Marketers need to become better listeners

For a nation of supposedly taciturn people, we are surprisingly forward when it comes to the dark art of promoting ourselves via advertising. Of all nations in the world, only seven outspend New Zealand on advertising in per capita terms, and in 2015, we clocked up a rather impressive $515 of spend in the sector for every man, woman and child in the country. 

And it turns out we’re actually pretty good at making the stuff as well. Campaign Brief recently reported New Zealand as the third most creative country in the world, with our agencies and creative directors regularly taking out top spots on global awards lists. Indeed, we could say that as a nation we have a potential competitive advantage present in our capacity for utilising creativity in business.

What we are not so good at, however, is listening to and understanding ourselves. While we nearly top the world in the per capita amount we spend on advertising, we are underweight in what we invest in insight. For every person in the country, we spend about $25 on research and analytics per annum. Or, in relative terms to our advertising spend, for every $1 we spend on talking, we spend fewer than five cents on listening. A ratio that’s about half what is spent in the US and about a quarter of what’s spent in the UK.

Now this to me is fascinating, because what it says is that we as a marketing industry are either so in touch with our own culture and society that we simply do not require further insight to guide our creative endeavours, or else we are in a more dangerous place where we’re making some pretty big assumptions about ourselves based on limited empirical knowledge. And if it’s the latter, then given our creative bent, we are missing a fundamental opportunity for growth in how we think about channelling our competitive advantage in creativity.

What we see in our conversations with both people on the street and those in the business and marketing communities is that we often feel like we understand what it means to be a Kiwi because we have such a deeply ingrained idea of what we expect ourselves to be – even if there is little evidence to support this. And of course, we tend to hang out with people like ourselves quite a lot, which can further cement our views that our own experience is more broadly definitive of the culture we live in. And while this could be seen as fairly true for a lot of countries, it is especially true of New Zealand because of our status as a small, isolated, but highly developed economy.

As a society, we see ourselves through a strongly idealised set of historic beliefs and ideals, often supported and enhanced by our strong advertising industry. A group of bold pioneers, ingeniously taming our rural heartlands, sating our desires with rugby, beer and ice-cream. But even a cursory glance at the numbers around our society throws our central ideas into question: 86 percent of our population lives in an urban area (even more than the USA), and beer volumes have declined by a third since the mid-1970s. On top of this, we are a far more diverse bunch in New Zealand than we think. A quarter of the entire population, and 39 percent of all Aucklanders, were born overseas. And with 200 ethnic groups living in Auckland alone, the city is now more diverse than Sydney or London. 

And things continue to evolve fairly rapidly with our very high net migration figures. For example, the number of Hindi speakers in the country has tripled since 2001, and it’s now our fourth most-spoken language.

Indeed, based on the rate of change in the population of New Zealand, and the imbalance between advertising and research spend, there is a good chance we are becoming less customer-centric as a business community rather than more. As our broad-brush stroke ideas of what it means to be Kiwi, and what we believe this means for service and product delivery become less relevant, where does that leave us? It feels like, collectively, we are veering toward a space where we are in danger of losing connection with the society we exist to serve.

It feels like a good time for us as a marketing community to start questioning our own knowledge about what it means to be a New Zealander, and start to consider what a revised view might look like, given what we know about how the country is changing.

One thing we know very clearly, from both our own work and the evidence emerging from the cognitive sciences, is that context is everything when we look to understand why people behave and make decisions the way they do. And critical to this are the big ideas of how our culture is shifting under the impact of prevailing social movements and population changes. By spending more time understanding how these impacts are shifting our guiding norms and ideas, we are much more likely to find a way of meaningfully connecting with people via our marketing and advertising activity. And in this, potentially a more powerful way of directing our impressive creative talents to great effect.

It is in this space we can find the power to redefine what it means to be a New Zealander and help push our culture along.

  • Andrew Lewis, co-founder and managing director of TRA
  • This column first appeared in the Agency Issue of NZ Marketing (subscribe here).

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