The market research dilemma – how trustworthy are customer answers?

I went to see the doctor the other day. As usual, she got me to fill in a form about my weekly alcohol consumption. And as usual, I lied. Well, I didn’t lie as such. I ticked the box immediately to the left of the one I should have.

Richard Madden

This simple act of self-delusion reminded me of a book I had been reading on holiday. The Big Lie shows the extent to which we kid ourselves as consumers, and in so doing provide marketers with duff market research responses.

To ram this point home, the authors point out the contradictions between our self-reported attitudes and our behaviour.

Only 20 per cent of us trust politicians but 60 per cent still vote at the General Election. Depending on the way the question is phrased and where we live, over 80 per cent of us claim to have an environmental conscience. Yet ecological detergent brands continue to be a minority sport.

Perhaps most intriguingly, the majority of us agree that things were better in the old days. Remarkably, that even applies to the sub-set of under-24s. Yet we show an unending appetite for innovative technologies, useful or not.

When questioned, we inevitably try to present our better selves to the world. Or as The Big Lie puts it, ‘All opinion research questioning is an invitation to the respondent to express his or her essential respectability’.

So, how are we to access the secret dimensions of customer motivation, short of mass polygraph testing, a miraculous step-change in the science of neural imaging, or the automatic enrolment of all registered hypnotists as members of the Market Research Society?

At this point, The Big Lie briefly threatens to turn into little more than a long copy ad for the book’s sponsors, the Future Foundation. The answer to the marketer’s quandary is that familiar deus ex machina: a Proprietary Statistical Technique. In this case, the miraculous algorithm adjusts research scores to account for global and national norms, discounting exaggerated emphasis on what might be termed respondents’ ‘respectability bias’.

As someone who was raised as a direct marketer, I prefer understanding consumers through their behaviour, not what they say to researchers, or even to their friends in the unconsciously self-censored part-work autobiography that is their Facebook status or Twitter feed.

I work with two insight people who both use data from social media to understand and predict consumer behaviour. One uses the brands, places and hobbies people like in order to deduce what makes different kinds of consumers tick. The other works back from known behaviour, using hard statistics to determine empirically which social signals can be used as early indicators of individual consumers’ next actions. So which is right?

I suspect they both are. As The Big Lie eloquently argues, we humans are complex and multi-faceted decision-making units. We may be driven by other motives but the fact that we give our better selves such a strong voice in our research responses shows that we take that part of our identity seriously. As marketers, we ignore this at our peril.

If we are trying to get people to eat more fruit, we must not confront them with the reality of their gluttonous preference for crisps and chocolate. Instead, we should appeal to their better selves, celebrating the goodness of fruit and showing them there are easy ways of getting more of it.

It sounds a little cynical, but much of marketing communications is about playing a game with the consumer. We need to remember it’s a three-way conversation between us, their better selves, and their real selves.

There are lots of examples of such conversations in The Big Lie. For instance, American Apparel’s brand is ostensibly all about better self attributes like transparent sourcing and fair wages. But if that was all that mattered in fashion, we would all be wearing tie-died hemp t-shirts from Oxfam. The difference is that American Apparel manages to combine moral appeal with sex appeal.

Understanding the multiple motives of consumers demands that we be comfortable with ambiguity and contradiction – not something that interpreters and users of market research are always happy with, myself included.

It’s tough. In fact, it’s enough to make you want a drink. Though, it’s up to you what you tell your doctor.