Method acting (aka “The Method”) is an approach to acting in which the actor tries to recreate and inhabit the emotional and psychological world of the person he or she is portraying. The approach was originally created by the Russian theatre director Constantin Stanislavksi, and is premised on the actor not merely “acting”, but “being” the character. If done successfully, the method can lead to great authenticity in performance.
But not everyone accepts this approach. There is a wonderful story of method actor Montgomery Clift, pictured here, on the set of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1953 film, I Confess, being asked by the director to stand by a window so that the cameraman could take a quick external shot of him looking through the window. Clift asked what his character would be thinking as he looked out the window. Hitchcock replied, Who the hell cares!, or words to that effect. The two argued, with Clift thinking that motivation and character was all, while Hitchcock just wanted his picture finished. (Hitchcock also greatly preferred actors who left all the thinking to him, and so it is not surprising that he and Clift never worked together again.)
I believe the same authentic empathy is required for good marketing, and marketers have to fully inhabit the world of their target customers. If the target customers are the same social class or ethnic group as the marketers themselves, then such Method Marketing probably comes without awareness — marketers are selling to people like themselves. But often marketers are not themselves part of the target audience, and have to struggle to understand their customers and their environments profoundly. Global companies that do this well, such as Unilever, are often thought by others to have “gone native”, allowing local managers great autonomy. Local autonomy, of course, does not guarantee empathy with local customers, but it certainly is necessary.
A situation I have experienced several times is a company from a developed country launching a subsidiary in a developing market. The latest marketing technology is deployed, including customer database systems and marketing data warehouses, to support customer profiling, friends and family programs, affinity marketing, the whole shebang. All this advanced technology requires air-conditioned offices and needs people with advanced skills to deploy and operate. Even if these people are local (and many are), they too sit in the air-con offices in the downtown skyscrapers in the capital city. An environment less like that of the target customers is hard to imagine. Although local marketers, usually with relatives in the villages, the kampongs and the favelas, will quickly realize the authenticity challenges here, they often have a hard time persuading their western-world masters that a problem exists.
The strangest example I ever witnessed was a long-winded discussion in a start-up mobile phone company in a developing country in Asia about whether to bill calls by the second or by the minute. The intended target market were people living in rural towns and villages. No one in the room seemed to appreciate that most of the target customers did not wear watches.