Tom Webster, writing and speaking

The Single Best Question You Can Ask Your Customers, Audience Or Partners

Added on by Tom Webster.

JapaneseGraveyardTokyoLast week, at Social Slam in Knoxville, my wife Tamsen and I gave a brand new presentation called Putting Data to Work (and we'll both have a lot more to say on this topic in the coming months). In one section of the presentation, we talked a lot about the value of qualitative research as a tool to get to the heart of what your brand stands for in the minds of your customers or audience. In the subsequent Q&A, we were asked to offer some advice on the types of questions you might ask your customers or audience to unlock some of the elusive "truths" about your brand, product or service. I'll tell you what I told them: there's one great question that cuts right to the heart of the essence of your brand, and anyone can ask it (though I'll offer some advice on how to ask it). Both Tamsen and I have relied on this question for years--she has asked variants of this in her branding work on both the agency and client sides, and I've been closing and/or opening qualitative research projects with some form of this question for fifteen years. Here it is:

If [brand/product/service] were to die, what would you miss?

I call this the "Brand Eulogy" question. It works with customers, prospective customers, readers and even channel partners, and it is one of the most direct paths to uncovering consumer expectations that I know of. It easily trumps "how did you find out about us," which is maybe the second best question you can ask (and should be asking at the point of sale, every time.)

The eulogy question might lead to a customer telling you about a feature or product benefit that they'd miss, or some other rational explanation. Sometimes, though, what you get back from that question is not the product of a rational assessment, but an emotional reaction that reveals a deeper connection (or disconnection) you might not have guessed.

The "eulogy" part is important, because a consumer may or may not have the language to describe to you why your brand is important, or why it exists--but if you take your brand away (and quite permanently) you will get a range of answers that are otherwise difficult to excavate. I might not be able to tell you exactly what it is about your brand that I care about, but if you tell me it's going away forever, I can speculate on what I might do as a result, and that's just as valuable a tool to unlock what matters.

By the way, I am very precise about the language I use here. The actual question I ask is "What if I were to tell you that [brand/product] were dead--not ever coming back. What, if anything, would you miss?" Let's unpack that a bit. First, I do give the option of "…if anything," because if they wouldn't miss a thing, that's a valid answer, and I don't want them inventing something as a condition of Research Stockholm Syndrome. If customers would miss nothing about you, you at least have a problem and the means to craft a hypothesis, and that's the start of the scientific method. You might then follow up by asking the same question about your competitors, to see if it's a category-wide issue, or endemic to your brand.

The first part, "What if I were to tell you…" is also quite deliberate. I would never come out and say "[Brand] is dead. What do you miss the most?" That would be deceptive, and dishonor my profession. But asking "What if [brand] went away" or the even more insipid "Imagine that [brand] went away…" frames the question a little too hypothetically--and roots it in make-believe. Instead, I deliberately choose "What if I were to tell you that…", because while it allows me not to deceive, it does put the consumer a little closer to an emotional reaction, as they wonder if this could really be true.

By the way, this is a great internal exercise, too. Ask your employees. Ask your customers. See how far apart, or close together, the answers are.

Sometimes the best way to save a brand is to kill it. At least for five minutes.