The lying game: Andrew Lewis on why marketers need to do less asking and more watching

Insight is a funny business, and often what we find is that the intuitively simple questions we are asked to answer often end up being the hardest to really get to the bottom of. I’ll give you an example. Recently, we ran a project to understand how people actually go about the task of buying beer, something I suspect many of us feel as if we have a good handle on from high levels of firsthand experience.

As part of the process we interviewed people about what they did, both via a questionnaire and through intercepting people straight after they had made a purchase. And just to be sure we were capturing everything, we set up video cameras to film everything people were actually doing at the fixture.

When we asked people how they went about the process of choosing a beer, the things they told us they were doing bore no resemblance to what we observed them doing on film. Even when we were interviewing them straight after they had picked up a product.

They would say things like, “I grabbed this one because it’s on special and the price was really cheap”. So we’d ask how much it was, and they wouldn’t know. We’d watch the video and see no evidence of price comparison at all. All we can see them do in the video is spot the product and head straight to it. Indeed, from the video, the reason they bought that product would appear to be because it was the first one they saw coming into the store that triggered a strong enough association with their purchase occasion to drive selection.

As the study unfolded, across a number of different observation vs. interview sessions and across experiment vs. questioning techniques, what became apparent to us (and something we have witnessed on countless other occasions) is that people really have no idea why they make the decisions they do around beer. Or, even more fundamentally, why they make any of their decisions. The structure of their decision-making, and the rationale for it, was in most cases hidden from their view. 

There is of course a very good reason why we don’t have insight into our own behaviour, and that is because in most cases it is happening subconsciously. Our brain is processing information and coming to outcomes without our conscious brain having any real awareness as to what is going on. And what we know from the experimental work of cognitive scientists is that most decisions we make fall into this subconscious category. Which is a good thing really. If we had to process all of the decisions in our life consciously, we would simply grind to a halt, exhausted by the mental effort required. 

But this is also where we start to get big disconnects happening from an insight and marketing perspective. The decisions are happening subconsciously, but we come along and ask the conscious brain to tell us what’s going on via interviews and questionnaires. The conscious brain, not wanting to think that it is not in control, starts to build a narrative about what it thinks happened, based on how it might act if it had been in charge of executing the decision. 

The outcome is that we get a very different insight into behaviour around which we build our marketing strategy. And one that will ultimately be less effective at driving actions favourably.

Okay, so I own an insight business and I am suggesting that you can’t ask people what they do or why they do it. This might start to sound as if I’m suggesting that consumer research is invalid. No, not 
quite. What I’m suggesting is that a lot of the methods we cling to in order to derive insight are flawed. What I am advocating is for business to start thinking differently about how we understand people and build strategy.

Just because things happen subconsciously doesn’t mean we can’t understand them. But what it does mean is that we need to use different methodologies. Using data and observation to tell us how people behave rather than asking, using experiments to understand how people trade off and make decisions rather than direct questioning, and using approaches to determining how people feel about brand and communications activity that force us to respond intuitively rather than in a considered manner.

The upshot of all of these approaches is that we need to shrug off the false comfort of direct answers to questions and start to get a bit more comfortable with truer, but potentially less direct insights into people that arise through experiments and observation. And this is an area where we see a lot of uneasiness arise. We naturally want concrete paths from which to build our plans, but the truth is that these are often the very thing that lead us astray. People act unconsciously and it is important that our insight and marketing strategies play to this. 

  • This story was originally published in the July/August edition of NZ Marketing.    
  • Andrew Lewis is managing director of TRA. [email protected]

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