Understanding the Situations in People’s Lives Leads to Better Marketing




On Super Bowl Sunday, everyone in the brand marketing world is glued to their TVs to check out…the commercials. Which spots will stand out? Which ones will flop? At least one brand has nailed it again and again: Snickers.

There’s a reason why the Snickers “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry” campaign doesn’t get old (and even celebrities want a piece of it). And it’s not just because it was hilarious, last year, seeing a sinewy Willem Dafoe play Marilyn Monroe, or the year prior, a burly Danny Trejo personify Marcia Brady. Yes, the creative is awesome (the latter won the first-ever Super Clio in 2015). But more than anything it is the insight that people don’t always act according to their “type” that keeps this big idea from growing as stale as an expired candy bar.

Beyond just the functional aspect of a Snickers bar providing a solution (albeit a dubious one) for satiating hunger, the first part of the phrase—“you’re not you when… “ is a vital insight about the human experience that no amount of demographic research or personal data can reveal: You are not “you” (and certainly not a marketer’s version of “you”) during a good portion of your day. You’re not you when you’re stuck in traffic commuting to work—you’re like everyone else on the Interstate: a raging lunatic. You’re not you when you just blew a new client presentation—you’re feeling deflated, just like everyone else on your team, whether you’re a Millennial or a Boomer; whether you make $35,000 or $500,000. No matter who you are on paper or how you describe yourself to others or what your digital profile may be, it is the situation and mood you are in, and consequently your motivations to react, that drive your behavior—and that’s what many modern marketers, as obsessed as they are with personalization, are often missing.

We’ve gotten better over the years. At least we’re not stuck on demographics like we used to be, targeting, say, diapers to moms and beer to young men (oh, wait a minute…). With psychographic data we can better understand a consumer’s personality—their lifestyles, interests, and habits, allowing us to create much more nuanced messaging and marketing strategies. But let’s not fool ourselves: People don’t always act the way their Facebook profile or their purchase history may lead us to believe they do. Situations can trump psychographic data in a heartbeat (and I don’t use the word “trump” lightly here; think about all the people who voted for Trump because of their life situations, who may not otherwise act like supporters).

We’ve seen these contradictions in our own research at Halverson Group. In a recent study that we conducted for a fast-growing health-food snack company, we asked 2,000 people about their attitudes toward healthy eating and their behaviors across 24 different life situations (from carting kids around to entertaining at home). We learned that while 24 percent of the people surveyed said it’s extremely important to lead a healthy lifestyle on a daily basis, when the same people were asked about how they ate in the past week, they reported making poor choices in more than one-third of situations. Moreover, the situations in which they were eating influenced their ability to stick to their values: when watching TV, they made “less-than-ideal” choices 43 percent of the time, and when commuting, this went up to 44 percent.

What does this tell us? Life situations—and how they change people’s motivations for taking action—can matter more than people’s strongest held values and attitudes.

What’s really at the heart of all this is the importance of understanding people’s underlying motivations as they pertain to their life situations. At Halverson Group, we refer to these deeper motivations as “jobs” and when it comes to snack foods, some of the motives people have for “hiring” snacks include “Being a Little Bad” or to “Cut Myself Some Slack.” Understanding these jobs and how they are linked to people’s lives is in many ways more important than what they bought online yesterday or what they “liked” on Facebook. People are multi-faceted and have different motivations in different situations. Snickers has tapped into this idea and created a brilliant campaign based on this insight.

Whether you are developing a creative brief or thinking about product innovation, remember that it is the deeper truths about being human that will resonate with consumers more than data—even when the data is about them. This approach means taking the longer view, creating advertising and products that are not about trends or purchase history or Facebook updates, but about people and their lives.

In the meantime, we are looking forward to seeing what Snickers has in store for us at the Super Bowl. We have a feeling it will be satisfying.