OPINION21 June 2017

Say goodbye to the individual

Behavioural science Opinion Trends Youth

Human beings are inherently social, even when it comes to seemingly solitary activities. Researchers must factor this in to their approaches, says Nick Gadsby.

Millennial mobile social crop

We live in an era where social media has completely transformed the range and scope of consumer social interactions, but despite this unprecedented social revolution our industry continues to treat consumers as individuals first and foremost.

This is principally because we have a very narrow purview of what being social entails – that at a minimal level, what counts as social is interaction with others.

As a consequence, key behaviours such as purchasing and decision-making – which tend to be viewed as solitary activities – and consumer perceptions and attitudes – which are seen to be ‘locked’ in the heads of individuals – fall outside of the scope of the social. But what if social was more than this?

Developments in evolutionary anthropology, cognitive psychology and neuroscience have demonstrated that the unique social environments in which humans evolved had a profound effect on the way our brains have been wired, and that we are predisposed to think of our experiences socially even in the absence of direct interaction with others.

This is the social bias – our default state is social, not individual. Significantly, this means that a whole range of consumer activities now fall under the rubric of social and this has to be factored in to how we do research.

There are four essential ways we must tune our approaches to the social bias:

  1. Consumers are socially always on. They never walk alone or indeed shop alone. Every decision passes through a social filter that demands: how will others respond to my choices?
  2. Consumer minds are open, not closed. Individual brains are not designed to contain lots of information (unlike a computer hard drive) and on the whole our knowledge is very shallow outside of a few specific areas of expertise. This means that consumers don’t differentiate strongly between knowledge in their heads and information stored in other people, or things, such as TV shows, Google, or Wikipedia. Knowledge, including brand perceptions, is not located in individual heads but distributed across numerous information sources.
  3. The world is full of social information. Human perception co-evolved in unique human-made environments brimming with social information from which the intentions of others could be inferred. Today, consumer environments are more human-made than ever before and are even richer in social information. Brands are key carriers of social information in these social environments.
  4. Social is the new authentic. One of the most problematic assumptions we operate under is that the authenticity of findings is compromised if individual participants are influenced by external sources of information. In fact the opposite holds true. Individual minds are fundamentally social and it is by cutting consumers off from their wider social worlds that we produce less complete findings.

Here are three ways that the social bias can be incorporated into research:

Bring the social world into research. By cutting off consumers from the sources of information they use to make decisions and form opinions, we effectively reduce the value of their input into research. Research should explore how brand perceptions and decision-making are shaped by meaningful others and information resources such as the internet, magazines and social media. This might mean getting respondents to research their networks, encouraging them to do research before or after interviews and going straight to the sources of their information using semiotics.

Identify brand intentionality. Brands are perceived through the lens of social information. While ‘brand personality’ is well-trodden ground, we should turn our attention to understanding how consumers perceive a brand’s intentionality – what do they believe its goals and ambitions are? What does it seek to bring to consumers’ lives? A brand’s communications and packaging are like facial expressions – consumers read them to elicit purpose. This is more important than ever in an era where brands compete for engagement and the globally dominant brands differentiate themselves with distinctive mission statements.

Social context is king. Although individuals are inherently social it is also clear that their behaviour, attitudes and choices are driven by the social context in which a brand, product or service is used or discussed. An obvious place to begin is with a spectrum of contexts ranging from the most private and solitary through degrees of family, friends, peers and colleagues, to strangers. From there we can establish how brands fit into each of these contexts and how these contexts shape perceptions of brands.

Dr Nick Gadsby is founder and principal of semiotics and cultural insight agency The Answer

1 Comment

7 years ago

What is the basis for the conclusions?

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