Twice in the past 18 months, I’ve been stuck on the motorway. Not just ‘weight of traffic’ problems, but full-blown closures following tragic, fatal accidents.
Thousands of vehicles and people parked up for several hours creates a new experience. Coaches disgorge their passengers onto the hard shoulder, cigarettes are lit up, and dogs walked. When the opposite carriageway was also closed to enable the air ambulance to land, an impromptu kickabout started up on the M6.
But what’s most striking is the way people start to interact and connect with each other. On any other day, or even only hours or minutes earlier, we would refer to other motorists purely in terms of the tin box they inhabit: “that maniac in the BMW” or “the Transit hogging the middle lane”. But when the road is closed, the BMW and Transit reveal their drivers to be Joan the ex-policewoman who’s visiting her newborn nephew, and Mike the Manchester United fan who’s come all the way from Sussex, anxious to get to Old Trafford in time for the Spurs game.
Thousands of individual, human stories, of which we are normally utterly ignorant, are brought to life by a tragedy. We allow ourselves a pause to stop and talk, share the moment, and are brought closer. We talk and laugh, united in our British stoicism at the complete lack of communication, the reliance on ‘a mate’ of a stranger who’s heard that it’s going to reopen at 3pm, or the coach driver who’s been told from HQ that it could be hours.
And although we may be delayed, it’s mostly no big deal. We’re just a bit late. Joan will turn around and go again tomorrow. Mike should make it for the second half at least. And we were just late. As we drive past the place where the accident occurred, the only signs that anything took place at all to disrupt the thundering traffic are a few chalk marks on the road, the legacy of the investigation teams. Nothing else, no shattered fragments of glass, nor blackened tyre scorchings, just a few dotted chalk lines.
But we remember the people. We hope or pray for the victims in the air ambulance, and feel guilty for cursing as the road remained stubbornly immobilised. We wonder if Joan did see her nephew, and we smile as we hear that Man Utd soundly beat Spurs, hoping that Mike was there to see it. Not because we’re MU fans, but because it meant something to Mike. And because we knew that, it meant something to us too. When people connect, things start to matter.
And finally to the point. Marketing teams are often guilty of talking in generic, collective terms: “healthy hedonists”, “conscientious cleaners”, and so on. Even Adam & Joe were discussing this last week, “Charlottes, Tinas and Bettys”. Customer segments and consumer clusters are categorised and described in terms of their purchase behaviour, or income, or postcodes. Marketers like to deal in big, quantitative numbers that make them feel safe.
But what about the people? There are millions of individual stories and connections to be made. Cars don’t talk back, data segments don’t talk back, but people do. And when they do, you’re suddenly in a conversation. And then you don’t need to make judgements based on data points or claims in research, you learn about actual people and what they actually think. Individuals matter, because they have stories they believe in. We should listen to individuals.
Tropicana in the US has learnt this the hard way recently. There are lots of articles relating this tale of woe, but this blog says it nicely. “It’s about Americans at their breakfast table. How can this have escaped you?”