OPINION20 December 2011

Behavioural economics: a call to action

Kristin Hickey of Ruby Cha Cha says the current focus on behavioural economics offers great opportunities for research providers to change the way they work – if clients are willing to take the plunge with them.

I enjoyed Nick Southgate’s article on behavioural economics in the November issue of Research. It is refreshing to see people in the industry turning their focus from re-expressing the ideas of some of the discipline’s most published authors, to actually encouraging action.

For too long we have simply acknowledged the obvious: that human behaviour is at times unpredictable, often inexplicable and disproportionately dominated by the unconscious. As researchers, this shouldn’t surprise us – after all, we’ve developed an entire industry dedicated to understanding much of this behaviour.

It has therefore been frustrating to read and hear a lot about behavioural economics from our industry as if it was a new and surprising phenomenon. While it is true that the fashionability of behavioural economics has been accelerated by an increasingly public and political profile in recent years, many of the basic principles (such as framing or priming) should be familiar to qualitative and quantitative researchers. Indeed our understanding of these principles and their implications for eliciting and understanding true consumer response should form the basis of market research training.

“Now more than ever is the time for researchers to question whether the approaches that have become so familiar to us are the right ones to take us into a new future”

Having said that, the market industry in general has been slow to respond to this heightened (or at least more heavily publicised) opportunity. If anything, the fashionability of behavioural economics has provided our industry an opportunity to embrace risk and truly re-define the way we go about understanding consumer behaviour.

To date the vast majority of industry leaps (MROCs, neuroscience and so on) have arisen from innovations that capitalise on new technology or social change. Now we are being presented with a high-profile opportunity to innovate without reliance on technology, focusing instead on our investigatory techniques and analysis of information. Now more than ever is the time for researchers to stand up and question whether the approaches that have become so familiar to us are the right ones to take us into a new future. Now more than ever is the time for disruptive methodological innovation.

So why, if the conditions are fertile, are we not seeing an industry reinventing its core set of approaches in leaps and bounds? Why is it, for instance, that the exciting work profiled in Research by BrainJuicer and Monkey See – only a couple of examples of the exciting progress many organisations and individuals are making – was self-funded rather than paid for by clients? One reason I encounter quite regularly is the reluctance of clients to walk away from norms they find comfortable, familiar and easy to sell internally. Despite the development of groundbreaking and theoretically viable ideas, it is difficult to find a client who is willing to take the risk in experimenting with these ideas when it comes to their brands or business.

From a commercial perspective this is of course completely understandable, particularly in a high-risk economic context. At the same time, perhaps there are opportunities to share the risk, the learnings, the experience and the journey required to take the consumer insights industry to the forefront of leadership in understanding consumer, individual and social behaviour.

Perhaps, just for a moment, we could imagine a hypothetical era of vibrancy in research in which buyers, instead of evaluating a new methodology on the basis of how many of their competitors have already benefited from the approach, evaluate it based on its conceptual and theoretical benefits, as is common in the fields of scientific endeavour. While the risks are higher and the payback period might be longer, the upside could well be significant for clients who are willing to take the leap with us.

In order to bring this to life, here is a list of hypothetical futures from a researcher and client perspective.

Future 1: The resurgence of longitudinal research
Client A is a financial services client with a consumer panel whose opinions and intentions are continuously recorded against their actual behaviour. The output is a map which highlights cognitive and behavioural alignment and provides explanation of misalignment based on a comprehensive pattern of recorded history.

Future 2: Individual interviewing is obsolete
Client B is a manufacturer of alcoholic beverages. Their quantitative research is no longer conducted through individual responses. Instead, small ‘tribes’ of consumers complete a survey collectively to provide a more realistic perspective of on-premise decision-making, influence and social behaviour.

Future 3: Influencing positive triggers
Client C is a pharmaceutical company that has used neuroscience to unlock insights that have helped them increase patient compliance for their number-one branded drug, by identifying the triggers that remind people to take their medication.

Future 4: The new market researcher
A market research company’s senior researchers are trained in acute observation techniques traditionally employed by the secret service. Within seconds, their researchers can identify aspects of body language and facial expressions that enable them to predict shopper behaviour with 85% accuracy before the shopper enters a store.

I admit that each of these examples is completely hypothetical and some may be quite far-fetched, but we need to be thinking further afield if we are to redefine the boundaries of what our industry can achieve when it comes to better understanding, explaining and influencing behaviour. Now, if someone can help me find Clients A, B and C, we could have a revolution on our hands.


12 years ago

Hi Kristen, What a fantastic article! I couldn't agree with you more about the need to stop steering the ship by looking back at its wake and instead embrace the opportunity (and risk) presented to us by new disruptive methodologies. At Affinnova we use evolutionary algorithms to optimize marketing content, a truly disruptive yet effective (and validated) solution that allows you to capture the complexities involved in decision making better than any other tool because it allows consumers to do what they do well already, make holistic choices without having to explain them. We know now that what consumers say is not often what they think; what they think is often not what they do in real life; what consumers do is often irrational driven by emotions; and what consumers feel is often hard for them to describe in words. And I share your pain with regard to clients who are not willing to embrace our approach and "take the leap" with us. Best Regards, Art

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12 years ago

Thanks for this excellent discussion of this paradox. There is a general feeling in the marketing industry (client side) that we need something new, that traditional research is failing brands, etc. But when faced with the opportunity to try something new -- in our case prediction markets -- they fall back on the "but we need the norms" argument. Aside from the mathematical truism that working with norms elevates the mediocre), this craven clinging to norms simply removes any decision making, and hence any possibility of significant. positive change. BE presents different approaches to measuring potential that is not based on statistical significance and norms. This is obviously scary, and in a world where good enough is good enough, should be avoided at all costs. But in a world where success is derived from differentiation, risk is imperative and scary is good. This applies to MR as much as any other business discipline. Let me know when you have clients A.B and C, and I;ll be there to help storm the parapets of sameness. www.tinyurl.com/proteanprediction

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