Great planning starts with understanding people and developing insights through the lens of their humanity, says BBDO Asia’s Andy Wilson, judge of the 2018 WARC Prize for Asian Strategy.

If you enjoy watching people, chances are that you are you going to enjoy planning. Imagine yourself at a large stadium taking in a game, or a music concert. Or perhaps you are on a crowded commuter train. Or a busy market. Or maybe in a Sephora or a UNIQLO on a Saturday afternoon. You are surrounded by a kaleidoscope of people of all ages, shapes, sizes and colours. A vast and diverse of humanity on display. It is this wonderfully assorted, messy array of people that is crudely reduced to that single artificial label, the consumer.

Look through the blur of the crowd and tune into the individuals themselves. The clothes they are wearing, the way they are talking, the expressions on their faces.

And then start imagining the stories behind each and every one of the people you see. What has brought them to where they are right now, right here? What’s going through their minds right now? Are they sad? Are they excited? Are they happy? Are they bored? What are they yearning for? What makes them feel scared and insecure? What’s their first childhood memory? What’s their favourite music? Are they silently grieving a lost loved one? Are they lost in the wondrous joy of love? What’s their darkest secret? What are they going to eat later tonight? When did they last pray?

Brands must be memorable, relevant and useful

Every person is a copy of no one. Their lives flow like rivers, fast and slow, each with their own twists and turns, containing unique adventures, rich in character and constantly changing. It is into these rivers we must position our brands to make them seem memorable, relevant and useful.

Planning starts with people. It starts by accepting and embracing the diverse, messy and unpredictable humanity that drives each of us through our lives and our days. Planning requires us to understand the profound and fleeting forces of nature, society, culture and media that move us to think and act the way we do.

It is people that move business. And it is the brand’s ideas, stories and creativity that move people. Planning’s primary role is to understand people as fully as possible, to help us encourage them to notice, remember, enquire, try, buy, experience, share, and recommend our products, services and brands.

The better we can understand the people we are trying to reach, the better the strategies and the planning.

Modern marketing has become overloaded with jargon, labels and data. This has the effect of dehumanising the people we want to reach. The best planning unapologetically inserts our humanity into the conversation in ways that surprise and connect. It is here that interesting insight waits to be discovered.

A great example comes from Nippon Pylox, a brand of spray paint. Who on earth might need a spray paint? And how do you reach them, with virtually no marketing budget?

With some clever and resourceful investigation, the planning team found out who. Cosplayers, that’s who. A group of tightly connected, passionate and creative young people who love anime and comic strip heroes and create costumes and props at home so they can dress up as their favourite characters, congregate and celebrate their shared passion. Spray paint is an essential tool to create their out-of-this world costumes to express themselves.

The team had clearly defined an audience, classified not by demographics but by a shared passion and potential need for the Pylox brand. Using Facebook Insights and other data sources, it could estimate the size of the audience. It could figure out where and how to reach this community, and identify the most effective influencers. And it could create content that would appeal to their distinctive and rich humanity. Great planning, and the foundation of a very effective communications campaign.

The stronger you embrace your audience’s needs and desires, the further you can go beyond communications to invent new experiences, new design, new products, new strategies and new business models. By vividly representing the conscience of the consumer, planning instills the strategic and creative confidence that is the critical underpinning of radical disruption.

In India, Saregama revitalised its massive bank of yesteryear’s favourite Bollywood music tracks by reselling them to an older generation in a new form that would suit their needs. Under the promise of “fully loaded nostalgia inside; simple radio outside”, every aspect of the technology, design and user experience was designed to appeal to the over-50-year-old, techno-phobic people. Planning had not only identified the new market opportunity, it had defined and understood the audience in precise and empathetic detail to guide the process throughout.

Even the most routine products can be radically improved if they are redesigned with people in mind. Take digital wallets. Surely digital wallets will take over from cash – they promise a faster, more secure, more transparent way to send and receive money, right? Yet adoption of digital wallets in India was slow, until Paytm realised that cash performs a critical function that goes beyond finance.

Cash is central to age-old customs and rituals such as wedding gifts and religious donations. Cash is the mediator between complex social and community relations, cold money transfer is necessary but not sufficient.

So Paytm included a simple yet powerful experiential element into its digital wallet, the auspicious lilafa, which is an envelope that signifies the ‘gift’ dimension that often accompanies a cash payment. Adoption rates took off, as Paytm was now seen to be delivering on an essential component of cash. Only a sympathetic and in-depth understanding of the cultural and social role of cash beyond its monetary value gave the team confidence that this human dimension to the digital wallet mattered.

Great planning starts with understanding people. There are more tools available to help us count, dissect, profile and reach people. But planning must ensure we examine, understand and develop insights about people through the lens of their humanity.

This article appears originally in WARC's 2018 Asian Strategy Report.

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