The power of perspective

We’ve been conducting a lot of work recently for one of New Zealand’s biggest sporting bodies, looking to understand what strategies can be employed to grow ‘bums on seats’ at matches. 

Through all this work it turns out that the sports match itself is not a huge part of why people choose to attend games at the ground or not, or even what spectators talk about when they’re describing their experience of the event later. Indeed, for all but the most hardened fans, the sport itself isn’t important at all, something past visitors to the Carisbrook terraces were probably already keenly aware of.

What drives attendance comes down much more to how fun people think the event will be as a day out; how effective it will be as a vehicle for socialising with their friends or family, and how much it is believed to offer in the way of entertainment (again, see Carisbrook). 

Even more interestingly, the people who actually make the effort to go to the ground aren’t the biggest fans of the game at all. What they are, are people who like to go out to things. The same segment of the population who go to sports matches also go to things like movies, the theatre and even the zoo.  

All of which is fascinating, because what it suggests is that growing attendance for this sport code is really about competing in the ‘going out’ market for the casual punter’s entertainment dollar. It’s not about hardcore fans, and it’s certainly not about sport vs. sport competition. 

This is one example, but when built from the consumer viewpoint, we see this sort of wildly divergent competitive set forming all the time. Lotto tickets compete more with bottles of wine on a Friday night or a gossip magazine than they do with the TAB; buying a Mini is more about a ticket to a lifestyle than any direct comparison to any other car; and cigarettes share a lot of commonality with chocolate in the role they play. 

Now, these findings probably make a lot of intuitive sense to you on cursory examination. We are, after all, consumers ourselves. But what’s interesting is how little internal business thinking tends to mirror these ideas. Even though we know intuitively how things compete, we don’t see this reflected very often in strategic brand plans or communication briefs. What is seen is mostly a competitive set and target consumer that reflects the kind of internal category constructs that guide a business. 

It’s almost as if we forget our intuitive sense as soon as we start looking at a product or service every day, from the inside. Of course “forget” is the wrong word. What this internally-centric view on competition actually represents is a great example of Robin Hogath’s ‘Curse of Knowledge’, a cognitive bias, where better-informed people find it extremely difficult to think about problems or concepts from the perspective of lesser-informed people. The upshot of this curse is that people working with products or services every day end up in a position where they can’t relate to the way ordinary people think about these things and don’t have the necessary perspective to execute it in a way that makes sense intuitively to them.

Perspective is the key word here. When big breakthroughs happen in markets, when competition is redefined by product innovations or campaigns, it’s generally because someone has found a new way of looking at the way consumers are acting in a category, which captures the core of what they are trying to achieve with a product or service. Adult ice-cream brands, the Walkman and disposable nappies all have highly celebrated case studies that reflect this ‘eureka’ moment of perspective being achieved.

Despite the huge successes perspective can bring a business, we seldom look for it proactively. Business innovation processes tend to exacerbate the issue (get a bunch of people suffering from the Curse of Knowledge to brainstorm ideas in a room?) and our approach to gathering information via market research is often no better, given we focus our time with consumers on answering some very direct questions on a problem, rather than observing how they are acting, or spending time really understanding them.

To be effective at what we do, there is a real need to ‘get outside ourselves’ from time to time, look at things through fresh eyes and rediscover our own intuitive view of how things work.  

It’s then that we understand how the world truly operates.

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