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By Robert Relihan, Senior Vice President

When I began my career in marketing research as an interviewer, I assumed that I would be leaving my academic training behind. Of what use would my knowledge of manuscript hands, scholastic philosophy, and Anglo-Norman devotional literature be when I was talking to ten-year-olds about the latest iteration of microwavable pizza?

So, it was with a good deal of interest that I read a recent post on the Athrostrategist blog about the lessons to be learned from effect of the stained glass windows in gothic cathedrals for the design of retail space. It points out that the windows of the gothic cathedral were much more than a new architectural technology. They served to educate an illiterate congregation. But even more, they created a sacred space that insulated the people from the tribulations of the outside world and primed them for worship. The church itself elevated the experience.

The retail environment must do the same. It must do more than simply draw the attention of consumers to the features and benefits of products. The store should draw shoppers into the ethos of a product and prime them for the total experience in which a product participates.

An impressive analogy. I am sure it is possible to get there without a knowledge of Abbe Suger, but it sure helps. So, I remember the first time I realized my academic training was not useless. I was behind the mirror in a focus group facility listening to a brand manager rail about the stupidity of the consumers I had just interviewed. They refused to recognize the benefits of his new product -- qualities he felt were obvious and should be manifest to everyone.

With a certain degree of temerity -- I was rather new then -- I suggested that my respondents were merely looking in all honesty for what they saw as the benefits in the product. They were not willfully ignorant. In the back of my mind was a vague recollection of St. Augustine's stricture about sin, that people are not really evil. Rather, "all people seek the good."

The lesson in all of this is larger than the utility of gothic architecture or medieval philosophy to understanding shopper behavior. Insights, or at least the ability to perceive them in consumer actions and statements, are often the product of our ability to bring a new frame of reference to bear upon familiar evidence.

It is not simply academic pursuits that can be useful. To be sure, what you may have learned studying history, or geology, or French literature can provide you with a set of mental frameworks that will compliment what you have learned studying marketing. But, so too will the experience creating schedules for Little League, coordinating a Girl Scout Cookie sale, or organizing your MP3 collection. The more structures we have in our mental quiver to layover what we observe, the richer the insights we will see.