What CEOs Can Learn From Siberian Teenagers

Understanding people through direct experience has become a forgotten part of American business. Here's how strangers can and should help shape brands.

As I crawled up to the 19th floor, stumbling over broken glass, old beer cans, rat droppings, and a smell that made me gag, I found my way to apartment number 19294—my home for the next two days. The doorbell was broken, and the door was barred like the vault of a national bank. I knocked loud enough to be heard, I hoped, above the blasting music. I was welcomed by three young Russian teenage boys—they were expecting me.

Over the next couple of days I was to live alongside these guys. I would eat with them, go to work with them, and join them on random outings with an emphasis on finding girls. I would live as much like them as possible. Throughout the process I surreptitiously took notes, shot hundreds of photos, and slowly began to get an inkling of how teenagers in Siberia live.

This was not the first such home I had visited. Over two weeks I'd traveled from city to city, spending days with different groups of young men in their own environments.

I'm a person who's comfortable onstage running workshops for hundreds, if not thousands of people. I am used to frequenting wood-paneled boardrooms and genteel restaurants. For this trip, I seriously dressed down—removing my limited-edition watch and exchanging my smartphone for a local brand I'd never even heard of. All I carried was a plastic bag with the necessities of life—a disposable shaver, a tube of local toothpaste, and some non-branded underwear.

My mission was to determine the emotional space a new vodka brand could successfully occupy, in a market of more than 3,000 different brands containing 5,000 different flavors (yes, you read correctly)—undoubtedly the most competitive vodka market in the world.

The job wasn't unusual for me. I dove into it as soon as I became aware that the corporate world has lost contact with their bosses—the nameless, faceless army of consumers. Ask any CEO when they last spent time with those who use their brands, particularly in the consumers' home environment; I don't think I'd be too far off the mark if the typical response would be a blank stare.

If this scenario were only applied to the CEO, the problem wouldn't be that serious. However, neither the CMO nor the innovation and operations people would know any better what I am talking about. Not even the research or agency people would know much more. Just spending time with a niece or an uncle is not enough. Wives, good friends, and children do not count. Neither does spending a couple of hours with a focus group. I'm talking quality time, in the home of the consumer, sharing their life.

We've become accustomed to reading reports, following statistics, studying trend overviews, and spending time with endless focus group interviews. Yet the sad reality is that few people in business really know the consumer any more. We think we're in contact, but in the same way we all may feel young inside, time has well and truly moved on. Ethnographic visits, as some call this approach, is not so much about interviewing but about listening, observing, then supporting the observations with well-placed questions to help make sense of it all.

I've spent time with pregnant women in Brazil, mothers with a whole lot of kids in France, coffee drinkers in the Philippines, bankers in Germany, soda drinkers in the U.S., and cheese buffs in Denmark. Immersed in the diversity of people, nationalities, cultural orientations, something shifted for me. I've begun focusing on subtext and have become pretty good at reading between the lines. I catch the mother nursing her young baby take a quick glance at her cell phone to see if she has any messages—a small detail that would no doubt be of interest to baby food manufacturers who want to target their messages.

I notice the small details that make a big difference, like the Chinese family who wraps all their remote controls in plastic. This fact may come in handy when companies develop new remotes. Then there was the case of three Russian guys who, in a drunken moment, admitted to hating the taste of vodka.

Which brings me back to Siberia. In the two days I spent with the teens, I began to get a good sense of their lives. I got a sense of what triggered their emotions. I got a little closer to understanding what a vodka company needs to do to stand out in the crowd of 2,999 other vodka brands. I learned the psychology of the cheering ritual, the pressure young Russian men are under when going out, and their (often disturbing) family situations. I understood the decision-making processes at play in buying one vodka brand over another.

Over the many hundreds of ethnographic visits I've made over the years, I'm slowly realizing that my instincts have improved quite dramatically. Even before I knocked on the front door of the apartment in Siberia, I knew what I had to look for. And then I knew what it meant for the brand. It's not something that happens overnight, rather it's a skill that you develop over time.

If you really believe that the consumer is your boss—and you should in light of the fact that at the end of the day, the consumer is contributing to your paycheck—then surely it makes a whole lot of sense to spend time with them. "I'm too busy," they may interject. Well, what they need to consider is if they can actually afford not to. The reality is that as we've become increasingly time poor, we may be failing in our primary objective—to build brands which people really care for. So, get out there! The worst that can happen is that you learn what life is all about. It's something that I continue to do, and I do not regret it for one moment.

Martin Lindstrom is a 2009 recipient of TIME Magazine's "World's 100 Most Influential People" and author of Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy (Doubleday, New York), a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best–seller. His latest book, Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy, will be released in September. A frequent advisor to heads of numerous Fortune 100 companies, Lindstrom has also authored 5 best-sellers translated into 30 languages. More at martinlindstrom.com.

Read more by Lindstrom: Kids Don't Read The Bible Any More

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10 Comments

  • KaliKross

    How typical of marketing to overlook ethics in favor of a ROI (and to provide the illusion that the practices benefit the people whose lives it destroys.)

  • David Kaiser, PhD

    Cool project. Interesting form of market research. I'm curious, did they speak English? Do you know Russian? Did you have an interpreter? lastly, given that the project was about drinking vodka, i wold imagine there was quite a bit of pressure on you to join the fun, which on the one hand, would get you more INTO the experience, but might leave you less able to make any sense of it later due to clouded judgment and perception.

    David Kaiser, PhD
    Time Coach
    www.DarkMatterConsulting.com
     

  • Sabra

    You spent time with these boys, learning how the vodka company can better market hard alcohol to impoverished underage drinkers? Awesome. High fives all around.

  • Vinny Tafuro

    In just two days you began to get a good sense of their lives? I do not know how that is possible. While your primary concern is their Vodka preference what factors came up during those two day to make any comprehensive observations possible?
    Using my own preferences as an example. Is it football season where mass produced domestic beer goes well with wings and friends? What about the month of March where I seem to migrate (at least in spirit) to Ireland for the month? Of course my Mad Men era mood is satisfied with Makers Mark and I rarely go a week without some craft beer experience especially from our local brewers. There is also a more then occasional visit to a Russian themed bar with a great selection Vodkas to sample, one of which is a favorite I share with anyone I bring there.

    Which two days should we go have a drink together?

  • Gerald Goldschein

    I believe Martin is pointing out the tip of the iceberg. The only thing anyone in upper management seems to be interested in, is elevating their own status by reducing the status of all who surround them. The word all refers to the company's customers as well as their employees. Ask Warren Buffet what his biggest interest is. Yes making more money, however he not only wants to make more money he wants the percentage of made money to continually go up. Think about the cutthroat actions the managers in his empire have to utilize!

  • Teddy

    While Martin's writing style is clever and entertaining at times, to be honest, I don't get it.  What can CEOs learn from Siberian teenagers?  That they need to understand the consumer...?  Wow. Groundbreaking.

    It seems to me this article is more of a veiled play on "Martin Lindstrom is such a cool, dynamic guy!"  He's traveled the world, can relate to all types of people, notices the little things that matter and "knows what life is all about".  Preach on brother.

  • GITANAJAVA

    I love being affirmed, especially by my fave biz-zines, Fast Company!  For another take on common-sense marketing research, http://gitanajava.blogspot.com....

    Edward Deming and E. F. Schumacher are still shooting bull's-eyes, decades and generations after their heyday.

  • Nick Mrozowski

    This sounds like great advice for anyone in any field: get out and get to know the people you are selling to, the people you represent, the people whose lives you work to save. It can make a significant difference in how you approach your work - and certainly improve its efficacy as well.

    This is also a great example for anyone out there studying anthropology that the intelligence you develop in that field (conducting field work, ethnographies, studying folks in generally) is applicable beyond just the academic world, but in the business world as well.

    I will have to share this with my school's anthropology students to remind them of the value of their skills and just how broad their horizons are. Thank you for the great article!

  • Jym Allyn

    What Martin is really learning from studying the vodka consumption of Russian teenagers is the impending total collapse of the non-criminal Russian economy.  At least these teens were into booze as opposed to heroin which is now becoming more of a problem for Russia than alcoholism.

    Heroin is the "Russian bonus baby" resulting from their invasion of Afghanistan.  It is the major market for the heroin coming out of Afghanistan and the reason why we can't seal the borders (or just simply destroy the crop) because the "government" of Russia would be hurt by the reduction of its (criminal) revenue.

    The ironic solution to our getting out of Afghanistan is for us to "sell" Afghanistan to its next door neighbor China which not only has the proximity and military resources and cultural skill to deal with insurgencies, they also have the finances and engineering skill to access the billions of mineral resources in the NE Afghan mountains.

    As to Russia, they need a "cultural revolution" that will destroy the criminality that ran that country under the guise of "Communism" and now is just plain criminal.

  • Marion Ette

    Fantastic insight into what's wrong with the ad industry! Brands are bankrolling overpaid consultants to travel the world in the name of research to help them market vodka to poverty-stricken Russian teenagers. Moral objections aside, surely this kind of approach falls under the category of 'no brainer'?