What my Friendship with Julia Child Taught Me about First-Person Data

By Jon Stamell, CEO of Oomiji

With cookies and third-party tracking soon to come to an end, it’s time we take a look at how we can gather zero and first-party data directly from the customer.  I had the good fortune to know one of the best collectors of data directly from the consumer’s mouth — the grand dame of French cooking and culinary instructor to millions of Americans, Julia Child. Her name doesn’t pop into your head when it comes to collecting first-party data, but my work and friendship with Julia during the last decade of her life taught me some important lessons about market research, learning from customers and the real keys to building relationships. They are lessons that I’ve taken with me in thinking about how technology should work to strengthen relations between brands and customers.

Marketing emails don’t create a relationship, and I often look to my friendship with Julia to reflect on what does. I first met Julia  when I interviewed her for an article in a seafood magazine in the late 1980’s. We had a lively first conversation, during which she expressed a lot of opinions about the state of the American seafood industry and consumers’ wariness of preparing fish. I also noticed that she had a lot of questions for me about the same topics, as if I were an expert. In fact, Julia had so many questions that I had difficulty ending the call.

At that time, I owned a growing advertising agency based in Portland, Maine. One of our clients was the Norwegian salmon industry, and they asked if I could get Julia to take a return visit to Norway, where she once lived. She and her husband Paul spent time there in the late 50’s where Paul was a foreign service officer. Both had previously worked for the OSS, predecessor to the CIA, years earlier. That may well have taught her some things about gathering data and asking questions.

Julia had fond memories of her time in Norway, and after a few meetings we agreed to develop a PBS special.   We had a memorable ten-day shoot that ended in a town called Lom, where a chef known for wild game prepared dishes like bear paw paté and dried reindeer heart (I don’t recommend either). At the end of the shoot, the crew had to get back to Oslo to begin editing. The only two who had no agenda or deadlines were Julia and me, so we drove together leisurely back to Oslo.

On that drive, I learned that Julia’s curiosity had no limits. At her urging, we stopped in the mountains to pick cloudberries, those rare orange raspberries that Norwegians savor for a few weeks in summer. We lingered at an open-air reindeer antler sale in the mountains where she convinced me to buy a pair to hang over the door at my home. She wanted to visit a Norwegian supermarket, so we stopped in one where Julia asked to sample at least a dozen different cheeses . I don’t know if the cheesemonger knew who she was, but he seemed to enjoy her curiosity and questions.

Over the next several years, Julia and I became friends. Every few months, we would get together for lunch or dinner. I sat in her historic kitchen while she made tuna fish sandwiches, had sumptuous group dinners at her house, and dined at restaurants where the owners would take away the menus and ensure the chef made a meal fit for the world’s best-selling cookbook author.

She always had one consistent characteristic: She asked questions, lots of them, of everybody. People were always surprised that she wanted to know what they thought about their food, the restaurant, cooking, travel, just about anything that might come to her mind. It was interesting to see the reactions of everyday Americans who were being questioned by their culinary idol. What they didn’t see was that she was gathering data to inform her books and television content. On her iconic show, she knew she could be her natural self because her millions of fans had already given her feedback.

Today, digital marketers have turned relationship-building into ones and zeroes, and in doing so they’ve overlooked the fundamentals to building real relationships. When we meet each other in our everyday lives, we ask questions, acknowledge each other’s responses, and respond based on what we’ve learned.  That’s how relationships are formed. if your goal is to learn more about people, the best method at your disposal is an honest and open-ended question. It was always Julia’s greatest weapon. With evolving technology and data regulations, this core tenant of communication promises to become more important than ever. Brands and marketers are about to reconfigure how we do things.

Yet, as soon we go digital, we try to come up with hidden ways to track consumers and model their future behavior. That behind-the-back tracking is going away, and it’s time to have a more transparent and honest relationship with consumers. Privacy laws are forcing us in a new direction. Will we all learn from Julia Child and start asking questions, listening, and responding with care and interest? As Julia proved, it’s a time-tested approach.

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