FEATURE10 September 2010
FEATURE10 September 2010
In his book Consumer.ology former market research manager Philip Graves argues that companies who buy surveys and focus groups have been fooled by ‘pseudo-science’ and that true consumer insight can only come from observing and analysing behaviour. He talks to Brian Tarran.
Graves, you’ll gather, is no big fan of market research. More specifically, he doesn’t go in for the concept that you should ask people questions, analyse their answers and use that information to make crucial business decisions.
So committed is he in his belief that he’s written a book about it, Consumer.ology [sic], in which he seeks to undermine once and for all the “pseudo-science” of market research. “My point in writing the book is to say that at the moment businesses, organisations and politicians are putting a lot of faith in something that is extraordinarily haphazard as a tool,” says Graves. “Is market research always wrong? Of course not. Is your horoscope always wrong? No.”
On the road to ruing
It wasn’t always like this. Graves was once a fully paid-up member of the market research community. Brand strategy and research manager at Pizza Hut, market research manager at Eagle Star. “I worked for a couple of years for a traditional market research agency, a small one, specialising at that time in financial services research. So yes, my background into research was fairly traditional,” says Graves.
What started him down the path to where he is today was a focus group he was conducting in Leeds on personal pensions. “I was with this group of men and they told me they wanted a range of funds, financial security, independent advice – all the same things that were coming through from the other groups I had done.
“At the end of the group, after I’d turned my tape recorder off and put my notebook away, one guy asked another guy: ‘So what are you going to do about getting a pension?’ And he said: ‘Well, we’ve got this guy who comes round our house who deals with all our insurance stuff so I’m going to speak to him about it.’ I realised what he was describing was the man from the Pru – he was describing an industrial insurance salesman, with no reference to financial security, no sense of what range of funds would be available, certainly not getting independent advice. And the other guys started asking for the salesman’s number. And so off I went to write my report about independent advice and financial security and the like, and off they went to do something completely different.”
“My point in writing the book is to say that at the moment, businesses, organisations and politicians are putting a lot of faith in something that is extraordinarily haphazard as a tool”
After this “initial trigger”, as he calls it, Graves started to study psychoanalysis and transactional analysis. “It dawned on me that all these people who go through a process of psychoanalysis do so because they can’t get to the bottom of their own thoughts,” says Graves. “That then opened my eyes to the extent to which we are not very good at explaining and understanding our own thoughts. Then, when you start to look at what does make a difference in terms of how people behave, there is the unconscious mind and the emotional brain that is shaping decisions we take, and we don’t have a direct connection to it. We become awful witnesses to our own behaviour, and also hopeless at identifying what it is we do and don’t want.”
This won’t come as a surprise to many researchers – it is widely accepted that what people say they’ll do is often very different from what they actually do. This explains why attitudinal data is often analysed alongside behavioural data. Graves’s question is why people bother with attitudinal data at all? In his view there is no place for it in the decision-making process. “I would put it all to one side,” he says. “I would do away with it.”
While Graves’s view of research is likely to enrage certain sections of the research community, it’s possible that his animosity towards asking questions of consumers will stand him in good stead with those who argue that the role of research, especially in the social media world, should be to listen to consumers and let them steer the conversation. Graves himself is certainly less opposed to the concept of listening – though it’s not without its drawbacks, he says.
He cites fashion retail chain Zara as a “great example of a company who really listen to their customers”. “In Zara stores,” he says, “one of the tasks their managers have is to listen to what their customers tell them. So if someone comes in to complain that a belt is a bit short, say, that’s a valuable piece of feedback and they as a business are geared up to channelling that information back into the marketing, product design and product manufacturing base.”
Listening in to online conversations, though, is merely “OK”. “It’s a bit like listening to what people are saying about you in the playground. You need to understand the psychology of human communication,” says Graves. “For example, if something bad happens to me as a consumer I’ve now got a story to tell and it’s going to have all the elements of story – a good guy, a bad guy, a setting, a turning point and a hero. And I’m going to tell that story because of how it will make me look and because it’s a way of conversing that I know will engage people.”
The act of telling a story actively primes others to share their own tales and before long, Graves says, “we’ve got everybody in the playground sticking the boot in”. Companies, he says, should be alert to this, and ready to go in, deal with negative sentiment and attempt to create a positive story for its customers to tell. “But the notion that what people choose to talk about is representative of what they do” – and thus contains insight to explain customer behaviour – “just doesn’t bear scrutiny to me,” says Graves.
Where do we go from here?
So if asking questions is off the table, and listening isn’t all its cracked up to be, what are companies left with? Graves advocates observational research – watching what consumers do and analysing their behaviour.
If a company is developing new products, he says, prototyping and live testing of concepts on store shelves is the way to go. This, we suggest, might be a tough sell commercially. Companies would have to get quite far along in the product development process before they realise they have a dud on their hands. Surely that creates a bigger risk of more expensive failures than a few concept testing surveys would – no matter how flawed Graves says they are.
“We’ve been seduced by this illusion that we can ask people what they think and learn from it”
He disagrees of course. “Testing new concepts with consumers is so bad as an exercise. Companies feel that they are minimising their risk by doing that research and it’s giving them confidence to go forward, but in reality they are just as likely to be ditching a really good idea at that stage,” says Graves.
“If you are sensitive to loss, as a lot of businesses are, be sensitive to the loss of just kicking out a perfectly good, perfectly marketable idea because the process you are using cannot give you any reliable sense of whether people are going to buy it.”
It’s at this point Graves points to a list of brands that have launched on gut instinct and been successful, despite having scored poorly in research tests: Red Bull, Absolut Vodka in the US, Baileys, the Heineken ‘refreshes the parts’ campaign. “Market research was all for stamping on them and throwing them out the door,” he says.
These and other so-called “market research failures” are well documented. But it is, I suggest, an unfair argument. The story of creative genius triumphing despite the warnings of customer experts makes for an engaging tale, and reflects well on the teller. If, as Graves said earlier, people choose to tell a story because of how it makes them look, it’s hardly surprising we hear this sort of story more than the one in which the humble survey led to the development of a successful product.
Researchers looking for a ‘good news’ story to tell might point to the continual growth of their industry in the 60 or 70 years since it emerged. Surely, they might say, an industry responsible for more misses than hits wouldn’t have enjoyed such a run of success.
No one would argue that the survey is a perfect tool – nor for that matter is a depth interview, or a focus group, or any other method that involves asking respondents questions. Asking questions invites focalism and encourages people to post-rationalise, neither of which are helpful in understanding the consumer’s true sub-conscious decision-making process.
Researchers are well aware of the limitations of their range of tools. What we’re left to ponder is whether the companies who pay them to wield those tools are equally knowledgeable, for Graves’s prediction of an end to the old paradigm of market research depends on those buyers.
He says: “We’ve been seduced by this illusion that we can ask people what they think and learn from it.” But there’s every possibility that companies have really been seduced by the fact that asking people is cheaper and less time-consuming for companies than the alternative methods of research – no matter how much more reliable they might be.
‘Consumer.ology, The Market Research Myth, the Truth about Consumers and the Psychology of Shopping’ by Philip Graves is published this month by Nicholas Brealey Publishing.