Inquiry Can Take You Far If You Let It
Updated: Apr 9
Luisa Nims, Nims Consulting
Photo by Marta Kirvic
My first job out of college was in the research department of a private foundation, The Casey Family Program. It is a wealthy organization that gives children in its care every advantage that an upper class family could afford. I tracked children’s behavior using a database intended for a longitudinal, long-term study on the efficacy of this private foster care system. I loved knowing I was part of an organization that was reversing child abuse, neglect and poverty. And the nerdy side of me loved cleaning up a messy, incomplete set of data that could help change the world for children.
Several years later I found myself sitting in a building known as the ‘Tin Can’ because of its ultra modern architecture in a city built on top of Roman ruins with buildings dating back to the 1500’s. My world changed in ways I could never have predicted. The architecture providing backdrop to an adventure that provided entry into a new level of consciousness.
What I discovered about myself was a love of finding the unexpected. Research that requires a degree of psychoanalysis and ethnographic understanding. Uncovering people’s needs and desires and how they play out in the material world. Gaining insight into part of the collective energy to which we all belong.
In 2000, I was running a research project in the UK, on margarine, for a large food company. Even though rationally margarine was suppose to be a healthier fat than butter, people could not shake negative perceptions out of their collective heads: It was gross tasting, banal, had no nutritional value, no warmth or sense of sustenance. Even though some of the products we were talking about contained olive oil.
In the same interview respondents said it tasted good or not so bad. Not one of the respondents could give voice to why they felt so conflicted. So, I dug more and followed a chain of thought back to the products factory origins. Universally, the respondents believed factory food is dead food. This was the ‘aha’ moment.
In England, fat is considered a vital ingredient to health. It lubricates joints, children need it for brain development, it keeps you warm and promotes strong bones. Butter is a main ingredient in the British kitchen, it comes from cows who eat grass and are intimately connected to the natural world.
Most participants in the study had health problems that required switching their beloved butter for margarine. Here, resided the inner conflict between life and death in their food or eating ‘dead’ food to gain life. On a subconscious level they could not reconcile dead food = healthy body. Alive food = healthy body made much more sense to them. Many had been ordered by doctors to switch due to heart related issues. If they did not drastically change their diets, it was predicted they would die soon(er). Yet, they were being asked to eat something that cut them off from the life giving properties only nature can provide.
The solution was to infuse vitality and life into the product category in a believable way. Olive oil as an ingredient was a jumping off point for the company as Mediterranean diet research was fresh in the headlines and a believable way to claim life giving properties. Other steps had to be taken to evolve the product category into a truly life giving food, this was a ‘normal’ challenge. The harder, more interesting journey was understanding perceptions around ‘life’ and ‘death’ and how they played themselves out in the product category.
Today, the battle continues between health and wellness, natural and artificial. Top producers of margarine’s are selling off their product lines according to industry insiders even though market share is expected to increase around 3.6%. Emerging markets are quicker to adopt while developed markets are still dancing around the dilemma of which is better. This push and pull between the natural world, history, heritage, tradition vs. modernity, concepts of better, enhanced ‘abilities’ are recurring themes playing out in every topic I have thought about, researched and studied.
Luisa Nims Nims Consulting develops the emotional connection between consumer and product or service. Maximizing the ROI of marketing and communication budgets.