Mark Ingwer: An interview by Bob Morris

Mark Ingwer, Ph.D, is a consumer psychologist and the managing partner of Insight Consulting Group, a global marketing and strategy consultancy specializing in market research and consumer insights. He has over 25 years experience applying his unique blend of psychology, marketing, and business acumen to helping companies optimize their brand and marketing strategy based on an in-depth understanding of their customers. Mark has been featured in publications such as BusinessWeek, NY Times, Crain’s New York, Brandweek, Chicago Tribune, Marketing News and Advertising Age, and he recently wrote his first book, Empathetic Marketing: How to Satisfy the 6 Core Emotional Needs of Your Customers, published by Palgrave Macmillan in May 2012. Prior to founding ICG, Mark held senior positions at Saatchi & Saatchi and DMB&B advertising agencies and was a lecturer at Northwestern Kellogg’s Business School. Mark lives in Chicago with his son Jake and his dog Lucy. He is a member of the BMA, AMA, and serves on the Board of Directors for the Steckman Studio, a non-profit music outreach organization. On the weekends, Mark will be coaching his son in soccer, checking out the latest gallery openings, and learning to play the piano.

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Morris: Before discussing Empathetic Marketing, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Ingwer: Quite frankly, my son has had the most impact on my personal growth. Before that my life was very focused on pursuing educational and career goals and achieving financial success. But having a child—there’s nothing like it. Becoming so devoted to another person where your life is no longer about you changes everything. So many of my priorities, aspirations, hopes and fears now revolve around my son, and to some degree work has become secondary. This shift or transition has had the deepest meaning in my life in terms of personal growth.

Morris: Who has had the greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Ingwer:  The patients that I worked with as a clinical psychologist and the consumers I have worked with as a market researcher and consumer psychologist. Working with a broad range of patients, understanding their hopes, fears, emotions and needs as they adapt to life’s challenges has helped me to indentify key insights into consumer behavior and challenges for businesses.  All too often there’s been a superficial and transactional approach to the marketplace, with businesses interested only in consumers’ wallets as opposed to creating long-term relationships. As a result there’s been a long history of consumer distrust of marketing and businesses. Working closely with diverse patients and clients has enabled me to forge a new paradigm helping businesses’ to better relate to consumers and satisfy their deeper needs.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Ingwer: I started out as a troubled teenager wanting to understand why I was feeling and doing the things that I did. I had an incredible fascination to understand why I and others made sometimes disadvantageous and regrettable decisions, and other times brilliant decisions.  With that said, I forged a professional career in psychology because that discipline spoke to me most in terms of how best to make sense of my life and others’. Therefore I was propelled to analyze myself and my motivations and study the complexity of human behavior, emotions, and decisions from the social sciences perspective. After completing my Ph.D I went into psychoanalysis and practiced in various clinical settings.   At some point there came a time where I was dis-satisfied with simply focusing in on very few individuals and realized there were broader opportunities to bring what I was learning in my studies and my office to the outer world. So I went on to study marketing at Wharton and learned that the skills and knowledge I had accumulated as a psychologist had broad applications beyond the clinical setting. My education was key in learning about the distinct worlds of psychology and business and enabling me to transfer the skills and insights of the social sciences to apply them to marketing, sales, and brand strategy in the commercial world.

Morris: What do you know now about business world that you wish you knew when you when to work full-time for the first time? Why?

Ingwer: I wish I understood earlier that business is inherently emotional, political, and psychological. In every level of business people are striving to satisfy their emotional needs and sometimes compete, devalue others in order to optimize their own ideas.  There are always dynamics that are below the surface that are operating at every level of business. I was naïve when I first entered the workforce and knew nothing about business politics or power/control, and then learned to embrace and appreciate and see that these human needs were always rearing their head and to have respect for these forces that are crucial in all of our daily lives.

Morris:Of all the films that you have seen, which – in your opinion – best dramatizes important business principles? Please explain.Ingwer: The Great Santini—based on the brilliant novel by Pat Conroy. While not a business film per se, it highlights the important business principle of respecting and appreciating the people in your life, especially those who are younger than you. In the movie, Robert Duvall plays “the Great Santini,” a self-centered marine pilot who rules his family like a military commander, causing substantial friction with his children. There’s a particularly grueling scene in which Robert Duval’s son has become a better basketball player than he, and Duvall’s Marine cannot cope with the wound of his son surpassing him. As a result he belittles, degrades, and shames his son. It’s crucial in the workplace to find and steward other people who are younger and have unique skills and perspectives, and to champion their abilities so they can become successful. Successful business leaders cannot act like The Great Santini, putting themselves first and expecting their word to be obeyed without question.  They must strive to build respectful relationships with employees, value their contribution and support their endeavors to ensure the optimal satisfaction and performance of all employees.

Morris:  From which non-business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.Ingwer: Martin Buber, a philosopher, wrote a book called I-thou. In this book he talks about the sacredness of everyday life and how others we come into contact with are much more similar than dissimilar. A deeply spiritual book that business leaders should also be mindful of when engaged in any kind of commerce. We all need to see ourselves in others and to have reverence for how other people who seem dissimilar to us are actually quite similar, and learn to relate to and empathetize with them. 

Morris: Here are several of my favorite quotations to which I ask you to respond. First, from Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching:

“Learn from the people
Plan with the people
Begin with what they have
Build on what they know
Of the best leaders
When the task is accomplished
The people will remark
We have done it ourselves.”

Ingwer: Although this quote is presumably about leadership, I think it is highly relevant to the field of marketing and many of the ideas in the book. For decades marketers have talked “at” the people—they’ve built their products and services often with little or no input from consumers, and then spent inordinate amounts of time and money on marketing campaigns trying (often unsuccessfully) to sell consumers on their offerings.  But this quote reflects what should be the guiding philosophy for the future of business and marketing strategy.

That is, businesses must strive to talk “with” consumers and listen to them, understand their needs and wants and even involve them in co-production. This should apply not just to developing marketing, but to every level of business—from developing new products/services, to customer interactions and service, to marketing and brand loyalty endeavors.  Several companies have already had great success incorporating this philosophy into certain aspects of their business—for example, soliciting consumer input to vote on a new product or to create their own commercial to air in primetime.

By taking the time to really listen to and learn about consumers and give them a voice in your products, services, and marketing companies can ensure consumers are invested in the company, creating long-term satisfaction and loyalty.

Morris: Finally, from Peter Drucker: “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Ingwer: I think we can all agree with the validity of this quote and its effectiveness at highlighting an all too common problem with marketing today. With increasing budget restrictions and the never-ending influx of new technology and digital marketing solutions, marketers are frequently focused on improving the efficiency of their current endeavors without stopping to assess whether they are even headed in the right direction at all.

Too often they are blindsided by the need to embrace the latest and greatest technology/techniques to become more efficient at getting their message to their consumers and tracking and analyzing consumers’ behavior and response.  This is not to say that data collection and new social media/digital marketing techniques should not be used at all—but rather, marketers must first stop to think about their consumers’ core wants and needs and make sure any efforts they take are aimed at satisfying these needs.  Marketers may discover the world’s most cost and time efficient way of getting their message out to millions of customers, but if that message doesn’t resonate with consumers’ needs than it is useless.

Similarly the most efficient data collection and analytics system is useless if it is not able to provide real insight into what consumers deeper wants, needs, and decision-making.  To be truly successful in creating long term relationships with their customers,  marketers must first take a step back to understand the basics of who their customers are, what they want, and how their products/services and marketing can help to satisfy their customers core psychological needs.

Morris: Here’s a brief excerpt from Paul Schoemaker’s latest book, Brilliant Mistakes: “The key question companies need to address is not ‘Should we make mistakes?’ but rather ‘Which mistakes should we make in order to test our deeply held assumptions?'” Your response?Ingwer: I haven’t read the book, but it seems a little bit of a contrived question. It presumes that you know you’re going to make a mistake—that people consciously decide to do something they know will be a mistake. That’s not how people do, or should, function.  While I don’t think business leaders consciously decide to make a mistake, I do think the most successful businesses are ones that embrace mistakes as true learning environments.

All too often there’s the Jack Welch approach or Al Dunlap approach to business which often results in chopping off heads to create more efficiencies and fear of making a mistake. It’s important that mistakes be embraced and that people can feel comfortable to take risks and innovate, to co-produce with both employees and the people who will buy your products and services.  Ultimately it’s all an ongoing experiment—at same time need we need to know when to hold them and when to fold them. Oftentimes half the struggle is in recognizing something was a mistake and being willing to accept it, move on, and learn from it.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Empathetic Marketing. When and why did you decide to write it?

Ingwer: I saw there was a big gap in the marketplace in terms of understanding why people do what they do. There was no theory to help understand and integrate social and clinical psychology into decision making and understanding people’s motivations in the market place. There were some exceptionally great books highlighting how emotions and psychological principles influence our every day behavior, but specifically for marketing and business executives. As a psychologist who has worked for 20+ years applying these key issues to a broad range of companies and industries, I saw the value this could have and wanted to share it. I’ve taken the key learnings from clinical/social psych and developed a highly accessible theory with specific applications of how to use them in the marketplace to achieve success by developing a deeper understanding of wants/needs.

Morris: For those who have not as yet read the book, you contend that “emotions and resulting behaviors are the foundation for satisfying complex psychological needs. Our individual well-being – self-esteem, success, relation ships, and happiness – is a result of our meeting emotional needs.” Are you referring to the needs of everyone involved in the value chain, including employees, customers, vendors, suppliers, and allies?

Ingwer: Certainly this is true for all people, in both our professional and personal lives. However, while there are applications for everyone in this book, it is much more geared to the marketplace and the relationships between customers and companies. With that said the book attempts to build a foundation so people can embrace and understand how needs guide us in our relationships with others outside of the marketplace, so they become easily understood by anyone and readers do not need a business background or MBA to understand the key ideas.

Morris: You observe that there are the hidden emotional needs behind decisions. Here’s a two-part question: To what extent are they unrecognized rather than hidden? Which of these needs seems to be the most difficult to fill, satisfy, accommodate, etc?

Ingwer: If something is unrecognized, it’s hidden. Unrecognized is a good way of looking at it. To be successful businesses need to identify different touch points. That’s what we do in our work. You can’t just put consumers in a 90 minute focus group and expect to uncover the underlying emotional needs shaping their everyday decisions and behaviors. But by conducting ongoing communities of interest or multi-phase research with in-depth ethnographic components we can understand from the round up what makes them tick not just as a consumer but as a person. We need to treat our customers more as individuals than as simply purchasers of our products, and strive to understand their hopes, dreams, fears, wants and needs.

Of all these needs, I think care is hardest for companies to fulfill because for so long companies have exploited needs and focused on their bottom line rather than truly demonstrating care for their customers. There’s a lot of consumer skepticism and distrust, so for companies to satisfy this need for care and create long relationships and loyalty with customers requires a big change in terms of how organizations think of, relate to, and provide for their customers.

Morris: Recent and extensive research using fMRI technologies suggests that many (most?) people really do not know what they really want when making a purchase decision.

Given that, how specifically can companies know what their customers don’t know?

Ingwer: It is exactly for this reason that in our work, we never ask consumers “why” they buy what they do.  We are wired to shape our answer based on how we want to look to others and to ourselves. We rationalize explanations or say what we think people want to hear, often without realizing that we are not answering honestly.  Business are on much better ground if they assume the reasons we purchase something are sometimes simple and sometimes complex, but ultimately similar to why we chose our mates or our friends.  There’s a deeper level of hope that the other will provide for us in ways we don’t provide for ourselves—that they will help us satisfy a core need in our life.

Companies can uncover why customers buy what they do (even if they don’t know themselves) by breaking out of the typical market research methods that endeavor to ask consumers “why” and embracing a more holistic approach with methods such as ongoing online communities, ethnographic “shop-along” and in home research, and psychological projective techniques. By having a broader understanding of how needs shape our decisions and employing these deep-dive market research techniques, companies can uncover key insights into the real reasons people buy and how they can optimize their marketing and brand strategy to significantly increase sales.

Morris: Please explain the reference to the “deceit of satisfaction.”

Ingwer: The deceit of satisfaction refers to companies overwhelmingly misusing “satisfaction” as a benchmark of their success. Over 90% of companies regularly ask their customers to measure their “satisfaction” with their product, service, etc—and the majority of customers respond that yes they are satisfied. However, these same customers, even when they give full marks for their “satisfaction” frequently have little if any brand loyalty, and will go elsewhere for their next purchase.

It turns out that positive consumer satisfaction surveys are neither a predictor of repurchase nor an indicator of whether more important emotional needs are met. The problem is that businesses are commonly using a logical, survey-based process to examine the emotional issue of satisfaction.  Companies must stop relying on these superficial indicators of “satisfaction” and conduct deep-dive research to uncover real insights into how they can best satisfy the key needs of their consumers.

Morris: What is the “needs continuum” and what is its special significance?

Ingwer: The Needs Continuum is a framework I’ve developed to understand the core needs that drive a majority of human behavior. Based on my 25 years of experience as a psychologist and marketing consultant, I’ve identified 6 key universal needs that underlie and shape our decisions and behaviors as consumers and as people.

Throughout our lives we are constantly balancing our two primary needs: the need for individuality and the need for connection with others. These two needs underlie most all human motivation and serve as the polar forces of the Needs Continuum.  Along this spectrum are the 6 other core needs:

To successfully practice empathetic marketing, companies must understand how each of these needs and how they shape consumer behavior. Only then can they identify how their products/services and marketing can best satisfy a deeper need for consumers to create long term loyalty and real satisfaction.Morris: For more than 25 years, it has been my great pleasure as well as privilege to work closely with the owner/CEOs of hundreds of small companies, those with $20-million or less in annual sales. In your opinion, of all the material you provide in the Empathetic Marketing, which do you think will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies? Why?

Ingwer: I think the key take away that will be of greatest value to leaders in small companies is to question their assumptions and practices. They shouldn’t assume that what’s worked in the past will work in the future, or that it cannot be improved. Too often small businesses get stuck in the status quo, and don’t stop to really think about what their customers want and need. They often lack the budget for large scale market research and marketing endeavors and as a result end up doing very little in this regard.

There are many low cost ways that companies can use to better understand and satisfy the needs of their customers, and they just have to be willing to open their mind and look for them. The leaders of small businesses must ask their employees to challenge them—reach out to your team to brainstorm what practices may be able to be improved and how. Dare yourself to dream and to create your own satisfaction as well as lifelong satisfaction for your customers.

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Mark cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Insight Consulting Group, please click here.

1to1 Media, please click here.

Mark’s Amazon page, please click here.

Follow on Twitter, please click here.

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