East Side Gallery, BerlinSoon after the Soviet Union had erected the Berlin Wall, President JFK uttered the now famous words “Ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a Berliner).

Initially this was a statement to the Russians of Western resolve.

Over the years, however, it has become adopted by Berliners themselves as a statement of individuality & freedom of expression.

During a recent holiday in Berlin, I was reminded of this famous speech both by the many historical sites to visit and also by the people we met. Berlin feels like a city of contradictions. Hard to categorise, it feels like an individual who refuses to be neatly pigeon-holed. Is that true for your customers too?

We have an armoury of customer insight tools at our disposal these days (from various segmentation approaches, to predictive analytics delivering real-time personalised marketing content). It’s perhaps too tempting to become focussed on what is possible, rather than what your customers actually value. How often do you find yourself thinking of your customers in terms of stable segments or predictable behaviours your models can ‘understand’?

Immersing yourself in the smorgasbord of sites, entertainment, food, drink & sheer variety of people in Berlin is a great tonic for that simplification. It can also help dispel a number of misconceptions we Brits still have about our Anglo-Saxon cousins. Here’s a few apparent contradictions that struck me:

  • You can be fined for crossing the road before the “green man” is illuminated and you see most people obey this rule. That plays right into my assumption that Germans are rigid rule followers, almost control freaks. But then as you walk around Berlin you find a widespread acceptance of graffiti everywhere. At first it can seem scruffy and run-down, but then you come to see that people value this freedom of expression, this individuality.
  • Berlin has many historical sites, beautiful museums and art galleries. Indeed much of the tourist information would lead you to expect that this is a classic historical city that will be full of affluent middle-aged Germans & tourists appreciating the many forms of culture on offer. But our experience is 80% of those travelling around Berlin appear to be under 30. This is a youthful and vibrant city, with more nightlife and social venues than you could fit in.
  • The British are famous (perhaps infamous) for believing the German’s have no sense of humour. Much of the comedy I grew up on, including “Dad’s Army“, plays into such stereotypes. However, anyone attending a cabaret show called The Wyld would find an entertaining cocktail of comedy, dance, circus acts & hilarious cabaret including risqué performances for all orientations.
  • Perhaps, like us Brits, the Germans are not renowned for their cuisine. People could easily assume Berlin will be all currywurst (which is tastier than I guessed) & beer. But this most cosmopolitan of cities has good quality cuisine from all over the world. We personally enjoyed a Jamaican-European fusion restaurant better than any we’ve visited in UK. This feels like a city aligned to Angela Merkel’s openness to other cultures as new germans.

So, what’s my point for customer insight leaders (apart from consider a city break in Berlin if you haven’t been)? It is a reminder to remember that your customers are individuals whose lives will be filled with apparent contradictions. Don’t be surprised or discount research or analysis that appears to contradict what you think you already know about your customers. Rather, I’d encourage being open to insights about contradictory & changing customer wants & needs.

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How do you respond to this challenge? Have you managed to stay focussed on the jobs your customers want to get done – without assuming you fully understand them? Have you embedded a test & learn norm in your marketing that keeps your approach fresh & flexible?

Please do share your tips & tricks for avoiding cosy stereotypes. Plus any insight musings you have had from your holiday. We’d love to hear them.