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Talking to imaginary friends: Careful with Buyer Personas

Note from the author: Without my wife’s dedication, I wouldn’t have time to write my name in a post-it, so I want to dedicate this humble article to her.
Also, this article contains spoilers of Fight Club, Mr Robot and The Leftovers.

Fight Club, Mr Robot, A Beautiful Mind, The Leftovers… The interaction between a protagonist and an imaginary friend is a plot device that we have seen in a lot of stories. Besides the obvious tension it creates between the character experiencing the ilusion and the conflicts he needs to overcome, the imaginary friend also allows us to explore another side of the main protagonist. Hidden traits of its personality, so deeply buried that not even him is able to acknowledge.

Out of the fictional world, however, the idea of actually talking to imaginary companions probably feels over the top. But we do it all the time. Here in the adland, it is more common that you would think. And the reason why we keep doing it is because -like the delusional characters of all those stories- we are unable to see that those friends are pure fiction, a product of our fertile imagination. And if someday we happen to realise that we are actually talking to fantastic entities, we are prone to ignore that fact and go back to listening to their seductive voices, just like Sebastian* (Fight Club), Elliot (Mr. Robot), or Kevin (The Leftovers) would do.

* Note from the author: In the original book of Fight Club and the movie adaptation, the protagonist’s real name is never revealed. In the DVD box, he is referred as “Jack”, taking that name from the Reader’s Digest’s articles he reads out loud (“I am Jack’s colon, I am Jill’s nipples…”). However, the name “Jack” is not the character’s actual identity. Years later, the author published a Fight Club’s sequel as a graphic novel (Fight Club 2), where the protagonists’ name is revealed to be “Sebastian”.

Pages from Fight Club 2, the graphic novel

Creating imaginary friends

The “Target Audience” is the population segment we aim to reach with our advertisement comms. Even when we do “tight Targeting” (meaning that we try to focus on very specific niches), we are drawing clusters out of relatively broad terms. For example:
Working mums
Middle class
45-60 year old
Live in these cities X / Y / Z
Married or divorced, are still the main decision-maker on the grocery shopping list

You could keep adding layers to shape this social profile, but it will still remain a vague description if we compare it to the depth and complexity of an individual human being. A real person.

If we want to better understand customers, if we want to pull powerful insights they can relate to, or find better and more eficient ways to reach them; we need a more detailed approach about who they actually are: where do they live, what do they do, how do they get to work, how is their routine, what do they like and hate, what concerns them…

The truth of real people in the real world is our raw material and best chance for defying convetion.
Martin Weigel – Escape from fantasy

This is why Buyer Personas are sketched.

Buyer Personas are fictional characters that represent different types of persons that could fit within a Target Audience. The idea behind Buyer Personas is attaching deep descriptions about these people’s lifes and desires, allowing a more insightful approach about how to reach them and influence their behavior.

If all this was done out of research, I would’nt have a problem. The issue here is that, despite creating Buyer Personas is a pretty common exercise, backing it up with proper research is something way more unsual. We create Buyer Personas out of what we think we know about our client, about the category, about its consumers, about society. Meaning, we create Buyer Personas out of our imagination, biases and beliefs. Just like imaginary friends.

Defining imaginary friends

Coherence and consistency

Both Tyler Durden and Mr Robot -imaginary alter egos from Sebastian (Fight Club) and Elliot (Mr Robot) respectively- have notoriously straight-forward and consistent personalities and behaviors: They are competent, smart, well-informed, abrasive, violent, merciless, cruel; and they always behave as such. They are always “after something”. They always know what to do. They are never hesitant or insecure.

They incarnate the destructive and revolutionary force that lies repressed within our timid and socially marginal protagonists. They are not “an entire person”, just “a fraction of a person”, so their actions and obsessions are confined to the achievement of certain goals and the manifestation of a short spectrum of attitudes and feelings.

When creating Buyer Personas, our natural inclination is to imagine lifes that are coherent with our understanding of the world. The human mind is not designed to think in statistics. We understand the world by creating coherent stories around the things we learn, observe or infer.

Example of Buyer Persona -created out of thin air, like we usually do-:

Hello Wendy

Wendy is 26 years old and lives in Barcelona.
She is from Norwich and has been living in Barcelona for 5 years. She first came to Barcelona in a six-months Erasmus and decided to stay after falling in love with the city (and with her partner at the time).
She speaks a decent Spanish, despite still having a very noticeable and strong accent. Most of her work is done in English and many of her friends also com from other countries, so she lacks opportunities to get better with native speakers.

She is homosexual and now single, after breaking up with this 4 years partner, that she met during their college years. Now she uses dating apps to meet new people.

She is not reluctant to have kids someday. She would like to experience a pregnancy (through IVF), but first she feels that she would need to have a very well stablished partner that shares those same goals.
In a similar fashion, she fantasizes with the idea of adopting a puppy, but hse would rather to share that responsibility with another person (it was an unaccomplished goal from her last relationship). She doesn’t take the final step because she fears that it would tie her too much in terms of flexibility for traveling and other plans.

She considers herself progressive and enviromentally concious. She priorizes brands that position themselves towards causes that are important to her, like sustainability and social inclusiveness.

Wendy studied economics and works as a Consultant for an important firm. She lives in Gracia and bikes to work, except when it’s raining or really cold. Those days she gets to work by bus.

Twice a week, Wendy practices Yoga in a specialized boutique close by her job. She loves it, to the point she is even considering carrying on somekind of training specialization.

Their co-workers often gather up for after work beers but she rarely joins them, because sometimes it coincides with her yoga classes or with other plans. Most of her coworkers are heterosexual men and she feels often bored by their conversations (sports, women).

Wendy is fit. She doesn’t follow a strict diet but pays considerable attention to what she eats, priorizing ecological and organic products (eco label / absent palm oil) when she does her shopping in the grocery store. Often, she uses an app to scan products in the supermarket and check its composition before she tries them out.

When we draw a Buyer Persona, we are naturally inclined to create a coherent story, shortcuts to get an understanding of a person.
It makes sense for Wendy to be progressive; being a gay woman who came from a fairly progressive country. It makes sense that she is enviromentally concious, and it is only logic that -being so-, she bikes to work, pays attention to what she eats and priorizes eco labeled products.

If we had to picture a random weekend for Wendy, we probably wouldn’t imagine something like:
“She went to the beach for a long sunbathe sessions. She wants her rather milky skin to get some color before the summer season. After hours switching from sea to sand, she ate a burger at McDonald’s and went up town for a few beers with friends. Later on, she was attending to a FC Barcelona match at the stadium with a new date. She had a hot dog and a half liter Diet Coke for dinner”.

The same way we wouldn’t imagine that a Tyler Durden’s weekend could go like this:
“He had too many drinks the night before and that left him feeling tired, with a really unpleasant hangover, and a little bit depressed. He decided to spend the Saturday lying in the sofa in his smelly pijamas, jerking off, watching superhero movies and eating icecream and pizza.
On Sunday morning, he went for a long detox jogging and then went back to his world domination plans in the afternoon”.

Wendy’s weekend would be pretty common in Barcelona. Statistically, even considering everything what “we know” about her, it is perfectly plausible that we would found her in either of those things.

We know that she is enviromentally concious –so, she obviously has to know about the dangers of continued exposure to the sun– and that she takes care of herself –so beers and McDonald’s doesn’t sound like the kind of healthy plan we would picture for her-, but… don’t you know concious people who would jeopardize their beliefs for a gorgeus tan or would fall for a greasy burger when they are really hungry?

She can’t be a football fan, since she is bored with her co-workers after work sports talk… and neither is my wife (she is mortified when I spend hours talking about football) but she enjoys coming to the Stadium with me once in a while.
Our natural inclination to seek “coherence” clashes with the reality of people being pure contradiction.

As Ogilvy stated:

“Consumers don’t think how they feel. They don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say”.

Not only that: In terms of consistency, coherence and steady behavior, humans are an absolute shitshow. We change our mind all the time. We constantly make random decisions in split seconds, while thinking of something else, specially regarding things we don’t care that much about, like the brands and products we purchase.

We even forget that we wanted this or didn’t wanted that, or even entirely change our opinion about past preferences without even noticing.

People will do stuff that they don’t normally want to do and that compromise their beliefs for minor reasons, like pleasing a spouse after a fight, getting their child to stop crying or simply because of a brief moment of weakness.

As anybody who has tried to follow a diet will tell you, humans have an amazing ability to momentarily suspend their commitments in favor of an inmediate temptation and then going back to a fortress of rational thinking as if it never happened.

Rarely is some always interested in buying something healthy in a product category (or in life!). They typical buyer might be thinking healthy one time, convenient next time and a treat the time after.

 

Byron Sharp – How brands grow: What marketers don’t know

Wendy is not a real person. As such, Wendy will hardly ever be useful as a reference for the contradictory and baffling mess that is actual human behavior.

Like Tyler or Mr. Robot, she is straight-forward. Consistent, coherent. And that makes her inevitably unrealistic… and therefore, misleading.

Alpha versions

Tyler Durden and Mr. Robot share another trait: they incarnate Alpha versions of everything that is missing in our protagonists’ lifes.

Tyler is not only smart and handsome, he is also a great fuck, a born leader, a great speaker and fighter. Full of confidence and with an overwhelming personality, he becames a magnet that inevitably turns into followers all the men around him. While Sebastian passes by a tedious existence between office hours he abhors and a terrible problem of insomnia, everything Tyler does is exciting and meaningful, from his bizarre jobs to training with nunchakus while Sebastian gets a suicidal call from Marla.

Mr. Robot is the fearless leader Elliot would never dare to be. While Elliot lives as a prisoner of his mental drifts and inestability (being addicted to morphine and crying alone in his flat); Mr Robot is able to find a purpose, to speak in a loud voice about all the drama and injustice Elliot secretly perceives, to set an attack plan against monstrous enemies, to assemble a team that could actually make that plan happen, and to force their commitment to that really dangerous cause.

When we build Buyer Personas, we usually show the same inclination to create “Alpha versions” of certain stereotypes, deprived of the common flaws and shortages that actual people inevitably have.
We rarely dive into the “ugly stuff” that obviously exists in society. In one hand, it is a result from the natural bias of reflecting “our world”. As it has been stated many times, people who work in the advertising industry tends to be sligthly better educated, have higher incomes and be more cosmopolitan than the average person. That also affects and is affected by who our parents are, our friends, our coworkers, the places we live in, the trips we make, the hobbies we have and the people we relate to. All those biases and false beliefs are directly scarred into our Buyer Personas.

Also, Buyer Personas are usually shared and validated with the client, and nobody wants to hear that they are working to please or engage with certain kinds of people. Since I save no criticism for agency folks, I am going to allow myself to say that client side people tend to live in the same self build fantasy castles.

This is why, when writing or reading Buyer Personas, we read a lot of:
“enviromentally concious”
“passionate about tech”
“animal lover”
“fit, practices sport regularly”
“well informed, newspaper reader”
“caring mum”
“popular, lots of friends”
“dates regularly with people who meets through apps”
“adventureous traveler”
“cross-fit, yoga, pilates, gym, runner, marathonian”
“culture lover: often goes to the cinema, visit art expositions”

But I have never ever encountered any of the following:

“Obese”: Despite a 2020 study stated that 53,6% of Spanish population is above its ideal weight, with the 22% being obese and the 31,6% being overweight.

“Smoker”: But, in Spain, there are 8,6M adults (over 15) that declare to be daily smokers. That’s 21% of adults, plus another 2% who declares to be an ocasional smoker.

Over 65 years old”: Almost 20% of the population is 65 or older in Spain (about 9,64M).

“Drinks too much”: Despite official papers from 2021 say 80% of Spanish adult population drinked during the last 12 motnhs, 63% drinked during the last 30 days and 19,5% got drunk during the last year. Other studies showed that the 13% of Spanish adults drink on daily basis.

“Suffers from axiety / depression / mental issues”: A 2017 study official from the Health Ministry in Spain pointed out that 1 every 10 people over 15 years old had been diagnosed some kind of mental issue. Anxiety and depression were both diagnosed to the same percentage of adults: 6,7% (that is roughly 2,7M people suffering from each of those illnesses). Note that these numbers are pre Covid, and since the Pandemic crisis it is well known that the issues related to mental health sky rocketed.

She is a drug addict. He has racist attitudes. She has an inclination to believing in conspiracy theories and fake news. He votes for the radical right wing party. She  was negligent about Covid prevention measures. He spends his weekends lying in the sofa, watching TV and complaining. She never calls her mum. He was caught cheating on her spouse and that’s why they splitted up. She is intrasigent and jealous. He has a lot of debts. She is having an affair with the kid’s teacher.

There is a lot of shit “out there” that will never reach our immaculate descriptions of fit woman biking to work or handsome men that are really into technology.

From a purely statistical standpoint, a random Spanish customer is more likely to be obese (22% of population), a smoker (21% of adults), over 65 (20% of population), or a daily drinker (13% of adults) than somebody who practices yoga regularly (12% of the population in 2018). But that’s not what comes  to mind when we have to sketch this “realistic profiles within our Target Audience”. We tend to create Alpha versions of the perfect customers we imagine.

Skewed towards the origin of its creation

Patti Levin’s case differs from Tyler Durden’s or Mr Robot’s. Unlike the latter, she is not a completely fictional character.* She doesn’t exist, but she incarnates Kevin Garvey’s memory of an actual person.
* Note from the author: Despite Mr Robot shares the same physical appearance than Elliot’s father, he is not Elliot’s father. He doesn’t behave or think as we can presume Elliot’s father did. He is a fictional entity out of the destructive pulsion Elliot feels towards the stablishment.

Despite being a character of a different nature, Patti shares with Tyler and Mr Robot a very common trait of any imaginary companion: Her existence revolves around the origin of its creation. Tyler and Mr Robot have no hobbies, personal life or interests beyond their revolutionary mission, and Patti only exists to punish Kevin and make him miserable; since she is attached to Garvey from the complex guilt he feels after the first season finale’s events.

Likewise, it is only natural that when we create our imaginary friends, they also are unnaturally skewed towards the reason behind their existence. This is the category & client we are working for. When we set a Buyer Persona, we add importance and complexity to the relationship between this fictional person and our client’s product or the needs this product fullfils. This bias originates individuals with behaviors that are not strictly impossible, but can be considered odd or -at least- uncommon.

I have seen Buyer Personas who regularly search for new information about the nutritional properties that would better suit their pets’ health needs. Offer seekers who scan the supermarket to pick any promotion or price cut for whatever product or category. Technology freaks that give major importance to a navigation system or a set of lights.

This happens because we create Buyer Personas “from the brand / product”, not out of research. If our brand is positioned as sustainable, we think of people who cares for sustainability. That strikes us as logic, but it doesn’t make it necessarily true. Many of our clients might not give three fucks about sustainability. Or they do, but they don’t buy the brand because of that. They might not even know our brand is positioned as such. Or they might have heard about it, but don’t believe it (and still buy the product). They may simply like the product…

Again, it is not impossible that some super involved clients may exist, but let’s not forget we wanted to use these profiles to get a better comprehension about out Target Audience. By looking at an unnaturally heavily invested 1% (or 0,1%) of our Target, we are not going to understand them better. Probably just the opposite.

Blocking reality

There’s a scene in The Leftovers where Nora leaves Kevin handcuffed to the bed after one of his delusional nocturnal episodes. Kevin wakes up and Patti is there, sitting next to him, giving him some shit for being honest to Nora or something like that. When Kevin complains to Nora about leaving him trapped there, she replies that the keys where on a chair next to bed, in an arm’s reach. That is precisely where Patti was sitting. Kevin has to admitt “she was blocking them”, in a subtle but terrible confession of the power these fantasies hold over him.

Tyler Durden strictly forbids to Sebastian talking to Marla about him to prevent him finding out that he is actually having a sexual relationship with her. Mr. Robot blocks the memories from Darlene (Elliot’s sister) and his own father to disguise the nature of the whole operation against E-Corp, as if Elliot was being recruited by a terrorist group (instead of being the recruiter himself).

Imaginary friends will block reality to preserve their existence. In the same fashion, Buyer Personas distance us from “actual personas” with their impolute lives, their coherent choices and their unnatural interest in what is interesting to us. Far from helping us better understand the people we are trying to reach, they incarnate mirages that prevent us from looking.

Clash with reality

I remember a workshop for a petfood brand where my Buyer Persona fantasies clashed with the crude simplicity of reality. The client was a multi-brand company and each one of those brands had a clear role and positioning within their portfolio. We were conducting some research to re-launch a brand that was not going through its best moment. It was the less premium (cheapest) one in the range. A very light-hearted brand with funny comms, a shiny packaging full of colours, with dogs and cats always portraited as happy and starving. It was also the product with less arguments in terms of food composition and nutrition benefits.

Prior to the research, we had sketched a couple Buyer Persona from all what we knew from the brand and the category. We deduced that our customers had to be light-hearted as well. People who were happy picking a low range product the same way they would probably pick other low range product for different categories (including their own food choices).

One of the drivers we were positive about was taste: our product looked tasty (colorful and multi shaped croquettes) and it was supposed to be tasty for pets, as well. We were pretty confident that our Buyer Personas might think “my pet loves it, they really enjoy eating that (more than other brands) so it has to be good for them -or, at least- it can’t be bad-”. This is how we believed the tension between the lack of nutritional benefits would be played out in the mind of our consumers.

We conducted some interviews with actual clients. I had the opportunity of attending one -which was really enlighting in its own right- and we crossed the results from all of them later, with amazingly similar results.

No one mentioned “taste” or “fun” or “playfulness” or “the pet loving the food” as a driver for purchase -or as anything related to what they thought of the brand at all-. Not one mentioned having ever thought about any lack of nutritional benefits.
For most of them, it was perceived as a “very good brand”, a “premium choice”.
They considered it better than the distributors’ brands, since it was more expensive and they had seen it advertised on TV (the brand had not been on TV for at least five or six years, but they remembered the ads).
To them, purchasing this brand instead of white label brands was an economic effort they were willing to do out of the love they felt for their pets (but you could tell there wasn’t a lot of mental involvement behind this decision, and that they switched to the white-label brands from time to time, considering how well they knew them). It was, and this is a literal statement from the lady we interviewed, “the most expensive brand I am willing to buy”.
When asked about other more natural and more expensive brands, they simply said they didn’t know them / consider them, because they were beyond their price range.

It was quite shocking. Plain and simple, our reading was completely wrong. We believed that the lack of nutritional benefits in comparison to other more premium brands would create a friction that our client’s would need to relieve with this fun and taste mythology, but the truth was that they didn’t even consider those brands. The difference with those more expensive alternatives played no role in their decision. They were picking the brand as a premium choice in comparison to white-label brands, that were our (only) actual competitors.
By looking at the brand from our the perspective of our own portfolio, we were missing the actual role the brand played in its customers’ minds.

It was also striking that the vague memories from old TV campaigns still had such a decisive effect on familiarity and purchase decision. The food was not perceived as fun or tasty itselfhow deluded were we, considering “taste” as a main driver for dog food?but the funny and playful comms did make the brand memorable for a long time.

It completely changed our strategy. We just needed another shot of familiarity to boost Mental Availability and build up to that abstract idea of being a superior choice than white-label brands. We had not enough budget to run TV ads -that would have been the best move-, so we designed an online video strategy that replicated in the best possible way the reach and frequency we would got with TV airing.
We made a funny ad with catchy music. A nice 30” video you would not hate to watch. And that was that, the campaign was a complete success.

It doesn’t make sense, until it makes it…

Both in Fight Club and Mr Robotwriting this article made me realise how much the latter took from the first one– the conflict created by these alter egos gets to a point where their fictional nature is inevitably revealed to the main protagonist. That moment of realisation “you don’t exist, it’s been me all the time” it’s experienced as a violent shockwave that inspires denial at first -“It can’t be! I saw you there! You have hit me, taught me, burned my hand, throw me out of a dock!”-, but once the idea starts settling, it gets so obvious in retrospective. With this new piece of information, all previous beliefs doesn’t make any sense.

In DDB, one of their corporate mantras is that “creativity often doesn’t makes sense… until it makes it”. I believe it is a perfect sentence for these moments of realisation.

The case I mentioned before about the petfood brand stroke us in a similar fashion. It was shocking at first: “How is that these customers believe this brand is ‘a premium choice’, considering it is obviously not as good as all those other brands?”. But then you keep thinking: They do buy it. It’s unlikely that you buy something that you consider is not good, specially for a pet that you love. They just had a different perspective about good / not good”.

Also, our previous beliefs about the attributes we thought customers attached to the brand felt silly in from this new perspective. Was it realistic to expect people to buy a brand because they inferred that it had “good taste”? Something that they can’t possibly test, and that probably has no effect in the end results: dogs will probably eat the whole bowl (from this brand or any other) and cats will almost certainly leave some behind (again, from this brand or any other).

Conclusion

We all took a lot from Fight Club

Buyer Personas were invented to get us closer to the people we want to sell to. I am not going to get into the debate about if we should be using them at all, our we should be thinking in the broadest terms possible for all of our target audience, since I don’t have a clear answer myself.

What I will say is that if we are getting into the Buyer Persona business, let’s draw them out of research: Statistical baselines, purchase behavior, real-customers interviews… If we can’t do it all, at least do something

If not, we are very likely to end up drifting away from reality, blinded by our own delusions, talking to imaginary friends. 

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