Following the herd

When it comes to choosing brands, are humans herd creatures at heart, or do we yearn to show off our individuality? asks Alicia Clegg

If Mark Earls, executive planning director at Ogilvy & Mather, had his way, market researchers would spend their evenings chanting football anthems on blustery terraces, instead of cocooned indoors with a list of silly questions and a bunch of self-deluded informants for company.

Earls, who won the prize for best new thinking at the Market Research Society’s (MRS) annual conference, believes that marketers can learn a lot from football crowds, for the simple reason that the people who buy their brands, like wild horses, football fans and Thompson’s gazelle, are herd creatures at heart. We all like to think of ourselves as freespirited individuals, he argues, but when it comes to choosing a pair of trainers or a can of cola, nine times out of ten we follow the crowd.

The punchy style that Earls adopts is guaranteed to spark debate. However, his basic thesis is familiar: we act instinctively and then post-rationalise to make sense of our behaviour; we are copycats by nature, with a psychological need to exaggerate our individuality. None of these ideas are controversial. All the more surprising, therefore, that market researchers who bandy terms such as “tipping point”, “bandwagon effect” and “word-of-mouth contagion” employ methods that make the individual, and not the “herd”, the object of study.

Model customers

So does this imply that a new model of market research is required? To answer this question we need to know whether discussion-based research that focuses on the individual is inherently flawed, or is merely being applied in the wrong way.

One practitioner with strong views on the subject is Kevin McLean, joint managing director of Wardle McLean, a strategic research consultancy. McLean criticises Earls for confusing terms such as “herd” or “crowd” with the interactions occurring between the individuals of which crowds are composed. “Crowd behaviour is one form of human interaction, but it isn’t the only form. If we shift our attention to studying the behaviour of the herd, there is a danger that we could end up discounting the individual entirely.”

McLean also argues that discussion-based methods, far from being obsolete, offer the most effective tool for understanding how human beings affect each other. So why, one wonders, have focus groups become discredited? One possibility is that research moderators are blocking the free flow of ideas by structuring groups around set-piece formats that are too detailed and too prescriptive.

“Good qualitative research does not revolve around concept boards and seven-page discussion documents,” says McLean. “Good research involves real conversations. It’s an organic process in which the moderator permits silences, allows people the space to contradict themselves, watches their posture and mannerisms and tracks how their opinions are negotiated and modified over the course of the evening.”

But can recruited discussion groups simulate how ideas will play out in everyday life? Intuitively this seems unlikely, because a qualitative group, however skilfully it is led, is merely a collection of individuals, not a microcosm of the complex relationships that exist in the outside world.

Developing a better understanding of how ideas spread from one person to another could help to move things forward. One practitioner working towards this is Anne Stephens, director of South African firm Yellowwood Brand Architects. She claims to have a method for identifying the types of people who spearhead trends. In the UK, Opinion Leader Research has developed a similar approach centred on the people it calls “protagonists”.

So what are the characteristics of these people who apparently do so much to influence our views and behaviour? For a start, says Opinion Leader Research joint chief executive Viki Cooke, protagonists are “media junkies” who form their opinions readily and communicate persuasively.

Standing out from the crowd

But it is not force of personality alone that makes protagonists pivotal figures. Another facet of their character is that they involve themselves in a wide variety of networks. In so doing, protagonists become hubs of information, soaking up intelligence from many sources, linking people together and allowing ideas to cross from one group of people to another.

Recruiting protagonists for market research sounds like a tall order. However, the task is make easier by the fact that the individuals involved are, by definition, people who stand out in a crowd. One possible approach is for recruiters to talk to local residents and, by following the word on the street, allow themselves to be led to their sample.

“If we wanted to locate mothers with persuasive ideas, we might go into playgrounds and ask the mothers to identify other women who they call upon for advice. If we were working with students we might ask them to nominate a future prime minister,” says Cooke. What tends to happen, she adds, is that after a while “the same names keep cropping up”.

Companies with an interest in innovative ideas could well be attracted to Opinion Leader’s method for co-opting life’s movers and shakers into research. But even making modest changes to existing practices could be beneficial. One suggestion, put forward by Earls, is for agencies to contact participants a few weeks after a group. This would enable the researchers to find out what the participants recalled from the group and what they had told their friends about it, offering some clues as to whether the concepts under discussion possessed “herdability” – the ability to market themselves through word of mouth.

The Wrong prop

Another practitioner with advice on improving research is Research International Qualitatif (RIQ) managing director Andy Barker. He concedes that historically market research has relied too heavily on reported behaviour, the sort of “ask-answer” approach that Earls castigated at the MRS conference. Today, he insists, companies such as RIQ are employing a mix of approaches that complement each other.

Barker says: “Our objective is to build in reality checks. We might ask respondents to keep a diary to provide a better grounding for a group discussion.” Another possibility, he says, would be to video people in a non-interventionist way and then ask them to retrace their steps. He adds: “What we are talking about is the need for a better balance in our approach to research, not a paradigm shift.”

Making small improvements to discussion-based research, supplemented by some alternative techniques such as observation, may be sensible, but it is hardly the stuff of radical reform. So where does this leave Earls, with his clarion call for market researchers to “stop asking silly questions of unreliable witnesses”?

Like all polemicists, Earls overstates his case. But the crux of his argument, that people are less individualistic than advertisers have acknowledged, is well aimed. A recent trend in marketing has been to target communications towards increasingly narrow groups of customers, in the hope of winning “a bigger share of the purse” among the brand’s highest users. Underlying this approach is the belief that because marketers have only so much money to spend, it is better to invest heavily in a small number of potentially very profitable prospects, than to spread the resources more widely.

The logic of this approach holds well – provided that two conditions are met. The first is that high users reward advertisers for the extra attention they receive by consuming even more of the brand. The second is that they go on consuming the brand at the same high level, regardless of what other people are choosing. In other words, their enthusiasm for the brand stays the same, whether ten people are buying it or ten thousand.

Dedicated followers of anything

Fair enough one might say, but there is a problem. The theory does not tally with the practical experiences of many marketers. Nor does it agree with the findings of a recent study investigating consumers’ attitudes towards brands across 75 categories, conducted by the advertising agency DDB Worldwide. Far from not caring what the rest of the world is doing, it seems that consumers pay close attention to what other people buy – and they adjust their attitudes towards brands on the strength of what they discover.

“A remarkably consistent pattern emerged from the study,” says DDB Chicago chief strategic officer, Jim Crimmins. “Firms such as Nike, Wal-Mart, Michelin and Kodak, which appeal to a broad spectrum of the population, are much better at converting a high proportion of their customers into lovers of their brands than those which appeal to a narrow group of users.”

What is more, he adds, this pattern of “emotional contagion” held well across all of the 23 countries covered by DDB’s research. Put another way, as Earls predicted, the herd effect is an aspect of our humanity that marketers ignore at their peril.

Human beings are complicated creatures. We seek safety in numbers, while hankering after ways in which to express our sense of self. The image that we have of ourselves is distorted, emphasising our individuality at the expense of our desire to belong.

To build an authentic picture of what is going on, we need to look closely at how people band together and influence one another in everyday life. Some researchers are doing this already. But for the most part, market research remains heavily dependent on the coloured accounts of a few self-regarding individuals – in other words, on the testimony of people like you and me.

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