Breakthroughs in brain science are challenging basic assumptions about consumer behavior. It's time to re-write the rules of market research.
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. Wolfe wrote.
"Consumers don't choose rationally, [so] any research that forces rational answers has to be flawed."
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. says neurologist Richard Restak.
"We have reason to doubt that full awareness of our motives, drives, and other mental activities may be possible."
Bernard J. Baars, author of In the Theater of Consciousness, adds.
"Our inability to accurately report intentions and expectations may simply reflect the fact that they are not qualitatively conscious."
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. Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan writes.
"An increasingly desperate search for cause-and-effect explanations leads many psychologists to "retreat to abstract ideas that ignore contexts completely."
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" or "Classic 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.
COMMENTARY: In a blog post dated March 8, 2012, I explained how developmental relationship marketing (DRM), a.k.a. Ageless Marketing was the key to tuning your marketing message so that it resonates with Baby Boomers.
The origins of Ageless Marketing stem from the five basic premises That define the origins of behavior, and its general path across the lifespan. They increase marketers’ effectiveness in linking product messages to the hidden (unconscious) drivers of consumers’ marketplace behavior by revealing behavior predispositions in various periods across the lifespan.
The five premises* contain benchmarks for testing the validity of what people report about their attitudes, needs and motivations. This is critical given that recent brain research indicates that all motivations are rooted outside the realms of consciousness. We can only speculate about the foundations of our behavior; thus overly relying on the literal meanings of consumers’ testimonies doubtlessly accounts for many marketing failures.
- First Premise: Origins of behavior - A person’s worldviews, needs, motivations and general approaches to needs satisfaction are predisposed – not predetermined -- by her/his current season of life, and originate in five systems of motivating underlying values (MUV Values). MUV systems, from which all behavior emerges, are biologically innate and constitute the basic building blocks of behavior. In effect, the five MUV systems are the DNA of behavior: identity, relationships, purpose, adaptation, and energy.
- Second Premise: Origins of motivations - Urges to satisfy needs arise from root motivations that are activated by tensions between five sets of bipolar forces. The first force (objective force) in each set dominates behavior in the first half of life; the second force (subjective force) in each set dominates behavior in the second half of life.
- Third Premise: Domains of personal development - Personal development evolves in two domains of the self. These domains contain the roots of all developmental potential. The two developmental domains are: physical domain and psychological domain.
- Fourth Premise: Keeping information flow to levels the conscious mind can manage - The brain resolves this problem by conducting information triage. The criterion the brain uses to determine what information will be sent to the conscious mind is the relevance of information to a person’s survival scenario, a matrix of needs whose satisfaction is vital to a person’s comfort and pleasure and avoidance of discomfort and pain.
- Fifth Premise: Seasons of life – stages of personal development - There are four seasons of personal development. The first two are dominated by social (psychosocial) development needs; the last two by inner (psychospiritual) development needs.
* Refer to my blog post dated March 8, 2012
In a blog post dated October 18, 2011, I profiled Neurofocus, a Berkeley-based firm that is making groundbreaking research in the field of neuromarketing. Neuromarketing is a new field of marketing research that studies consumers' sensorimotor, cognitive, and affective response to marketing stimuli like TV ads, billboard, online ads, etc.
Neuromarketing firms Neurofocus use technology like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure changes in activity in parts of the brain, electroencephalo-graphy (EEG) and Steady state topography (SST) to measure activity in specific regional spectra of the brain response, and/or sensors to measure changes in one's physiological state, also known as biometrics, including (heart rate and respiratory rate, galvanic skin response) to learn why consumers make the decisions they do, and what part of the brain is telling them to do it.
In short, neuromarketing studies how a person's brain reponds to advertising messages. It is the study of the brain’s responses to advertising, the brands encountered in our daily lives, and all the associated messages and images that are strewn throughout the cultural landscape of everyday life.
Courtesy of an article dated April 1, 2013 appearing in MediaPost Publications Engage:Boomers and an a book published 2003 titled "The New Research: Understanding How Consumers Really View Your Products"