To Connect With Consumers, Ditch The Focus Groups. Try Acting Instead

Like a method actor, pretend you’re the consumer. Then, ditch the empathy and adopt blind confidence in the decisions you’ve made, argues Michael Raisanen.

Some months ago, I wrote an article here where I claimed that market research data is overrated, especially when it comes to innovative products and services. An innovation is new and original, so by definition, it departs from users’ experiences and behavior. Consequently, it is hard to establish quantitatively how to market it. Unfortunately, I didn’t offer up any viable alternative methods to surveys and focus groups. So how do you manage product development and brand and marketing decisions without relying on numbers?

I believe one of the most powerful methods for synching up your brand with the zeitgeist, or people’s unrealized wants and needs, is by tapping into good old-fashioned empathy. You may wonder how to institute empathy as a capability in the marketing department. Empathy cannot be mapped and measured empirically. Nor is it an activity that you can clock in at work and start "doing" like market research, design, or project management.

Spock: The master of empathy, thanks to his own process.

So what is empathy, and why does it matter?

Well, according to the dictionary in my Mac, it is "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another." I think that "share" is the most important part of this definition, the ability to remotely experience the same feelings as someone else. So what happens when we empathize with the average consumer out there, or at least with the psychographically defined target demographic? Consumer choices and purchase decisions are emotionally driven. Even what appears to be the most strategic, rational, and dry business-to-business purchase is usually grounded in nonrational impulse, a feeling. Rationale is usually only added later to justify the choice.

So if we can feel what they feel, then logically we can react to new information and stimuli, i.e., branded products and services, in their emotional shoes as well. So ideally, this would consequently mean that market research can be done, well, telepathically.

Here’s the point where we can get all philosophical about objectivity vs. subjectivity; because if an objective reality doesn’t exist, then that must mean that empathy is magic, since every man is an island. Right? Or put it this way: How could Steve Jobs assume that just because the design of a UX icon was "lickable" to him, that it would be just as "lickable" to the ordinary masses of the world? The answer is that he obviously believed in certain absolute values humans share with one another that enable us to analyze and assess the world. That insight, I believe, is ultimately what gave him the confidence to know which icon design choice was "right."

How do you do it? As stated earlier, empathy is not something that management decrees as a new practice. It is a human ability. So instead of asking "how," I think it probably makes more sense to start by asking "who." Now most people have the capacity to feel empathy, however, some people are better at it than others. Also, it helps to be able to empathize on demand. I would suggest that imagination and creativity are the fundamental ingredients to empathy. How else do you project yourself and conjure up an emotional scenario? It’s like method acting, where actors have to "be" the characters they are playing. Writers, directors, designers, and musicians, people in professions that require imaginative and creative capabilities, are usually a good bet. Of course, they also need to understand marketing, products, and services in order to develop the next big thing, or at least something that people will respond well to. The good news is that you’re probably one of those people with the imagination and know-how to tap into your target consumer if you believe you can.


Branding through empathy requires a lot of courage, because after all, your strategy will be based on a hunch or an intuition. Like all decisions it should be founded on solid and extensive research. However, be wary of consumer surveys and focus groups to guide your decisions. As Steve Jobs said, when asked what market research went into creating the iPad: "None. It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want." What it does take, on the other hand, is courage and a clear, consistent expression of your vision. Be brave enough to trust something as soft, new age, and hippy-dippy that as humans we can share feelings with one another.

First Empathy, then go Alpha

Once you are ready to face the market, the trick is for the brand to project almost blind confidence. This may appear to fly in the face of the whole empathy thing and seem more akin to brand as sociopath. It also doesn’t jibe with the current wisdom of today’s social media environment, with brands overreacting to the strong opinions of a few loudmouthed "influencers." However, people are attracted to leaders. We like unambiguous, declarative, clear, and strong statements. So even if empathy enabled you to create a strong brand, when it is time to face the consumer, you might want to turn up the charisma levels to 11. Eventually, people will come around.

Or I should say, they’ll come around if you empathized enough.

[Image: nicemonkey/Shutterstock]

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  • Norahayes

    Ethnographic-based research is a powerful tool and it shines a light on those corners of the problem or user/customer experience that they may not be aware of at a conscious level. Whether you call it empathy or ethnography, it's starting from someone else's experience instead of a script. Thanks!

  • Karen Post

    The best article I've read in 52 years. Currently working with a good client with big dreams, unfortunately they have an old school research director who may limit their very bright future. She probably would have fired Steve Jobs too.

  • John Paul Narowski

    Great thoughts, Michael. 

    I agree that crawling into your customers' minds and empathizing with them is the first step to creating the right customer experience. It's your job to know what they want, before they have to tell you. Like you said, the ability to share their feelings is key - the shortest distance between a contact and a loyal customer is considering their perspective - it informs how you deliver service, how you sell, and how you refine your product for the future. 

    Too many companies view customers from a management perspective, instead of a relationship-building perspective. Open, honest and flexible relationships are the best way to foster trust. Love your customers, and your customers will love your brand. 

    John-Paul Narowski, Founder - karmaCRM

  • Jagdeep Sahni

    Enjoyed the reminder of using immersion/anthropology as a marketing technique to complement the over-used technique of marketing research - through method acting. The key learning for me was going alpha post-decision. Unanswered questions that should be addressed are how do you apply empathy when the consumer segment is something you cannot relate to through empathy like the dimensions of gender, generation, cultural segment etc.

  • Michele Price

    Interesting as I have been asking a great question for years on #BBSradio that gives Spock's mind meld as an example for my "#BrainDownload."

    I do not see this as employing tricks - interesting perspective.  Appreciated the reminder to tap into the "moment before."

    What is available though is the possibility by recognizing that all great minds have tapping into the genius mind to be able come up with breakthroughs through out history.  ASKing the question - how can I experience that genius mind from having a braindownload from Einstein or Marie Curie at least points us in a better direction.

    It would be fascinating to look at what lead up to innovations like the telephone, electricity, and even the ipad to uncover what truly allowed for those breakthroughs being developed.  Expand the thinking - experience a #BrainDownload could be the answers we are looking for in today's world.

  • Vesa M

    I guess that in Fenno-Scandia we have a bit different tradition regarding user research than US (more co-design). User data is more for an inspiration than an universal truth that can be deduced to right decisions.

    You have to use methods where you believe the user. And in parallel with them you have to use methods that you do not believe them (that is: what they say).

    If you produce just what users except you the product won't be a big success. To impress the users the product needs to change the way they think.

    Not having data and just emphasizing usually just leads to stronger stereotypes.


    While back 1st season of American Inventor was aired here. I was amazed to see how designers took literally what the focus group commented. Some one in focus group commented an exercising device that she would want to have a training DVD with it. "All other exercising devices have that". And DVD is what they bundled with the device. **Now it was more like every other device in market.**

    What did she really say? Was she worried that she would not know how to use the device without DVD? Or does DVD help her to keep up with the routine? Or was it a requirement for exercising tool (since consumers do not have skills and knowledge to analyze if the device is really effective or not).How about for example no DVD but training videos in youtube? They could double as marketing and be cheaper to distribute.

    You should believe that user has an issue with DVD's. But to see how to solve the lack of DVD's you need to dig deeper.---Jared M Spool has a wonderful presentation about design style decisions:

    Basically: self design ("this is the way I like it") is one way to go but there are not too many Steve Jobs' out there. To one who cuts it with self design there are 1000's who do not. When you build first MVP of a product you start off with assumptions that are based much on self design.

  • Craig Thompson

    Design is for the user, you can design it with empathy of course, (haven't we always been trying to get inside users heads and 'think like them') but ignoring feedback is strange. Some modern businesses are operating with greater transparency to great effect. What you are suggesting is the opposite, employing "tricks" and ignoring their voice. I hold more trust in user feedback, transparency and collaboration, than in hunches, intuition and blind confidence. 

  • Carey Candrian

    Interesting take. I really like your idea of incorporating empathy into the design process although I would take an empathic attitude further in order for example to understand what it would it feel like, sound like, smell like for someone to be in a particular space, and how that information would translate back into design plans. Like the comment below, I agree about the research piece, however I do like your enthusiasm to incorporate roll play scenarios to facilitate learning and creativity. It adds a unique perspective to design.

  • Rob Brown

    I'm sorry, but I get more than a little cynical when I see the CEO of a creative agency pan research - what a shock! 

    There's a false premise at work here - that research is useful only for exploring and quantifying consumers' past experiences and behaviors.  Nonsense!  Good research, both qualitative AND quantitative focuses attention to unerlying needs and wants.  If that's not been your experience with research, Mr. Raisanen, that's too bad - you've missed out.

    The idea that focus groups, or research in general, should be "ditched" in favor of emphathy exercises is just ridiculous.  The two displines should compliment one another - there's really no need for the dichotomy framed up in this article.

  • Keith Bossey

    Michael, I agree with you to a point. My friend and I were discussing the rush to hold Apple up as an example of innovation without consumer research, and we both agreed that its b.s. Apple created products that the people who worked at Apple would love and use. They basically had a built in community of consumers testing everything they did. Most companies don't have that luxury - they sell to people unlike themselves. Secondly, in order to empathize, you must first understand. Great method actors would essentially do ethnography, they would immerse themselves in their character's world in order to empathize. When done well, and used correctly, research provides the understanding needed to empathize.

  • blake mendez

    well thought out michael!  love your line about, "...the ability to remotely experience the same feelings as someone else."  have you read michael talbot's "the holographic universe" lately? 

    our collective human evolution will transcend profits and focus energy towards maintaining balance with our planet and our human brethren.  humanity's troubles come from greed, intolerance, and destruction, not peace, love, and happiness. 

    employers would create more sustainable creative growth from allowing each employee personal space to transcendentally meditate 15 minutes twice a day.  we have a couch and love seat room with abstract paintings that works well.

    blake mendez

  • Rob Biesenbach

    Love this! The world of acting holds all kinds of lessons for connecting with consumers and audiences of any kind. Getting inside their heads, yes -- also telling stories, tapping into emotion, "humanizing" yourself.

    There's a concept in acting called "the moment before," describing what goes on before the scene the audience actually sees. In the moment before the actor works to immerse himself in the world of the play or film and put himself in the mind and heart of the character. So when the performance starts, the audience accepts him as a natural, organic part of the story. Kind of like the Vulcan mind-meld, I suppose.

    More info at my twitter link if you're interested.

  • Fergus

    You're dead right on one level, it isn't a consumers job to know what he wants. But by imagining that you know better than consumers you end up with products like the Ford Scorpio (monstrous looking melted frog of a car that ended Ford's involvement in the 'large' car segment in Europe) they famously decided to ignore poor clinic results because the respondents weren't 'advanced' enough. 
    There is a very good reason that firms use focus groups and surveys, where it goes wrong is exactly what you stated in your first article: asking the wrong questions or misinterpreting the data - and more to the point thinking that market research is the ONLY tool. I'm a researcher and I would never urge a client to rely solely on consumer insight, it has to part of a suite of input.
    I agree with you strongly on your main issue: Too many good, creative ideas have been squashed using research, good friends of mine have fine ideas ruined by blind adherence to bad research.
    The answer is not no focus groups or surveys, the answer is better researchers. Ask the right questions, interpret the data 'empathetically', use it as a springboard to creativity and then trust your instincts.

  • Best Guest

    I've always thought that the age-old abilities of artists (incl musicians, actors, writers) have been overlooked because they aren't quantifiable. But these people spend every day, year after year learning to develop empathy for their audience - to see the artist's work as an outsider would see it. It may not be a perfect process, but neither are focus groups or data collection.

  • Ron Sparks

    When I was on a uer experience team we called this a cog walk, we would even do this ask a team or in front of a team to take others through the experience.

    It's another tool for understanding and communicating ideas.

    This was a refreshing read