The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Minding the Gap

Modern marketing mythology would have us believe that people today are ever more marketing-literate and cynical, making it increasingly difficult for marketers to affect consumer attitudes and purchase behaviour.

It's an argument that's easy to agree with; the language of marketing is commonplace and most people you meet are competent to discuss marketing strategies in some depth.

But this is no surprise when we remember that everyone under the age of 50 has lived their entire life under the influence of TV advertising. Couple this with the fact of ever-increasing exposure to other forms of marketing communication and it is little wonder that 'the game is up' for any marketer who thinks they've got the inside track on influencing consumers.

However, the understanding we have gained through our qualitative research has lead us to believe that people are not just wilfully dismissive of marketing tactics. But they are increasingly intolerant of irrelevant communication and ill-conceived products and services.

So, while marketers are taught to sell the dream, the sizzle not the sausage, we would argue that first they have to find the right dream to sell. And sadly, not just any dream will do. Too often there is a huge gap between what marketers and advertisers believe is their customers' dream brand, product or service and what people truly wish for.

As a means of building a bridge across this gap, we have developed the concept of dream horizons because we have found, time and again, that people's dreams are often a lot closer to mundane reality than a private yacht and world peace.

Understanding Dream Horizons

So what is a dream horizon? Put simply, it's the limit of a person's dreams and aspirations. In the same way that the horizon is a point out there ahead of us, the limit of our vision, which advances as we move towards it, so a dream horizon is the limit of what someone dreams of. And as individuals we have different dream horizons; the business professional differs from the young mum, the grandmother from the student and so on.

Most importantly, from a professional point of view, the marketer's dreams are almost always different from his or her customers' dream horizons. How many marketers are identical to their customers in attitude, background and everyday buying behaviour, let alone their dreams and aspirations? Understanding these differences in expectations and dreams is crucial to marketing success.

It's not that we believe that people are only capable of limited horizons; we know that everyone has wish-lists from a boob job to a year travelling the globe. But more often than not we discover they'd be happier winning £50,000 than £5 million on the lottery, that they just want a nice house and a family holiday. Starting from where they are now, people tend to dream of things being just a little bit easier, better, faster, smoother, cleaner, more helpful. As Tesco realised a long time ago, "Every little helps". Yes, people do dream of complete freedom from housework, a size eight figure and a Maserati. But these are not the things that they spend the majority of their time, energy and money pursuing — simply because they're not going to make life right here, right now, any better. They are not on the dream horizon.

The Importance of Perspective

So this begins to make us realise that dream horizons are framed entirely by perspective. And it's this notion of perspective that is the key to making dream horizons valuable to marketers.

Too often in qualitative research we find ourselves exploring concepts that are based either on brand owners' own dream horizons or on what they imagine would be the dream horizons of working mums or small business owners or whomever. Ultimately these concepts fail because they are not connected to the customer's reality. The horizon is framed by the marketer's perspective rather than the customer's.

Clearly, if you are not standing in the right place, you will not see the possibilities of the customer's point of view. Some real-life examples, taken from our research, are in the following table:

Product or Service

Target Customer

Imagined Dream Horizon

Actual Dream Horizon

To be able to see the dream horizons of potential customers, researchers have to look at the context for the dream and realise that the small stuff comes first: the kids, the car, what's for tea and where the next mortgage payment is coming from. Then we can explore some important questions which help understand dream horizons:

  • why is this your dream? (as opposed to any other wish?)
  • why do you dream it? (what role does dreaming this dream play?)
  • what would happen after it came true? (how would it change your life or perspective?)

Conversational in style and intrigued by individuality, qualitative research seeks out patterns, surprises and gaps everywhere. Used sensitively it can help make the connections that explain why laundry products designed to cut ironing time in half actually sell because they smell nice and why, with the best will in the world, a smart young woman, well aware of the risk of STIs, will not insist on her partner using a condom.

Good qualitative researchers will be comfortable with the notion of exploring dream horizons, because they will be used to putting aside their own assumptions. They will be alert to their own perspective and will be questing after the best understanding of the horizon from where the consumer is standing.

If you fail to understand the nature of the dream horizon, it will be impossible to build a bridge that will take your customers closer to their dreams. And if you try to build a marketing campaign based on a marketer's own dream horizon you will come unstuck.

Without an understanding grounded in the target customers’ dream horizons, however ordinary they may be, the marketer's dream will be dismissed as just more of the same old irrelevant marketing nonsense.

 

Audrey Niven
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2005