We work in an industry driven by insights. Without them, marketers and agencies are just guessing. Getting to good audience insights is hard enough. But the real gold is in getting to why those insights are there in the first place. If we can determine why an insight came to be, we can understand people’s lives in a way that allows us to craft something more meaningful, honest and empathetic.
Which brings us to “Umwelt.” I’m fascinated with the science of how animals think. I love listening to podcasts about it, reading books and articles about it. That’s how I came across the term Umwelt. It’s a German noun meaning “the world as it’s experienced by a particular organism.” This term can also be translated as “self-centered world.”
In animal sciences, the Umwelt theory is that the mind and the world are inseparable because the mind interprets the world for the organism. Simply put, to truly understand the biological foundations of any animal, we must see the world as they see it. For instance, the Umwelt for an echo locating bat is air-compression waves. That’s it: the one thing that defines everything about that species.
I believe the Umwelt concept applies equally to humans. Of course, we don’t use echolocation to make sense of the world. We see and interpret the world around us, using our senses and language.
And what each of us sees comes down to that person’s defining mental perspective. What is that one theory or mantra or assumption that influences every decision they make and how they define themselves? Are they positive or negative? Do they believe they have free will, or that they’re predetermined to live out a certain fate? Is money important? Are they a nature person or a nurture person? Why are we here? Does life really matter?
Asking these kinds of questions takes us beyond mere data—beyond determining, for example, what tribe someone is part of—and toward understanding the role of Umwelt in his or her life. This gets us to deeper thinking, by compelling us to ask questions such as why did they join a tribe in the first place? Do that, and we can start to understand how we can truly connect with them—on their terms and in their world.
So how can all of this help you make your business stronger? (By the way, if you were already asking this, your Umwelt is showing!)
How do we get to that personal Umwelt—that nugget of perspective that leads people to act and think and move the way they do? We get there by asking better questions. Ask an atheist “what do you believe in?” and the answer may be “nothing.” But ask an atheist, “why are we even here?” and the answer may be “to be kind to each other, so we continue to move forward as a species.” Which might lead us to consider how they see the world, what they connect with, and what and whom they want to be surrounded by. Which, in turn, could lead us to creating content that depicts people making the world a better place through kindness.
For our work with G.H. Cretors popcorn, we came up with a strategy based on data we uncovered suggesting that 68% of people snack between 2:00 and 4:00 pm. That led us to a targeted—and very successful—media campaign that enabled our client to engage with their ideal consumers at the perfect time of day.
Still, if we go even deeper, we might conclude that the real issue may not be hunger at all. It could be sleep (or lack thereof). That’s because people who don’t get enough sleep at night, or get inconsistent sleep, are more tired by mid-afternoon as their melatonin levels start to rise.* So, as a picker-upper, they snack.
Why aren’t they getting enough sleep? Perhaps it’s because they’re up taking care of their kids, or up worrying about them. Why are they doing that? Because for parents, taking care of your kids comes before self-preservation. Now that’s an Umwelt!
Knowing what we now know, we might also have advised our client to talk to consumers about getting more sleep, and our client’s role in their lives—specifically, an indulgent snack as a way to take care of themselves with a little “me time.” (“Here’s a delicious way to get back at your kids for keeping you up all night!”)
The geneticist Theodosius Dobzhanksy said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution.” Let’s look to our human evolution and ask how our Umwelts are created, shaped, and acted upon. For agencies and marketers like us, that can result in better ways to engage with our audiences, thanks to a deeper understanding—and more empathy—for the people we’re trying to engage.