Seeing how the other half lives


..or why we should all leave our ivory towers once in a while.

Last week I found myself in Sunderland with time to kill. As you do.

I decided to resist the usual temptation to linger in my hotel room staring at a screen, dealing with emails, reading articles, or generally wasting time on social media.

Instead, I decided to leave all technology behind and get to know my temporary location a little better.

I’d never been to Sunderland before and have to confess that I knew very little about it before this trip.

I did know that it had a long history of shipbuilding, is the location for a Nissan car manufacturing plant and is also home to a struggling Premier League football team.

I also knew that it is typically the first electorate in the country to declare its results in general elections and as such is considered something of a Bellwether town.

In last year’s EU referendum, it voted 61% in favour of Brexit and was thus a portent of the result that was to follow nationally.

These few simple facts painted a picture of a location very different to my comfortable little London/South East bubble, but I was intrigued to dig a little deeper and find out a bit more about how the ‘other half’ lives.

So, I decided to immerse myself in the town for the morning.

I went for a long walk and looked around at my surroundings – the new developments; the majestic, but boarded up old ‘Varsity’ building; the recently closed Maplins store; the Poundland shops; the thriving Bridges shopping centre.

I sat outside a café and instead of reading a paper or looking at my phone, I spent time people watching, looking at the passers-by – their ages, the ethnic mix, what they were wearing. I subtly eavesdropped on nearby conversations to see what was on their minds.

I also talked to real people – to hotel staff, to shop workers, to pensioners, to students. I asked them about Sunderland.

I strolled around the University campus, checking out the courses on offer and I visited the impressive looking football stadium.

It was only a few hours, but overall it gave me a feeling for a hard-working town, doing it tough, but nevertheless plain talking, good humoured and optimistic. I got a real sense of pride for their town and the region.

It was an enjoyable and informative morning and made me wonder why I haven’t escaped my ivory tower and done more of this ad hoc ethnographic-style activity more often in recent years.

It's not as if I've never done so - in the past I’ve certainly gone the extra mile to get to know people better.

Everything from travelling around with sales reps as they visit their customers, to going on a pub crawl with beer drinkers, to spending time with a call centre complaints team or just spending time in ‘normal’ people’s houses, observing their daily routines.

In each case, this has delivered a deeper and more authentic level of understanding than if I’d just sat behind my laptop screen and relied on desk research and lazy stereotypes.

In the case of Sunderland, I don’t profess to have done more than to scratch the surface, but I do feel that I have a slightly more real understanding of the town and its residents than I did a week ago.

I certainly plan to repeat this type of exercise more often in the future and would encourage anyone involved in marketing to leave your office behind every now and then and spend time 'walking in your customers' shoes'.

It's a golden opportunity to witness first-hand what their lives are really like beyond what ‘the data’ tells you.

I guarantee you won’t regret the experience.

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