Is All Our Market Research Wrong?

Marketing research as always relied on psychological concepts, theoretical constructs and interview and survey techniques widely considered as surrogates for reality. Billions in ad campaigns have been committed on the basis of the results unearthed. Yet, in his forthcoming book Consumer.ology: The Market Research Myth, Philip Graves, a consumer behavior consultant, trashes long-standing marketing research techniques and offers four alternative ways to better understand and predict consumer behavior.

His central argument is that we are measuring the wrong thing, at the wrong time with the wrong people. He insists that awareness, desire, preference and choice are functions of the unconscious mind rather than a rational process. For Graves branding is about emotional imprinting and logical short-cuts. “Our reliance on brands … is a pragmatic system of packaging up product associations into an unconsciously identifiable device that removes the need to make complex, long-winded conscious evaluations of alternatives every time we purchase something.”

He doesn’t think consumers know what they want and clearly believes that they can’t articulate what they want or why they want it. He suggests we stop asking because the output is useless. “If human beings were routinely capable of such accurate introspection, psychoanalysts could be replaced by a two line computer program.”

He indicts market researchers for asking questions out of context, for talking to the wrong audiences, for ignoring behavior in favor of opinion and for generally missing the mark. “Our unconscious minds have vast amounts of data that we regularly rely on to make decisions, but we have no direct conscious access to those processes, “ he argues.

Graves argument boils down to several key points ….

  • Decision-making is unconscious and we can’t really get inside consumer’s heads.
  • Anything consumers tell us is a post-action rationalization or re-interpretation of events they themselves cannot fully understand or explain
  • Just asking the questions, changes the answers
  • Buying is done emotionally, in-the-moment and we don’t have the tools to simulate or even understand the mechanics
  • This moment is affected by a wide range of variables (e.g. people present, environment, stimuli) which make tracking it or generalizing about it almost impossible

So like a direct marketer, he believes that observed behavior yields a more potent insight that the full range of current marketing research techniques. “When market research wanders into the realm of the future, it is inherently reckless.”

He takes a strong obligatory shot at focus groups concluding that “if accurate consumer insights is the objective, and then by far the simplest ‘solution’ is to avoid focus groups altogether.”

Graves’ solution to understanding consumers better is four-fold.

  1. Mount “cost effective yet meaningful live tests”
  2. Give up market research as a CYA risk or blame mitigation tool
  3. Go with your gut
  4. Measure any consumer research or insights against 5 criteria expressed as the acronym – AFECT.

Analysis of consumer behavior; hard data.

Frame of mind; context.

Environment; the range of potential stimuli

Covert study; disguise the real topic when engaging consumers

Timeframe; recognizing the snap judgment ala Gladwell’s blink hypothesis

This is an annoying, eye-opening, thoroughly researched and tightly argued book. It will alarm some, enrage others and state the obvious for many. The outstanding question is; will it prompt change?

Full disclosure: I got a free review copy from the publisher.

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4 Responses to Is All Our Market Research Wrong?

  1. tasflowrance October 14, 2010 at 12:10 am #

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  2. Bill Gustafson October 15, 2010 at 6:30 am #

    There are always new things to learn some of which are very helpful but the core process of buying is still fundamentally the same. The challenge is to understand how the new things like social and mobile fit into the old process model.

  3. LG October 15, 2010 at 8:35 am #

    Wow, I love this concept and how the author manages to verbalize (and validate) something which I believe I inherently understood, but would be at a loss to successfully describe. For intuitive, big-picture folks, this makes a lot of sense – but for the analytics-driven marketing market, yes, it WOULD be annoying, because it challenges the very ground on which it stands and the air it breathes. Congratulations and thank you!

  4. Ramanathan A V October 17, 2010 at 3:07 am #

    I see the blog about Consumer Ology: the Market Reserch Myth written by Philip Greaves has lot of merit based on reality. I was asked to address a group of Indian Civil servants (most of them of the administrative Service holding coveted government positions), and when I mooted the idea of going for manufacturing of medium cost shirts by using technology, most of the chaps objected in chorous that people would want to go for branded apparels, and local manufactured shirts would not get any price. I asked them whether they were brand conscious. They said “Yes”. I asked them, Tell me what is the brand of the Shirt you are wearing? I will cross check with the label. Only one got correct, and they confessed, that their wives brought the shirts for them. This is survey for you.