Do People Think in Industry Categories?

Do people think in industry categories?

This was a question posed to me the other day by a client during an insight session. A great question, which got me thinking… The notion of a category is largely made up by marketers, and only loosely followed by people as they cruise through a supermarket or shop online. In our daily lives, we don’t think so much in terms of functional categories as we do about our more urgent and palpable needs, such as: “I need to do laundry” or “where shall we go on vacation?” or “I could really use a break from working.” These then trigger the options that most readily come to mind, such as “laundry detergent” or “airline” or “coffee shop” – or perhaps a particular brand comes to mind that most dominates our consciousness.

So this thought process may well correlate to an existing category, but it may not correspond exactly to an industry sector. For example, from the industry perspective, fast food is called “QSR” (quick service restaurant). But a person or family may be considering what is in fact many different categories when they’re asking themselves the question, “where/what should we eat tonight?” For example, frozen food, pizza delivery, the local Chinese restaurant, fresh cooked food and many other options might occur. No one says, “hey, let’s have QSR tonight!” When someone goes out for an afternoon of shopping, lunch and a movie with friends, they don’t think to themselves, “hey, let’s have a retail experience!”

As marketers and advertisers, we often get so caught up in our categories, jargon and research studies that we forget to think and feel like a normal human being. We start to believe our own concepts, letting them hinder our powers of observation. So next time we read a study on “QSR trends” or “retail strategy,” we might want to reverse the perspective as we’re reading, thinking to ourselves: “From a human perspective, what would get me to think of/reach out to/choose this option or product or service vs. another? And what would my options really be, beyond this ‘category’?”