Market Research Must Get Real, Not Ideal, Social Scientists Say

Nath Berg Research is useless. Some of it, anyway -- if it does not reflect real behavior rather than theoretical models.


Panelists at The Advertising Research Foundation's 55th anniversary conference in New York agree on this view. The theme for the discussion, "Can Research Catch the Customer," was that current research methods are built largely on a faulty understanding of human psychology.

Nathan Berg, associate professor of economics at the University of Texas, said current market research frequently assumes an impossible degree of analysis by consumers. In addition, people who know less frequently make a better-informed choice. "There is a faulty idea that more information is better. Most people don't consider all options. In fact, being smart means making fast decisions before you consider everything."



The way people actually choose between complex options in an array of consumer products -- cell phones, for instance -- is to quickly eliminate whole swaths of them that don't meet a basic non-negotiable parameter or two. He illustrated the point with a page from that displayed some 100 cell phones, each with sixteen features. Rather than weighing the incomprehensible variety of features against each other to make the most informed choice, consumers instead eliminate, say, all phones over 10 oz. in weight, and over $200.

"Most statistical models are putting weight on the standard model: what is the 'feasible' set. What we have found in a whole variety of settings is that good consumers know what to ignore, said Berg."

They deal with large-dimensional choice lists by collapsing them to make a choice that "satisfices." He says marketers make a fundamental mistake in assuming that consumers are willing to consider an entire choice set -- the 100 cell phones, say -- and weigh all product attributes among them against each other, rather than using attributes to eliminate choice.

"If you are an advertiser, if your product is thrown out of the choice set right way, you are not even in the game."

Dr. Robert Deutsch, an anthropologist and founder of marketing firm Brain Sells, concurred -- adding that people act rather than think. "Metrics are not life," he said. "How real people act flies in the face of most consumer models we have."

Deutsch said that marketers don't quite understand the essence -- and perhaps essential atavism -- of brands. "The primal mind makes patterns; branding predates marketing by 3.5 million years. What contemporary marketers call 'brand' is actually a primal and primary mechanism of the mind: it is attachment, a metaphoric merging between a person's 'self story' and a person's story of you, the product, the company."

He says the distinction is not academic because marketers that spend millions on branding exercises are probably wasting their time if they superimpose an idealized notion of a consumer's self-image. "There are ways to get at that self story and it's realistic, not 'I want to be like Mike [Jordan].' People have a sense -- perhaps not fully formed -- of who they are and what's latent in them.

Deutsch says branding is a spasm of sentiment that needs no basis in logical fact, and realized when it is familiar ("it's like me"), participatory ("does it like me") and powerful, ("Is it more than me.")

That latter idea -- power -- is a dimension that gives a person a sense that with a particular brand as venue, "I can become more of myself." Deutsch says, in fact, that brand loyalty is self-loyalty. "There is no such thing as product loyalty; that's commodity-based. Attachment leads to self-loyalty. It looks like product loyalty, but it's not; it's 'through you I become more of me."

Marketers should throw out purchase funnel models "and consider brand attachment as the yellow brick road -- "a journey I make with you that fills out what's already latent in me," Deutsch says. Great marketers are therefore shamans."


4 comments about "Market Research Must Get Real, Not Ideal, Social Scientists Say".
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  1. Kevin Horne from Verizon, March 31, 2009 at 10:45 a.m.

    Bravo to David Taylor and his comment! Well said. (PS remember that economists are also the ones who are sure the recession is going to last until well into 2010...idiots.)

    Anyone who buys what the "expert" in the article said about "throwing out the funnel" should resign from the Marketing function immediately. The funnel is your guide to the "how to" of Marketing...which neither an economist nor anthropologist would understand.

  2. Kern Lewis from GrowthFocus, Inc., March 31, 2009 at 11:50 a.m.

    The thoughts shared in this article started out on point. Consumers truly do develop coping mechanisms when faced with complex choices (and seek handy mechanisms to help themselves cope, which is a wonderful engagement opportunity for marketers).
    The last part of the article crashed and burned. Self-loyalty? Shaman? Here is a fellow trying to create a theme that he can ride to generate niche income in a publication or two...and perhaps some consulting gigs.
    Smart marketers should chuckle at the thought and get back to work.

  3. Brian LoCicero from Kantar, April 2, 2009 at 12:50 p.m.

    Nigel Hollis from Millward Brown also weighed in earlier this week.

  4. Joel Rubinson from Rubinson Partners, Inc., April 2, 2009 at 2:43 p.m.

    I'm sorry those of you commenting, including Nigel, were not at the event as this article is incomplete. To actually HEAR these presentations. There were three scientists not two and they were not asked to be aligned so the piece doesn't have to flow (unlike what is implied by one of the posts that said the article started out good...). One of the best known professors in Marketing, Jerry Wind, advised us that the best way to see new problem solving paths is to reach into other disciplines. The ARF did that. Personally, i think behavioral economics is the most important discipline to bring into marketing as it relates to how people really decide (it would scientifically ground shopper insights for example). I am available to answer any questions on what actually transpired on this panel and what we hope to do with it.

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