I was watching the first season of NBC’s drama Hannibal because people told me it was good. It is! It can be gruesome, but the psychological interplay between the two lead characters is fascinating.
While I was getting sucked into the storyline, an unexpected thing happened. I realized that there is a very interesting parallel between buyer personas and a murder mystery — where everything quite literally depends on a detective’s ability to put together a picture of someone no one knows.
The show takes place before the popular Silence of the Lambs and Red Dragon movies, before iconic serial killer Hannibal Lecter was captured.
On Hannibal, the hero is Will Graham, a very likable ex-FBI agent who is the perfect counterpoint to the cold, calculating Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Graham is called in to crime scenes to use his amazing empathetic abilities to profile the killers. With the accompaniment of a visual effect reminiscent of the pendulum of a clock, Graham rewinds time to inhabit the personas of these criminals.
So why am I writing about this TV show on my marketing blog? I can’t stop thinking about what a great marketer Will Graham would have made if he didn’t go into law enforcement.
When he’s at a crime scene, he doesn’t just note the facts. Many other investigators have been there before him and documented that information. Rather, we watch him really “be in the other guy’s experience.” He is able to empathize with his targets so deeply that he gets new information about what motivates and drives the killers.
He avoids the traps of focusing on the end result. He has the patience and resolve to evaluate each tiny clue through someone else's eyes. He knows that success can only be achieved through intuition and empathy, that thinking like his target is the only way to identify him and achieve the ultimate goal.
Will’s next step is to visit someone who is similar to his target. What’s interesting about the show is that he doesn’t know it – at least not consciously. Hannibal Lecter is both Will’s therapist and a serial killer in his own right. Will doesn’t get “the answer” in his meetings with Lecter, but that doesn’t stop him either. He uses those conversations to further develop his personas, looking for any data points that he could evaluate from a new perspective. Then he chases down these leads, continuously enhancing and building a persona that represents the real killers.
Ultimately this process of accumulating and synthesizing information leads Will to the killers. Will confidently and clearly describes the age, appearance, and personality of these men and women. No one tells Will this information directly. He built their personas after investing himself in gathering as much data as possible and then thinking like his target audience. Faced with such a clear description, it’s often trivial to track down the perpetrator.
By the end of the first season, Will Graham has realized that an unlikely solution – Hannibal Lecter being a serial killer – is the correct one. This is a realization that no amount of traditional police work could have produced, but because of Will’s remarkable empathy and ability to listen, he arrives at it.
Maybe we should re-brand our Buyer Persona Masterclass as the Buyer Persona Detective Workshop.