Missing the point: Why brands are failing to get the most from customer insight

With investment in customer research on the decline, marketers are not addressing the basics, let alone testing new techniques like behavioural science, which means brands are missing what consumers want.

customer insightGaining a deep understanding of consumers’ beliefs, motivations and behaviours should be at the heart of marketing. But as budgets have got tighter, customer insight is one area that has suffered, with many brands failing to explore new tools and even forgetting the basics.

Although consumers may not have changed fundamentally over the decades in terms of what they need from brands, their expectations have shifted in line with wider changes in society. As a result, the benchmark people measure brands against is rising, so while consumers have always wanted fast delivery, for example, today fast means next day not next week.

Getting to grips with what drives people is the “essential quest” of marketing, states Ogilvy vice-chairman Rory Sutherland. However, he acknowledges that getting under the skin of what really matters to consumers requires a rigorous, multi-pronged approach that accepts people largely do not understand their own motivations.

“We don’t know why we do the things we do. Moreover, the reasons we do attach to our behaviour is often a post-rationalisation and therefore really an explanation as much designed to make us look good and sensible as it is a truthful response to the question,” Sutherland points out.

It’s very much part of my job that I’m wrong and I like when I’m wrong because that means you’re learning something.

Jonathan Stringfield, Activision Blizzard Media

This opinion is echoed by Richard Shotton, founder of behavioural science consultancy Astroten and former head of behavioural science at Manning Gottlieb OMD. He cites an experiment conducted in 1997 by University of Leicester professor Dr Adrian North, who alternated the music played in the wine aisle of a supermarket over a two-week period. At some points the music was ostensibly German and other times French.

When looking exclusively at the impact on French and German wine sales, the experiment found that when the French music was played, 77% of wine sold was French. When German music played, 73% of wine sold was German.

However, when North stopped people outside and asked why they bought the wine, only 2% said it was because of the music, and even when pressed 86% denied flat out the music had any affect all.

Another risk to truly understanding consumer behaviour is our tendency to “confabulate”. Shotton points to the work of psychologist Timothy Wilson, who found that because people do not understand their motivations they often invent a plausible explanation for their behaviour, which when taken at face value could send marketers in the wrong direction.

Multiple methodologies are essential

To get to grips with consumers’ real motivations marketers must be prepared to source multiple data points. 

The best approach is to triangulate research methods as it leads to more robust insight, argues branding consultant and director of Passionbrand, Helen Edwards.

She sees behavioural science as a single data point, which should be triangulated against traditional focus groups, ethnography, quantitative questionnaires and experiments, the latter of which gives marketers an understanding of behaviour in real time.

Customer insightStarting off with sound research practices and a clear idea of the insights you are looking for means marketers avoid ending up with data that is “at best worthless, at worst misleading”, states Jonathan Stringfield, vice-president of global business marketing, measurement and insights at games publisher Activision Blizzard Media.

Stringfield, who previously served as US director of marketing insights and analytics at Twitter and manager of measurement solutions at Facebook, argues that human behaviour is complex and multifaceted, meaning there is no silver bullet to customer insight.

The media team at Activision Blizzard use a number of methodologies, which includes checking in every day with a player panel made up of its most loyal gamers. This quick-turnaround research tells the team how gamers are interacting with ads and which experiences work.

There are lots of official ‘whys’ to why we do things and there are post-rationalised whys, but there is also a real why.

Rory Sutherland, Ogilvy

There is also a place for focus groups in the mix. In a recent Marketing Week column, Mark Ritson described focus groups as a “fast and cheap” resource, which he prefers to conduct himself in order to “mainline the insights and move much faster with the consumers”. He suggests introducing focus groups mid-way through the marketing process once the segmentation and positioning are complete.

That being said, Ritson is clear it is “always more useful” to engage the customer in their own environment, which is why he favours ethnography, the systematic study of people and cultures, through the use of observation and in-situ interviews.

Ethnography beats focus groups hands-down, but they still serve a purpose

Sutherland agrees there is no substitute for observing consumer behaviour via experimentation. He acknowledges that such research methods can be time consuming, but also invaluable if marketers want to understand their customers’ “real why”.

“There are lots of official ‘whys’ to why we do things and there are post-rationalised whys, but there is also a real why,” he explains. “It’s only if you understand the consumer’s real why that you can possibly intervene in the market.”

Furthermore, Sutherland urges marketers to stop listening to their customers and start hearing them. Listening, he explains, is to absorb the words and take them literally, whereas hearing them means understanding further diagnosis is required.

The importance of cultural context

Marketers should also take into account the power cultural context has on customer behaviour. Semiotics is a social science that explores how people are culturally conditioned. While qualitative research asks consumers their opinion, semiotics investigates where those opinions originate from.

“If you can understand how those cultural conditions are changing and new cultural conditions are emerging you can then begin to understand how people are responding differently to categories or brands in specific ways,” explains Alex Gordon, CEO of semiotics and cultural insights agency, Sign Salad.

He argues the reasons people seek out brands do not change, but the speed at which they want brands to respond to culture is accelerating. This is why consumers may abandon brands that appear at odds with broader culture.

Semiotics also helps brands understand how culture differs across different markets and why consumers may respond positively to a brand in one market and negatively in another.

Gordon is clear the best campaigns and innovations come from marketers grappling with complexity and understanding that gaining a variety of different responses offers nuance, which is where meaningful insight lies.

Why behaviour beats demographics when it comes to segmentation

Marketers must face their bias

To get to meaningful answers it is crucial marketers do not project their assumptions and beliefs onto the research process.

Stringfield argues it is impossible to go into customer research without bias, but marketers should ensure these biases are recognised when conducting everything from a customer profile to a survey.

“It’s less about trying to take the higher saintly road of going in without biases, but confronting your biases head on and making sure they’re not influencing the information that you’re endeavouring to collect,” he explains.

Marketers often look for one-line answers, but this is an old-fashioned way of thinking, says Dr Helena Rubinstein, head of behavioural science at Innovia Technology and Cambridge University lecturer.

She urges marketers to resist “confirmation bias”, whereby you look for information that confirms what you already know and therefore fail to ask any questions that might suggest you are wrong.

Marketers are far too accepting of what the research industry has to tell them and I think they should be much more challenging.

Helen Edwards, Passionbrand

“Develop hypotheses and test them. It’s not just gut feel, it’s not just developing a survey because I think I’d quite like to ask these questions. All of the questions are there for a very good reason, to test specific things,” Rubinstein advises.

She also believes it is possible for marketers, who perhaps have worked in a category for years, to look for ever-more detailed explanations to promote their product and end up “falling down a rabbit hole” in search of the next game-changing insight.

“If people are missing the basics it’s not because they’re dumb, it’s because they’re trying to find something else that perhaps isn’t even there and they need to go back and remind themselves why this is happening,” Rubinstein argues. “I don’t believe it’s necessarily deliberate, you can overthink things.”

Be prepared to question results

Marketers also have to be comfortable with the fact that consumer research, when conducted with rigour, could well produce multiple contradictory answers.

Shotton urges marketers not to take data at face value. Social listening, for example, could lead a brand to believe everyone is really concerned about their sector, whereas in fact it only captures those motivated enough to complain or praise, and consequently ignores the “silent majority”.

He also notes a hankering among marketers for single solutions that work for all brands in all situations. “Like this desire for brand purpose to be a solution for all brands,” he says. “I’m sure it is partly driven by the fact it would make all our lives much easier if we could take solutions off the shelf and apply them to our particular problem.”

Customer insightOn the basis that there is no objective truth to research, Edwards believes marketers should get their hands dirtier with regard to understanding consumer research methodologies and be prepared to question the findings.

“My experience is a lot of marketers are far too accepting of what the research industry has to tell them. They should be much more challenging,” she argues.

Stringfield insists there is a “marked difference” between organisations that have a well-funded, well-informed and well-staffed insights team and those that don’t. However, these teams need to be empowered to give marketers answers they do not necessarily want to hear to preserve impartiality.

Marketers should, in turn, interrogate the data with a degree of empathy for the process.

“It’s very easy to sit there and just poke dozens of holes in a given research study. That’s not hard. What tends to be a lot harder is coming up with a research programme that is comprehensive, rigorous and scientifically accurate,” he states.

“It’s a two-way street. Good research practitioners need to be very up front with the limitations, assumptions and weaknesses of the research. Then on the marketers’ side, it’s up to them to understand and accept what these weaknesses are and then take the recommendations in that light.”

He is clear that customer research is not designed to tell marketers what they want to hear. If a brand is heavily invested in discovering that people like X and the results show that people hate X, the default response shouldn’t be to attack the research, but to work harder to find out why people hate X.

“It’s very much part of my job that I’m wrong and I like when I’m wrong because that means you’re learning something,” Stringfield explains.

“If you came in with a strong hypothesis and you’re finding the opposite of it, you’re probably on the precipice of some sort of innovation or major corrective action that can have a disproportionate impact on the business.”

Marketers are ignoring the basics

Marketers are under increasing pressure to perform with tight budgets and to even tighter timescales, meaning consumer research can end up being the last activity on the list.

This is strange given marketers’ role in the business is to be the voice of the consumer, so understanding them should be a priority, says Edwards. In her opinion she does not see enough marketers doing the “easy things” and actually getting out there to meet their customers.

Rubinstein advises marketers to become more systematic and thoughtful about the aspects of research they choose to focus on instead of just repeating things they have done before in order to update their database.

Putting greater emphasis on the fundamentals of behavioural science and spending less time on “uncritically accepting claimed data”, is a good starting point, says Shotton. Psychology, he states, is phenomenally relevant to marketing, because it offers 130 years of experimentation into what makes for effective behaviour change.

“Marketers would massively benefit from putting more time, money and energy into studying this field because it gives us a lovely range of hypotheses that we can test and see if they work for our particular brand,” he explains.

“Unlike a lot of marketing, these hypotheses aren’t based on someone’s opinion or their intuition. They are far more robust and based on peer review academic evidence from psychologists around the world.”

Resisting the urge to fixate on short-term metrics should be a serious priority, adds Sutherland. He believes there is no more important task in marketing than finding out why people chose your brand in the first place and if you are failing to do so then the rest of your activity is merely “scratching at the surface”.

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Illustrations by Lex Guerra

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