Research You Can Use … Beyond Demographics

At some point in your marketing career you’ve probably heard someone make the statement “The research numbers don’t lie” as support for some strategic or creative point-of-view. And while that may be true, it’s not exactly the same as saying that numbers always tell the whole truth. Don’t get me wrong… I believe in research. I believe you can never know too much about whom your customers are and what they think. Knowing your target demographic and how they respond to your pitch is comforting.

But the fact is, the “why” is every bit as important as the “what” when it comes to market research. Numbers alone, while they can tell you what customers like and don’t like, can’t tell you why customers react the way they do. If you’re basing marketing decisions on how many people agree on a particular campaign concept, you’re missing the most important (and interesting) question… why do your customers feel and respond the way they do?

Smart marketers know they must tap into their customers’ deeply held values, beliefs and feelings to find the emotional drivers that can powerfully connect customer and brand. Knowing this allows the marketer to move beyond a relationship that’s basically transactional to something more lasting.

So the question you’re probably asking at this point is: “HOW do we do this?”

Scott Bedbury, the marketing and advertising executive behind Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign and the re-branding of Starbucks, a Millennial favorite, suggests that marketers need to spend “real time” with their customers… to see the world through their eyes.

Daryl Travis, founder and CEO of Brandtrust, in his book Emotional Branding, talks about effective research as “nothing more than the art of listening… to hear between the lines and find the sweet spots in customer wants and needs.” He says it’s not about marketers talking to their customers; it’s about listening to them.

For many years, focus groups have been a popular technique for listening to consumers in order to uncover the underlying motivations that drive purchase behavior. But the value of focus groups can be limited. While a skillful moderator can certainly elicit insights from a group, consumers generally don’t make buying decisions in a group. And as Travis points out, humans often say one thing and do another in a group dynamic.

Market researchers continue to pursue better ways to get at the “why” of consumer behavior. Gerald Zaltman, a professor of marketing at Harvard Business School and a Fellow at Harvard’s interdisciplinary Mind, Brain Behavior Initiative believes that 95% of thinking happens in the unconscious. In his book, How Customers Think, he discusses how neurology, sociology, cognitive science and even literary analysis are being employed to provide insight into why consumers respond the way they do.

Zaltman states that questions are the key to developing marketing knowledge. He cites an example where consumers were asked what they thought about a particular brand (the usual approach) versus asking what the brand thought of them. For the first question, the answer was positive based on the brand’s many attributes. The second question, however, elicited a very different response that drew much more from the respondents’ personal, more deeply held feelings. By asking a counter-intuitive question, the marketer learned of an important potential impediment to success.

The efforts of these marketers, researchers, academicians and scientists are not motivated solely by an interest to sell consumers a product. The ability of marketers to better understand and tap into the unconscious mind and its interaction with the conscious mind represents a major step forward in uncovering the “why” of consumer behavior. And it helps marketers design communications and offer products that consumers want and need.

One thing is certain… marketers and researchers will continue to explore new ways to unlock the mystery of why consumers do what they do. Increasingly sophisticated methodologies are being developed and explored as I write this, and I’m excited to think of the possibilities that lie ahead for our profession.

Written by Lois Brayfield; Dean of Creative, Catalog University
& CEO of J.Schmid & Assoc, Inc.