Don't Make My Mom Your Marketing Director

Study What Consumers Do, Not What They Say

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Tom Denari
Tom Denari
I love my mom. I really do. But I don't want her making decisions about the work my agency creates -- even if she's the target audience. And frankly, I don't want my dad, or my brothers or sisters doing it either. Not even my wife.

But our industry does it every day. Millions of dollars are spent every year, doing just that, asking untrained people what they think of the work we create. We call them the "voice of the consumer." The industry calls it research. Directors of innovation call it testing.

I call it malpractice.

Strong word, I'll admit, but the simple message is this. We have to stop asking consumers to evaluate work. On the face of it, "getting consumer validation" seems like a really good idea. "Let's see what consumers say." Getting consumer feedback appears to be an objective process that will guarantee a solid prediction of how consumers will respond when it's rolled out into the marketplace.

Not surprisingly, plenty of ads test well and don't succeed. Others test badly, and do succeed, if there's a visionary CMO. There are storied examples of TV shows that were deemed to be failures when "tested" with an audience. Had NBC chosen not to air the "biggest bunch of losers we've seen in audience research," we would have never seen the best sitcom of all time, Seinfeld.

It's not that research is bad. But, misunderstanding how humans receive and process information creates bad methodologies and, more important, useless results. Just last week a very reputable research firm sent out a press release reporting that a majority of consumers stated that ads don't motivate them to switch brands of a product they usually use. No kidding. Did the research group really think that consumers were all going to admit, "Well of course I don't have a mind of my own ... I'm easily swayed by all those clever ads"?

The problem here is neurological science.

Isn't it common knowledge that consumers are motivated more by emotion than reason? Isn't that why brands exist? And, if we can agree that brands work on an emotional level, then why are we asking consumers to make rational judgments in testing scenarios? As soon as we ask consumers what they think of something, they stop being consumers and start becoming evaluators. They are now put in a position to think, to give rational feedback to something that is largely trying to affect their emotional or -- more accurately -- their irrational instincts. We've effectively made my mom the marketing director.

Even if a research methodology is trying to measure an emotional response, attempting to glean a valid, accurate response is almost impossible. The vast majority of this research requires consumers to use language to describe emotional responses. Unfortunately, humans have a very difficult time doing this. And even when they do, verbalizing emotion actually brings that emotion to a cognitive level. If it's cognitive, it's now rational and no longer emotional.

Still not convinced? Let me ask you some questions. What kind of car do you drive? Why did you buy it?

Stop and think for a minute.

OK. Now, how does the car make you feel? No, really, how does it make you feel? Take your time.

Uncomfortable, huh?

Did you BMW drivers rationalize that it's a well-engineered vehicle, or did you fess up that it makes you feel successful -- like you've made it. Are you more uncomfortable?

This is what we expect consumers to do. This is what many marketers use to make decisions. It has to stop.

Please don't misinterpret this as an indictment of research, just poorly conceived research. A research director once complained to me that his CMO boss held him up from presenting his research findings, lamenting that his boss was more concerned about how the research was collected than the results. Precisely. This enlightened CMO was trying to figure out whether he should even waste his time looking at the results. The research guy didn't get it.

Just because the industry has done it imperfectly doesn't mean we should continue doing it the same way. We have to challenge "tried and true" methodologies and databases of collective results. We need to do more ethnography before we create the strategies and campaigns. We need to do more test markets and less copy testing. We need to stop asking people what they think -- or what they feel -- or what they'll buy. Instead, we need to spend more time getting to know consumers. Study their behavior. Find out what they actually do.

What consumers do is much more powerful and more valid than what they say.

Actions speak louder than -- do I really have to finish the sentence?

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