Predicting the Future with Market Research?

If you want to know whether customers will buy your new product asking them is the last thing you should do, says consumer behaviour research expert Philip Graves, ahead of the launch of his new book, Consumerology.

When it comes to understanding what consumers will do, they just can’t help lying. It’s no consolation that they believe what they’re telling you, that they consistently tell you the same thing or that lots of them agree.

You could be forgiven for thinking that asking people what they want or will do is a relatively harmless exercise in due diligence or sensible exercise in corporate risk reduction, but consider the risks associated with such market research if, as I’m about to explain, it can’t possibly predict the future accurately.

The risk of it derailing an innovative idea that would have been successful; the risk that designers design to satisfy the mindset of the research respondent, not the mindset of the consumer (and no, they aren’t the same); and, arguably worst of all, damaging the corporate learning process because no one can understand why an idea consumers ’loved’ failed.

We should count ourselves fortunate that there are those amongst us who are willing to be research agnostics. When the revival of Dr Who is launched despite the negative response from viewers questioned in research we get important evidence that people aren’t the best judges of their own future tastes. Likewise with the US importer who only brought Absolut into the country because he was desperate to recoup the $80,000 that he’d spent on research that told him people didn’t want the Swedish vodka.

Turning to market research as a tool to predict the future has no more scientific validity than using astrology. Basic probability confers on it the chance of being right reasonably often, and of being ’not wrong’ even more frequently than that. However, this isn’t a good reason to entrust your product development to a market researcher any more than it would be wise to consult your horoscope before crossing a busy road.

So why doesn’t predictive research work?

1. People reacting to a new idea in market research are devoid of the all important context in which their actual reaction will occur. Studies show that even the presence of an option that no one chooses can change the selection people make.

2. Liking an idea or product in theory is very different from making a decision to purchase it. Expressing a preference or rating something’s appeal requires you to forgo nothing. In the real world the decision to buy something new will trigger loss aversion: people will be very sensitive to any potential regret that an untested choice might bring about, whereas buying the same product as before is inherently safe.

3. People reach for the rose-tinted spectacles when they look to the future: they’ll be watching high brow films and listening to opera next week, but right now they fancy an action movie and Radio 2.

4. The focalism of research is another insurmountable hurdle. In the moment that you solicit an opinion about your new idea you bring about a degree of conscious attention that will rarely if ever be directed at it in the real world.

5. Respondents are hopeless at factoring in reality: they routinely fail to take into account all the other things that will be going on in their lives and competing for their attention when they would encounter a researched product in the real world.
The language of marketing implies that people have “needs” and some researchers will tell you they can uncover them. In fact, we’re a confused bundle of emotions and psychological desires that develop unconscious habits and copy the people around us without realising we’re doing so. By understanding these elements of consumer psychology we may develop a basis to feel confident that our new idea is a good one, but only a live trial will prove it. It’s worth taking a leaf out of Apple’s book: design what you believe in and then go out and be evangelical about it.

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