What Do Consumers Think? Don’t Bother Asking

via Ron Sellers… Grey Matters Research… Brandweek

Why do we consistently ask consumers for answers they can’t give us?

Marketing research is the art and science of exploration. Simply put, we ask people questions and they give us answers. Sounds easy enough—until you consider the inherent problem. Can you, marketer or brand manager, reasonably answer every question you’re asked? Can you really say whether, for example, Apple’s new advertising will make people more likely to buy a Mac? Or whether a brand’s new spokesperson really makes that brand more memorable to the public? Unfortunately, you probably cannot give accurate answers to those questions.

And neither can consumers. The truth is that everyday people don’t watch an ad and consciously think, “Gee, that Hyundai ad really positioned the brand as more upscale in my mind. I have more positive feelings about Hyundai now.” But wait, you’ll say, advertising’s effect on consumers is supposed to operate on an indirect or subconscious level. Indeed it is—which is all the more reason why it often makes no sense to ask them for their conscious impressions.

Many marketing research questions might be great for party games, but they produce far less useful material for business. Part of the problem lies with the disparities inherent in how consumers view themselves. Take the crowd favorite: “Would you rather marry an ugly rich person or a good-looking poor person?” Invariably, in a group of friends, someone will flippantly provide an off-the-cuff answer, gleefully claiming he’d go for the looker—only to later fall in love with a plain-Jane with a trust fund. Well, it’s the same with consumers. Sure, they’ll give you an answer (because you asked), but that doesn’t mean it is a true reflection of their perceptions and behavior.

Another question clients often demand we ask consumers: “Will this advertising make you more likely to buy our product?” The answer we typically get is, “Do you really think I’m stupid enough to switch banks because Chase has a great ad and my bank doesn’t?” Sometimes, consumers will tell us flat-out that advertising has no effect on what they buy. If only they realized how much it really does.

While consumers can give you direct feedback on what message they received from an ad (what they remembered about it, whether they liked it, etc.), they simply cannot tell you—much less as a response to one question—whether your new ad (or new brand strategy, packaging, logo or tagline) will make them more likely to buy your product.

Some marketers understand this. The best way to approach the issue is to ask consumers how they perceive brands, what emotional value those brands hold for them, whether they understood the intended message of the advertising and what perceptual impact a prospective logo or tagline carries. The value, in other words, lies in the interpretation of consumers’ responses far more than from the raw responses themselves. Smart marketers know the danger of relying on the responses given to the broad, blunt and, indeed, unanswerable questions I mention above.

But since so many marketers are fond of stuffing their research with questions like these, here’s a final one: If consumers don’t even know all the reasons for their own behavior, why do we continue to treat them as if they do, ask them questions they cannot hope to answer accurately and rely on the results for critical decisions?

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