Marketers, Put on Your Thinking Caps: A Imaginative Approach to Understanding Target Audiences


Setting: a brainstorming session. More often than not, you'll hear, "...I don't know--that's just me. What do you think?"

The question should be, "How do you think?" How do you analyze, rationalize, visualize? Even though we are products of a shared culture, the way we think is completely our own--uniquely shaped by our personal experiences.

The most enchanting aspect of our complex brain is its capacity to imagine. Remember kindergarten? "Okay, now I want eeeeeach of you to put your thinking cap on!" Teachers are known to ask this question to get little ones to concentrate on an upcoming task--usually with a positive message embedded--such as, "What are some ways that you can be a good friend?"

Each little person crowns him- or herself with a thinking cap. If you watch this ritual in action, you'll see that some children tie bows with double knots. Some are seen strapping secure buckles while others simply pat their heads to make sure their cap is snug and secure. (We can't have any headwear blowing off as we embark on our thinking journey!)

Realizing that teachers don't ever actually tell their students what a "thinking cap" looks like, I thought it might be fun to research this "mental millinery". To investigate just how infinitely diverse imaginations can be, even among people brought up in nearly the same circumstances, I asked my five college suitemates what their "thinking caps" looked like. Below are the true answers to, "What did your thinking cap look like?"

Elyssa: a pointed wizard's hat, crafted with midnight blue velvet and glow-in-the-dark metallic stars

Kat: a snapback Rangers baseball cap

Alex: one of those multicolored beanies with a whirling helicopter attachment sticking out the top

Judy: a gentleman's satin, black top hat with a screwed in light bulb protruding from its noggin

Amy: a leather pirate hat with three corners (Think of the nursery rhyme... "Her hat, it had three corners...")

As for my thinking cap, picture a WWI flying ace leather pilot's helmet with earflaps, goggles and a brass buckle. Sporting this elegant chapeau, I likened myself to two of my heroes: Amelia Earhart and Snoopy.

Okay, you're thinking. This is cute...but so what?

I'll tell you what.

This little example should remind us, as marketers, that we should never underestimate uniqueness of thought. The "public" is not of one mind. To ensure that we're communicating effectively, we need to sit a spell in someone else's thinking cap. By remembering that a target audience is made up of individuals--real people with a wide array of "thinking caps", we have a better chance of reaching each customer in a meaningful way. Whatever their internal headgear, the best marketers know how to power up that light bulb, make the whirligig spin, and slap down those pilot goggles to help an audience share their vision.

How do you enter the minds of your target audience? More importantly, what did your thinking cap look like as a child?