Horton Hears His WHO! Do You?

Of all the tactics marketers use to get consumers to look up and listen, the most important is making sure you hear them first.

For those that know me personally, they’re aware that I’m a new father. My wife and I are overjoyed with our little one, born just four weeks ago. And, no matter how many times during the months leading up to her arrival other parents told me “Your life will never be the same again”—I didn’t fully understand the weight of those words until now. It’s not simply about diaper changes, onesies (who knew a little baby could have such a big wardrobe?), warm hugs, and lack of sleep. For me, one of the things I appreciate most is looking at things once again with a fresh pair of eyes. This has included rediscovering and reading all the Dr. Seuss books to her, and one of his most popular, Horton Hears a Who! For those less familiar with the book, Horton the Elephant hears a very tiny voice on a speck of dust. He believes that it must be someone in distress who needs his help. Despite the other animals’ disbelief in a voice so small, Horton sets his mind to the task of looking out for the voice, because a person’s a person, no matter how small.

© 2008, Blue Sky Studios and 20th Century Fox.

When I worked at Procter & Gamble, a WHO was how we would talk about a brand’s audience. They’re not just a target consumer and shopper, but the multidimensional people who you should be focused on in every choice you make for your brand, asking yourself if what you’re offering solves their problems and meets their unmet needs. When I was at Target, we talked further about surprising and delighting our guests (also our WHO). Today, in my humble opinion, understanding your WHO is table stakes for the most successful brands, who have now set out to connect with their audiences on an emotional level, whether via a shared brand purpose or values. To perform at this level, we as brand stakeholders need to not only understand consumer motivation and consumer needs but develop empathy for who they are and champion them.


© 2008, Blue Sky Studios and 20th Century Fox.

First, collect all the available data you have regarding your WHO.

Assemble and sort through the vast amount of your demographic and shopper data, previous research, and the 150-page PowerPoint decks gathering dust on your desk. Synthesize and distill the insights you find into something more digestible, using only the most pertinent points that truly give you insight into the minds of your audience. What are the key things you need to remind yourself about when making brand and product choices that impact them? If you only have one page to capture their persona, what makes the cut and what doesn’t? I promise that this summation will get day-to-day use by your brand stakeholders. Whether it’s pinned up on an office wall or folded into the front position of a brand bible, these one-pagers are great at reminding us who we serve: our WHO.

© 2008, Blue Sky Studios and 20th Century Fox.

Next, dive deep beyond the data to fill in the gaps and unknowns.

Spend a day in Whoville. One of the best ways to do this is to walk a day in the life of your WHO alongside them. I recall conducting in-home ethnographies in Los Angeles a few years back. The marketing director accompanying us was at first a bit uncomfortable, but our consumer was so proud to invite us into her home. We then watched her prepare a meal and describe the experience. Previously, in a typical FGI research session (you know the kind, where we all sit behind the mirror eating M&M’s) this same consumer confidently described her cooking process. What she told us in that setting was an explanation we would have taken at face value had we not come into her home. But in her home, we observed that her description was not technically accurate: what she said wasn’t what she did. We witnessed big discrepancies, pain points, and compensating behaviors. We also gained empathy into cultural pressures and her motivations to try and cook like her Abuela. All valuable insights about WHO she really was that we otherwise wouldn’t have gained.

Image: © 1954, 1982 by Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P.

Like Horton, stay true to your WHO throughout all you do (despite naysayers).

I hate to say this, but some of the biggest obstacles to doing the right thing for your brand’s audience can be other supposed brand stakeholders. They’re very much like the Wickersham gang of monkeys poor Horton had to fight to protect the Whos. I remember a meeting where one such naysayer shot down an idea because it didn’t make sense to him personally. He incorrectly assumed that our consumer’s thought process was the same as his (he was a senior executive making well over six figures). Yes, a six-pack of scrub sponges at $5.50 was a better overall value, I agreed, but this consumer still needed the single sponge priced at $1.25. Believe it or not, that remaining $4.25 was so very important for our consumer. Because, with only a total of $35 dollars to shop with, she needed to put it toward purchasing other much-needed items for her family.


I know, I know. What about all the other issues brand stakeholders need to deal with like pricing, manufacturing, R&D, legal, distribution channels, advertising, and more. Aren’t those important? Yes, and I’m not suggesting that they don’t matter. But, in my experience, despite all the products and services a brand develops, it’s how you serve them up—by connecting with your audience—that counts the most.

Image: © 1954, 1982 by Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P.

If you have an understanding of your audience’s basic needs and wants, push yourself and your colleagues to develop a deeper sense of empathy, and summon the will to champion their voice, especially when others don’t hear it. If you focus on your WHO in all you do, the business results will follow. And, like Horton, you’ll ultimately rally others to your cause and see your brand win the day and—maybe, just maybe—live happily ever after with your WHO.