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The Beauty of Mixing Company in “Foreign” Environments

Posted on | May 29, 2008 | No Comments

by Andrea Learned

I admit it. I am someone who always manages to find myself living in Subaru-driving, latte drinking (in one’s own stainless steel cup – of course), and tree-hugging communities. But, the older and wiser I get, the more I realize how a little exploring of the foreign-to-me topics and environments really helps me better understand people who exist in the other 99.5% of the U.S. (let alone other countries).

For example, I’m not sure which was more out of my comfort zone – a business trip I took a few years ago to Dubai or a personal trip I took a few weeks ago to a music festival in Lafayette, Louisiana. In both cases I kept my mouth shut and tried to observe and learn from the people who crossed my path, which gave me new respect for, and interest in, each culture.
In the marketing realm, there is much evidence of the same sort of fear of the “foreign” – particularly in the way the women’s market is approached by so many traditionally male-dominated industries. Spa parties and nail polish give-away type campaigns tend to be the default female shopper attraction, despite the fact that such methods are akin to talking REALLY LOUDLY in a country where you don’t speak the language. Irrelevant and cringe-worthy.

The better way to handle such a foreign exchange, if you will, is by mixing it up. Don’t stand in a corner using data analysis or focus group discussion to try to figure out how women – or any otherwise unfamiliar market segment – on the other side of the room, make buying decisions. Instead, engage and interact more intimately, human to human, and avoid inadvertent polarization. Mixing company helps the “language” barriers fall and the consumer insights rise to the surface.

The Big Sort by Bill Bishop with Robert Cushing (read the review in the May 18th New York Times Books section) points to large, self-perpetuating shifts in population which have resulted in, you guessed it, political polarization of left and right, blue and red states. Many of us can look around and see that our communities reflect that. But, as Bishop puts it in a rule that applies beyond politics: “Mixed company moderates; like-minded company polarizes.”

Does moderation sound boring? Yeah, a little. But mixing company breeds familiarity that speeds any sort of better connection – be that in studying up on new market segments or in building better neighbor relations. If you don’t know the “other” and keep yourself away from it/them due to fear of the unknown, what good does that serve? A wedge is formed that grows bigger and bigger – keeping new opportunities and new connections forever at bay.

Mixing company with the women you serve, rather than studying them from afar like some sort of anthropological project, turns foreign into fascinating. From there, you’ll get what you need to take your marketing efforts from ho-hum to engaging.


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