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The audience comes last

Challenging the stereotypes of brandbuilding

One of my great heroes is the visionary music producer, Rick Rubin. This has nothing to do with the music he has helped produce, stellar though his credits are. Rather it’s to do with the perceptiveness of his vision and the depth of his thought about creativity and connecting with people. In a recent interview, Rubin said this:

The audience comes last. The audience doesn’t know what they want. The audience only knows what’s come before

Rick Rubin

When I heard this it struck a chord with me. Because what Rubin is saying is exactly what Daniel Kahnemann told us in ‘Thinking Fast and Slow”, that an enormous amount of our decision-making isn’t driven by logical rationality, but by a complex set of of heuristics that take over in the moment, and are driven solely by accessing fragments of our past experiences.

When I hear the opening bars of ‘Superstition’ by Stevie Wonder, my feet start moving and my body fills with joy. But I can’t tell Stevie what music to write next to make me do it again. Nor can I explain why other songs on ‘Talking Book’ don’t have the same effect.

Beware brand aphorisms, look deeper

Social media is awash with simple marketing “truths”, many of which are only partially true, or easy to misapply in a counter-productive way. Once example is:

Listen to your customers, they have incredible insight for you to learn from“.

The problematic word here is listen, for the reasons I’ve explained above. Instead, what if we OBSERVE our customers’ behaviour? Even better, what if we actually design these observations with the intent of seeing how their heuristics apply to their experience of our brand? I think this is what Steve Jobs meant when he said:

People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.

Steve Jobs

I describe Sufu as being a brand messaging agency. But what we really are is a designer of messages that are “not yet on the page”, that allow cognitive and psychological evaluation of your customers and their experience. Every iteration of a brand proposition that we create, every marketing campaign idea that we develop, isn’t done with the intention of discovering “what we think this audience wants”.

It’s done with the intention of discovering what people cannot help but react positively to in their behaviour.

I hope Rick Rubin doesn’t mind, but I’ve paraphrased some of the words he uses to describe what he does, to help describe myself.

I have spent 20 years developing my emotional intelligence as a marketer. The confidence I have in that intelligence, and my ability to express what I feel, helps brands connect with their audience, to grow their business, in ways they cannot see for themselves.

If you’d like to hear more from Rick Rubin, the interview below is a total blast. If you’d like help to connect with your audience, to grow your business, set up a 1-1 with me and I’ll show you how.

We build strong brand perception
then convert it into lasting brand opinion.


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