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Born Mobile When Personas Go Wrong Qualcomm at CES 2013

Claire Carton, Contributor

I love vintage corporate marketing insanity. It’s easy to laugh at the naiveté and cheesiness of our marketing forebears—cynical as the Mad Men and Ed Bernays might have been, they were essentially pre-irony.  But at least their efforts were well-received and appropriate for their audiences at the time. Today’s companies may actually be more tone-deaf than their predecessors. Brands continually create and release branded content that’s embarrassing, condescending to their audience, and completely wrong all around. The Qualcomm debacle at CES made me cringe, because, you know, I felt pretty bad for all of them as I watched the thing. But, it also kind of caught my attention, because the it felt like they were trying (expensively failing, but trying) to use a tool we leverage in web usability and marketing all the time: the persona. If you’ve encountered personas before, you’ll know that they’re basically pretty grand generalizations—basically personified market research segments. They aren’t people; they are representations of demographics and behaviors we can observe, measure, and extrapolate from. Market research can be dry and hard to apply; personas ideally provide a bridge between data and people, allowing us to make decisions based on empirical evidence without losing sight of the other human beings on the other side of the conversation. Even the most effective user personas, taken literally (or brought to life) will be cartoonish or caricatures—that’s kind of the point. If personas are too specific, they can’t be used to make decisions about large audience segments; if they’re too broad, they’re just Excel spreadsheets. But most emphatically, they will no more approximate a human being than the median point on a chart. Unfortunately, Qualcomm (or its agency) didn’t get this, so they came up with the “Born Mobile” generation. Qualcomm Persona Disaster Though the keynote was immediately mocked through social media, it’s still not clear what Qualcomm was trying to accomplish or why they chose to execute this particular concept. Somehow I suspect that they fell in love with their personas—it might have happened during a meeting or brainstorming session; it might have been due to the brilliantly chosen photos or the layout of the persona characteristics; maybe the agency had employed a brilliant young intern with a creative writing background who imbued those target segments with such life and character they came alive for the team. (Don’t laugh, it could happen! In fact, I would like to think it does happen, with less disastrous results.) So, coming up against the deadline, the Qualcomm people thought “Hey, you know, isn’t Tornado 092 just so compelling? Let’s get HIM on stage. It should be our AUDIENCE telling the story, not US!” Which is kind of, technically true—it’s just that real people and real stories, even when performed by actors, are way different than market research data transformed into actionable insights.  When we try and turn our business into art of any kind—whether drama or ill-conceived music videos or paintings or Successories, we risk ridicule because we fundamentally misunderstand our audience. They are not interested in being recreated or reenacted; we only recreate and reenact them in order to understand what they want and think, and to deliver on the promise we make them. When we attempt instead to pretend we understand them beyond the limits of our product/customer relationship, we risk pandering, demeaning, and mocking our audience—and getting, rightfully, the same treatment in return. In short, personas are a way to gain insight—they are not, themselves, insightful. And this, I believe, was Qualcomm’s fundamental mistake. *Full disclosure: I worked for an agency at one time whose largest client was CES. I was not the account lead on the project, but I did attend several meetings with the client at a time when CES was at its peak. “Surreal” would be understating the experience. **Photo Credit, The Verve http://bit.ly/VUQCt4
Tim Cooke

About the author: Claire Carton

The R2i blog is a place for digital marketing and technology thought leaders to share their insights and perspective. We welcome contributions from experts in these areas and appreciate sharing fresh ideas, case studies, best practices, and innovations in online marketing. Interested in joining our esteemed group of guest bloggers? Send your ideas to marketing@r2integrated.com

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