Should We Re-Write the Rules of Market Research? – Part I

In February 1998 the late David B. Wolfe wrote an article in the now defunct American Demographics magazine entitled “What Your Customers Can’t Say”. The article challenged the assumption in most customer research that customers are the best sources about their motivations. “Consumers don’t choose rationally, [so] any research that forces rational answers has to be flawed” said Wolfe. The article drew the largest response in the magazine’s history.

It’s been fifteen 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 David B. 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. “We have reason to doubt that full awareness of our motives, drives, and other mental activities may be possible,” says neurologist Richard Restak. “Our inability to accurately report intentions and expectations may simply reflect the fact that they are not qualitatively conscious,” adds Bernard J. Baars, author of In the Theater of Consciousness.

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 percent 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.

An increasingly desperate search for cause-and-effect explanations leads many psychologists to “retreat to abstract ideas that ignore contexts completely,” writes Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan. 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” 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, Clancy and 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.

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