A Question of Insight

29th October 2014

All progress in life is based on killer questions.

They are the challenges which make us think about what we do. They make us reconsider choices.

I was recently bemoaning a period in my life where I could not end relationships. Even though I knew things were at an end, I did not want to cut the cord. I did not want to finish things. ‘I can’t end relationships with people I have loved’ I said. I was secretly proud of the trait, perhaps.

‘What about Rufus?’ my friend asked me, referring to my beloved mutt of twelve years whom I was forced to traipse to the vet, one last solemn time. ‘When the moment came, did you put him down? Were you able to end that relationship?’

A beat passed. I caught my breath. The killer question had fallen.

In marketing, we spend most of our thinking time deliberating over the killer question. This has often been interpreted as one-sided insight; where we gather information about ‘consumers’ as a way to, perhaps, manipulate their behaviour. To know something secret about them that might give us power; an unfair advantage.

This is a false read on the true purpose of marketing. Our job is not to hold insight for ourselves, but rather to provoke insight among the people we serve: our customers.

I do not claim that we live up to this promise all of the time. But when we do, we find true success.

Like any good friend, brands need to listen carefully so that they can ask the killer question.

Some categories do this particularly well.

In 2010, the Sussex Safer Roads Partnership posed a killer question in visuals, when their TV commercial laid bare the price of poor driving. A slow motion road tragedy seemed to unfold, until the inept protagonist was rescued by the intervention of the people he loved most. Under the banner ’embrace life’, the Partnership’s question was this: who cares if you die?

Patagonia, an American outdoor apparel brand, takes its commitment to the environment seriously. This is not just a pose, it is a philosophy which informs their way of doing business. Their online homepage is a challenging example: don’t buy this jacket. Behind the blunt order is a killer question, a call to challenge consumerism, and to recycle and make do before we start purchasing new stuff.

Bob Geldof’s confrontational style, honoured to orgiastic levels in a recent New York Times profile, was at its best when he asked blunt questions. For that brief period in the 1980s when he commanded attention, he did so by asking the toughies. About Africa. About politics. About priorities. The title of his Live Aid autobiography itself posed a killer question: Is that it?

There is so much that is bland and wishy washy in the chit chat of our lives. Don’t you sometimes yearn for that killer question? The one that allows you, in some tiny way, to progress?
© Brian McIntyre. 2014

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