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"Let it burn": What meaning-making in Brazil tells us about consumer insights

The Brazilian government wants people to just stop making such a deal about the Amazon rainforest fires. As if we don't have our own problems.

Not sure what to make of this, I looked into it and learned three things.

First, rainforest fires are old news in the Amazon. Though this year has seen 35% more fires than previous years' averages since 2010 (comparing the same January-August time frame each year), the previous decade has seen many more. Fires at this scale there aren't new: social media is.

Second, when the Brazilian economy is strong, people work in cities and leave the rainforest alone. When recession hits, people move to the rainforest to make money mining its rich resources. Environmental solutions can't be uncoupled from economic ones.

Third, Brazil’s rejection of foreign aid is more than a reflection of its government's environmental policies. It’s about what foreign intervention means to them. It doesn’t mean help, and it doesn't mean saving the global environment. It's means colonial subjugation. For the Brazilian government, foreign meddling in the Amazon rainforest means keeping Brazil at a global economic disadvantage.

I kind of get it. Historically, colonial superpowers built their empires by mining natural resources in the foreign regions they ruled. Brazil simply wants to call the shots on its very own real estate. After all, the United States wouldn’t appreciate it if another country stepped in to protect Bristol Bay.

But here’s the thing: Leonardo DiCaprio spending $5 million to stop the fires might mean that Leo wants to economically subjugate Brazil. But it could also mean that he wants to protect the environment so future generations - including Brazilians - will have a healthy planet to live on. Whichever meaning Brazil embraces is the one that will drive its decision-making. Think foreign intrusion means keeping Brazil down? Then tell Leo to butt out. Think it means ensuring a hospitable planet? Tell Leo where to wire the money.

Human beings are natural meaning-makers. We look for causes and connections, motives and rationales, and when weighing decision pros and cons, we rely on our understandings of what things mean. Change the meaning of a decision outcome, and an attractive option may suddenly seem unattractive.

In the case of the rainforest, meaning-making has been drastically unfortunate. In consumer behavior, it's quite interesting. The decision to choose one product or service over another depends on meanings consumers carry about their preferences and experiences as well as your brand. Think buying product X means you're savvy? Buy product X. Think it means you're outdated? Don't buy it.

This is why a good consumer researcher will always ask consumers what things mean.

Whether you do your own consumer research or hire someone to do it for you, make sure the following things happen so you get the right insights for driving growth:

1. When a consumer says they want a product, service, or brand to deliver on something, ask them what that something means to them. Convenience, trust, value, control, relevance… consumers consistently say they want these things, but these things mean different things to different people - and in different time periods. Years ago, consumer research revealed th importance of convenience to deciding which stores to visit. Today, consumers shop online rather than at a store for the same reason: convenience. On the surface, it looks like not much has changed. But dig a bit and you might discover that what convenience means has changed. Before the internet, convenience was about geographical proximity ("location, location, location!"). These days, convenience is about saving time. If you don't dig, you can miss opportunities.

2. Keep in mind that meanings are contextual. For example, consumers prefer brands they can trust - but what trust means differs depending on the situation. To a purchaser of athletic gear, it might mean feeling secure that what they buy will last. To someone hiring a lawyer, it might mean feeling secure that the lawyer will do whatever it takes. To a consumer shopping at a home improvement store, it might mean feeling secure that staff are expertly knowledgeable and honest. If you assume that trust means the same thing in different contexts, you won't know how to appeal to your consumers.

3. Always ask why. Always. Suppose you’re talking to an IT professional about what they want from data migration software. They tell you they want something that’s easy to use. Ok, great... you can understand that. But don’t stop there. You ask what “easy to use” means, and you discover that it’s all about saving time. Still, don’t stop there. Ask them why saving time matters and they might tell you that if they run out of time before completing their tasks, they don't feel the accomplishment they crave, and they can't be the badass they want to be at work. Suddenly you’re onto an emotional benefit that your brand can leverage.

The pros and cons of every consumer decision are shaped by the meanings consumers attach to them. Unlock these meanings, and you can better understand consumer decision-making. Better understand consumer decision-making, and you can better serve consumer needs.


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