampers: Why Qualitative Research Matters

By Sarah Akers

Warning: this blog post contains some immature themes about unfortunate gastrointestinal distress.

Many years ago, an inadvertent party game emerged from a Saturday movie night. We each took turns doing dramatic readings of Amazon reviews for sugar-free gummy bears from a name brand. While low-calorie sweeteners and preservatives may seem to make these gummies a guilt-free option, what starts out as an innocent snack can quickly take some left turns, resulting in urgent, severe digestive drama that I’ll invite you to Google on your own time. There are tales of what began as an inviting appetizer on a first date becoming an unforgettable trap of unpleasant, intense, and embarrassing symptoms at an attractive stranger’s house. The notorious fodder of what ensues ultimately became a source of comedic websites and novelty coffee table books. 

While I could certainly look at a star rating on the product page and pass on something with a substandard average, or see the number of reviews mentioning GI issues, observing that frequency is different than the intensity of a single story—like a woman whose boss innocently brought the bears in question to the office, only to leave her suddenly stranded and searching for a place to pull over in the middle of her hour-long commute home down a winding forested drive in the dark.

Here’s my point: specificity matters. Intensity matters. The story matters. That’s what sticks with you. Even if it’s just one person’s.

Stories lend us more than just data points—they create stakes and settings that are relatable and help us predict where a plot is going in ways that we can identify with. A blind date. A boring meeting in a conference room full of sales reps. A road trip through Iowa farmland. We all recognize situations when having sudden, urgent digestive distress would be problematic. When we tell embarrassing stories to a confidante, the setup is critical to eliciting an empathetic response. 

Human stories are what give credibility and character to a brand narrative, and that’s why our team spends much of the Brand Kamp discovery work focused on actively listening to the people who know your brand best and to the people who you want to know better. In-depth stories about their real lives, pain points, what they find funny or stressful, or what qualifies as a huge win all matter for the way your brand will communicate with them. We ask about what keeps them up at night. The first time they met you. The most memorable thing you’ve ever done for them. And the answers are always a little more personal and left-field than you might guess. Fortunately, we have yet to work with clients selling anything with artificial sweeteners, and usually our brand stakeholder contacts are sharing happy stories about clients, not embarrassing or stressful ones. 

Think about meeting your partner’s boss for dinner the first time. Perhaps, wanting to make a good impression, you ask your partner about what that person enjoys in their spare time. Are there seemingly benign topics you should try to avoid? It’s probably much easier for you to get a sense of that person based on your partner’s personal description than it would be for you to hear a more formulaic one with their boss’s age, hometown, and resume. 

In the setup for this scenario, I’ve used several relatable elements to create stakes: “the boss” as an archetypal authority figure; “the first time” locating the situation in unfamiliar territory; “the partner” as someone you want to support and please by making a good impression with the person theoretically in charge of their livelihood. We’ve also alluded to dinner: a social situation where there are expectations of decorum or formality, but with new dinner partners, expectations could easily be mismatched.

Which begs another point: yes, quantitative data helps us make useful generalizations based on the aggregate of your audience’s behavior patterns. They live in major cities. They’re between the ages of 40 and 50. They are moderate investors in their 401k, but probably won’t have enough to retire comfortably at 65 based on their current income. They tend to purchase non-dairy milk. It’s not that you wouldn’t learn things from those data points, but it wouldn’t tell you the whole story. It’s not the same as knowing a person up close. It reminds me of the different verbs for “knowing” in Spanish: saber, for knowledge of facts; conocer for familiarity with a person. Brands need to have both when it comes to their customers.

These verifiable, aggregate data points don’t give me the rich qualitative details about what audiences are thinking when they are making eye contact with themselves in the bathroom mirror before they go to sleep. It doesn’t tell me about the stress they are dealing with at work, or the rituals around their guilty pleasure. In today’s data-driven world where machine learning and the constant tracking of human behavior are certainly driving and shaping our economy, attention to the human stories helps create that coveted authenticity that can make or break brands. Irrational human consumers are often predictable, but not robotic.

As we develop brand systems, we use a both/and approach to data collection, triangulating both qualitative and quantitative insights to build a richer picture of what audiences want and need. Verifiable aggregate data points and deeper personal stories used in tandem can ground a brand’s system in more informed and strategic narratives designed around real problems, real solutions, and relatable situations. 

Think of the data as a bird’s eye view—a GPS tracking the flow of traffic and showing you where a traffic jam is happening. The story on the ground is much more specific and personal. Is the traffic jam happening because of an accident or construction? To accurately report on that story and guide your audiences in the right direction, you’ll need information from both perspectives. 

Ready to dive into what your audiences are looking for both on the surface and at deeper levels? Let’s chat: