Should We Re-Write The Rules Of Market Research? - Part I

In February 1998, the late David B. Wolfe wrote an article in the now defunct American Demographics magazine headlined, “What Your Customers Can’t Say.” The article challenged the assumption in most customer research that customers are the best sources about their motivations. "Consumers don't choose rationally, [so] any research that forces rational answers has to be flawed," wrote Wolfe. The article drew the largest response in the magazine’s history.

It has been 15 years since the article was printed but its argument is as relevant today as it was then.  Breakthroughs in brain science are challenging basic assumptions about consumer behavior. It's time to re-write the rules of market research. The following is an annotated summary of Wolfe’s original article.

If your job depends on market research, prepare for a shock. New discoveries in brain science are radically revising our understanding of how human beings think and make decisions, and these new models of cognition are rewriting the conventional wisdom about consumer behavior. 



Conventional marketing research depends on the assumption that people can accurately report their values, needs, and motivations. But many scientists no longer believe this. "We have reason to doubt that full awareness of our motives, drives, and other mental activities may be possible," says neurologist Richard Restak. "Our inability to accurately report intentions and expectations may simply reflect the fact that they are not qualitatively conscious," adds Bernard J. Baars, author of In the Theater of Consciousness

The idea that consumers have limited knowledge of their motives is shocking on both a professional and personal level. Everyone wants to believe they know why they do what they do. It wounds one's sense of personal autonomy to think otherwise. Also, evidence that average people cannot accurately describe their motivations is a direct challenge to established methods of conducting research. It calls for radical changes in the status quo of research. 

Marketing is ripe for a revolution because its failures are so apparent. One of the most important reasons for this breakdown is that research is not working because of flaws in its basic premises. Multivariate statistics that describe personality traits can account for no more than 7% of purchasing behavior, according to a paper published by William Massy, Ronald Frank, and Thomas Lodahl of Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, and Cornell, respectively. 

Consumer research's problems originate in psychology, a field that has long struggled to define human behavior with the same precision physicists use to describe the movement of bodies from atoms to stars. But human behavior is too unpredictable to describe with such precision, because it depends on an almost infinite number of relationships. An increasingly desperate search for cause-and-effect explanations leads many psychologists to "retreat to abstract ideas that ignore contexts completely," writes Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan. Consumer research reflects similar tendencies. 

Kagan is bothered by psychology's excessive dependence on behavioral models that conform better to statistical theory than to behavioral realities. Models of consumer behavior tend to extract their subjects from the complex, often unpredictable, but completely natural contexts in which people live and make purchasing decisions. The result is often an interesting manipulation of a hypothetical situation that leads to a marketing failure. 

One of the most famous marketing busts was the reformulation of Coca-Cola. Extensive consumer research predicted success for "New Coke" because people said it tasted better. But the research failed to disclose that people also saw "Old Coke" as an important cultural icon that would lose value by changing the original recipe. This subtle value proved to be far more influential than taste in determining consumer response. 

Mainstream consumer research generally fails to take into account developmental changes in values and world views that happen across a person's life span. Research also tends to ignore the major changes in cognition, or how the mind processes information, that happen with age. The subliminal origins of these changes prevent consumers from adequately reporting them to researchers, but the changes are decisive in marketplace behavior. 

Another assumption that leads consumer research astray is borrowed from classic economics. Researchers assume that people make buying decisions to satisfy their self-interest, and that they use reason to determine which product best serves that end. Brain researchers see reason playing a much weaker role in personal decisions, however. In their book, Marketing Revolution, Kevin J. Clancy and Robert S. Shulman state the problem this way: "Because consumers don't choose rationally, any research that forces rational answers has to be flawed." 

Our next post will discuss “hot buttons” and root motivators that should supplement current research methodologies.

5 comments about "Should We Re-Write The Rules Of Market Research? - Part I".
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  1. Merri Grace McLeroy from Integrated Marketing Strategies LLC, April 1, 2013 at 9:46 a.m.

    Great food for thought, Jim. Although one's behaviorals today do not necessarily predict their behaviorals tomorrow, identifying those patterns will provide insight into the behaviorals of those who follow. Also, with regards to consumers not being cognisant of the reasoning for their purchasing habits, wouldn't the solution be a matter of developing more insightful questions? What are your thoughts on Psychographic surveys such as VALS?

  2. Kevin Kane from DMW Direct, April 1, 2013 at 9:48 a.m.

    Jim, this was an interesting and thought-provoking post. Thanks so much for sharing this. You helped clarify and give shape to a hypothesis that I had been formulating along these same lines. The delta between what people say they'll do and what they actually do is growing larger. Your article helps explain why. And gives us marketers something to consider as we develop direct marketing tactics and communications that need to drive a specific response. Thanks again for this article.

  3. Lynn Hunsaker from ClearAction, April 1, 2013 at 10:58 a.m.

    When I was writing my ehandbook, "Innovating Superior Customer Experience", I discovered that a type of market research being done by the R&D community has extensive application in Marketing, with evidence of far superior results versus traditional market research. This type of research focuses on customers' "jobs-to-be-done".

  4. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, April 1, 2013 at 11:52 a.m.

    Interesting post and I agree with your points without needing all of that expensive dog chasing its tail research to prove it. But, you rather missed the topic of Engage: Boomers.

  5. Doug Garnett from Protonik, LLC, April 2, 2013 at 12:07 a.m.

    If anyone thinks this idea is new, they really weren't paying attention. We've known this for decades. The problem is that neuro folks are making massive leaps implying that confirming what was already known is "new"... Research is difficult and tricky and the people who do it best listen to what people say, observe what they do, and ponder it all deeply to find the really important insights. And that's far more effective than strapping someone into a machine that intimidates them then deciding a red blob on a screen means you know how to lead them to buy something. The red blob is interesting. But true medical neurologists know the brain is far more complex than merely a series of blobs

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