Behavior Defines Consumers

Deeper Understanding: Don't Ask People What They Think; Watch What They Do

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A couple years ago I interviewed a mother of four at her house. I wanted to gain an authentic perspective on what made her tick and why she was so loyal to my client's home delivery service. So I turned on my iPod's voice recorder and eased into a discussion about life in suburban Chicago. Soon, she was gushing about how happy she was with her transition from
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With the help of JWT, JetBlue set up "story booths," in which passengers could record recollections of experiences flying the airline. The booths recreated the planes' interior.
"high-pressure" corporate executive to motherhood: "I love being at home. I love raising my children. I love being able to be with them for every aspect of their lives." She was even enthusiastic about cooking, laundry, walking the kids to school, teaching them to be polite and driving them to soccer practice. She smiled and shrugged, "I'm one of those crazy people... I don't mind cleaning my house."

Then, as the interview progressed, I noticed a few activities that didn't quite fit the stay-at-home-mom story. For example, she taught a child-birthing class at a room she rented downtown. She regularly spoke at church. She ran a discussion group with other mothers in the community to talk about politics. And another about nutrition. She participated in several book clubs. And a gourmet club. She started a fundraiser for the family of a school teacher who passed away. And one for Katrina victims. She organized her annual block party. She worked out every day. She loved traveling to Europe and India with her husband. She recently fired her housekeeper.

These contradictions in modern life are increasingly common. They were first observed around 10 years ago, as trend-trackers started reporting how people shopped at Costco one day and Barney's New York the next. Now, we see people reading "You On A Diet" while sipping a Mocha Frappuccino at Barnes & Noble. We're increasingly multi-tasking our multi-faceted lives in order to fit everything in. And yet we're still yearning for simplicity.

Priorities
The problem for market researchers arises when we try to identify a person's priorities. How can we determine priority when everything sounds like a priority? For example, which was a bigger priority for that suburban mother?

What compelled her to use my client's home-delivery brand? Was it about spending more time with the kids? Or more time for herself?

Some people are bouncing between so many pursuits, it's impossible to determine their priorities. But most of the time we can cut through the "I do it all" cover stories and discover the real person, by focusing on behavior. In other words, actions really do speak louder than words.

Here, then, are a few practical approaches to gathering behavior. They are distinguished primarily by the length of time between the incidence of the behavior and its recording.

Triggering memories
The first approach is gathering past behaviors. This approach is most reliant upon the interviewee's memory capacity and accuracy. The key idea here is using visual and other sensory cues to help the interviewee recall past behavior. A recent example was the approach used by JWT and JetBlue in 2006. The airline set up "story booths" in eight cities, where passers-by entered and recorded recollections of their experiences flying on JetBlue. The booths recreated the interior of a JetBlue aircraft with seats, overhead bins, tray tables, TV screens, snacks and other details. They even had crew members to guide the customer storyteller through the experience.

Another great example of this has been used for years in automotive market research: car clinics.

As a general rule, the more stimulating the visual and other sensory cues, the more interviewees will be able to accurately and vividly recall past behavior.

The second approach is gathering recent behavior. This approach still relies on the memories of the interviewees, but only short term. For example, JetBlue placed postcards in seat pockets of their aircraft, which passengers used as mini-journals for their journeys. They also sent e-mail and postcard requests after flights to request stories. These methods gathered memories that were still fresh.

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The interior of one of JetBlue's "story booths."
Journaling
Another great example of this approach is what I call Outlook calendar journaling. Specifically, I ask interviewees to fill in a calendar page divided into half-hour increments. They describe their activities and their general train of thought during those activities. Some interviewees do this periodically during the day, while others fill in the page each night. Regardless, it should be timed to capture memories of important customer experiences, like a weekend of car shopping.

Incidentally, this is the approach I used to record the behavior of that high-energy suburban mother. As the interview went on, I asked her to explain what she'd written on her "homework" -- three consecutive days of Outlook calendar journaling. As a result, I discovered many telling behaviors that conflicted with her self-description and professed values. This lead to deeper insight about her life and her brand-loyal behavior.

The third, and most elaborate, approach is gathering present behavior, the here and now. This is usually the main focus of ethnographic research, where people are observed behaving in their natural environment (such as cleaning their kitchens). However, it can also involve observation outside of the home. For example, I have tagged along with a couple as they spent a Saturday visiting car dealerships. I have also accompanied mothers as they zip around town running errands. In either case, the key component is recording behaviors as they are happening, without relying upon the interviewee's memory.

Whether you gather recalled stories, journals or observations of the "here and now," you will encounter apparent hypocrisy. That's OK. Contradictions can be very revealing. But don't bother pointing it out to the interviewee. That will only cause them to withdraw. And giving someone a reality check would upset the natural order and meaning that they've created in their lives. And if you want to get to know the real person, you must make them comfortable in their sometimes irrational skin.

So if you want to know how your customers will behave in the future, don't ask for more of their opinions. Just take a look at their behavior.
Tom Neveril is president of Storybrand Consulting, a market intelligence firm in Santa Monica, Calif. Clients include Hilton, Volkswagen and Wells Fargo. Previously he was an account planner at DDB Worldwide in Los Angeles.
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