OPINION29 October 2020

Market research must see beyond consumers to overcome short-termism

Covid-19 Opinion Trends

The pandemic offers the industry an opportunity to offer guidance in uncertain times, if it brings in different perspectives. By Adam Chmielowski and Annie Auerbach.

World map view_crop

As businesses start to look beyond the immediate moment, we can think of Covid-19 as a liminal event: a move from one state to the next; a time to reflect, challenge assumptions and reboot.

It’s an opportunity for the insight industry to guide businesses through the fog of deeply uncertain futures, but to do so we need the right ways of seeing. Aviva’s Rhea Fox laments a “tsunami of insight”, failing to spot the longer-term behavioural changes emerging during the crisis. The industry has a tendency to revert to listening even harder to the consumer and digging ever deeper into the individual’s brain.

But to spot long-term changes in behaviours and mindsets, we need to step back, stop obsessing about proximity to the consumer, and instead, play with different perspectives and new ways of seeing. 

  1. Look wider: tell sociological, not psychological, stories

In the drive to be more “consumer-centric”, the marketing world tends to overstate the sovereignty of the consumer, placing attitudes and behaviours as drivers of action and seeing the individual and their choices as the essential building blocks of society. Cultural insight widens this view by looking at the world with a sociological imagination, seeing how society shapes individuals’ lives by telling sociological stories – not psychological – with people as characters evolving in response to their settings, norms and contexts.

A great example of sociological storytelling is Game of Thrones. Zeynep Tufekci’s brilliant essay on the subject describes how: "in sociological storytelling, the characters have personal stories and agency, of course, but those are also greatly shaped by institutions and events around them." In sociological stories, the entire narrative is not resting on an individual’s shoulders, but rather on the dynamics of the world in which they exist.

This means illuminating the less perceptible social narratives shared between people which enable and constrain us. Behavioural scientist Paul Dolan describes such narratives as:rules of thought and action that help to make a complicated world easier to navigate. By looking to the narrative for clues about how to live, we are provided with a coherent path to follow.” 

As researchers, now is the time to pay more attention to the world to see the stories and ideas emerging which are forming new ‘clues about how to live’.  We need to be part of the conversations happening across academic and cultural disciplines, using interdisciplinary thinking to help solve some of the wicked problems emerging out of the pandemic.  Asking consumers or looking at behaviours will lead to regression to the mean. Looking out to culture is where the interesting and inspirational lies. 

  1. Look inwards: create the future you want to see

OK, so we said that looking inside consumers’ heads wasn’t the best plan for looking ahead and breaking the cycle of short-termism, but looking at what’s inside the brand and practicing some self-reflection is. 

Margaret Heffernan, author of Uncharted: How to Map the Future, points out: “scenario planning isn’t about coming up with views of the future and choosing one.  It’s about interrogating each one and asking ‘what would I need to do in that eventuality now?” We’re all desperate for certainty and control but won't get it from predictions, certainly not in a pandemic, but agency can come from designing your own future based on the possibilities you map out.

Imagining futures is an active, creative process and should be rooted in the brand and product truths, not simply an exercise in pointing the brand in the direction of cultural trends. A semiotic review of the brand’s codes will reveal often intangible assets and ideologies which will help make decisions about how to chart a course ahead in a way that is distinctively you.

  1. Look longer: live across three time zones

To see beyond the short-term, we need to lengthen the perspectives we take. This means looking forwards – the methods of foresight or scenario-planning are well-known – and looking backwards by employing the historian’s skills. 

Heffernan talks about how we “live in three time zones”, explaining how our brains use past experiences to make predictions about the future, rearranging them to construct a suitable decision about how to behave in the present.  We should be doing much more of this in making sense of the world as researchers.

The industry should subscribe to Brian Eno’s concept of the ‘long now', defined as:"the recognition that the precise moment you're in grows out of the past and is a seed for the future. The longer your sense of Now, the more past and future it includes.” Instead it’s often stuck in an endless now, reliant on consumer-led insights which have all too often been heard before and lack historical urgency and context. 

See brands existing in society, not just in the brain

Now is a perfect time to lift our lines of sight, to not just fixate on brands existing in people’s heads but see them as parts of the fabric of society, culture, and history as it unfolds. Perhaps then the problem of short-termism turns into an opportunity to help people to move forward by inspiring them with new visions of the future. 

Adam Chmielowski and Annie Auerbach are co-founders of Starling


4 years ago

Brilliant article - understanding people's worldview is critical - goes to culture and how this interacts with the fabric of society. The day we stop referring to "consumers" and rather talk of "people" is the day our industry will have matured.

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4 years ago

This all was stated by Fishbein & Ajzen in their 1976 book Belief, Attitude, Intention, Behavior, where they allow for both psychological and sociological influences on eventual behavior. I brought this up a few years ago as a way to get around path-to-purchase issues, and nice to see it resurfacing; even though the language is different, the emphases are the same. Nicely done.

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