Marketers: Stop Asking Consumers 'Why?'

Market Research Needs to Catch Up to Neuroscience

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What's up with all the wingtips? In the past few months, I've noticed an increasing emergence of young men wearing wingtip shoes. They're sporting tan wingtips, gray, and even blue suede wingtips.

Remember when wingtips were the most conservative men's shoe you could buy, usually in black or cordovan, finishing off a gray or blue suit? Even in the opening credits of the 1960s sitcom, "My Three Sons," wingtips represented the character of middle-aged dad Steve Douglas, played by Fred MacMurray.

Now the wingtip might be the hippest shoe going.

I've casually asked a few of these young, fashionable wingtip-sporting men why they're wearing what was once thought to be an old man's shoe. I got scrunched-faced answers like, "I just like the way they look." Or, "I saw them in the store and they just looked cool."

What they didn't say was, "I've seen a lot of guys with them lately and I thought I should get some, too. Heck, I don't want to look outdated or out of touch."

Over the years, I've found that marketing research often misses this not-so-subtle nuance in the way consumers make and rationalize purchase decisions. To marketers' credit, they want to understand why a consumer does what he does. And, in the quest to get the voice of the consumer, they ask direct questions, thinking they'll get direct answers. And they do.

What too many marketers haven't come to realize yet is that this "holy grail" they seek, this answer to "why?" is often flawed, at best -- and sometimes dead wrong, at worst.

Talk to any behavioral neuroscientist, and they'll tell you that we humans have a very difficult time understanding why we do what we do, even though our brains provide us with a very specific rationale. They will further explain that while we can be easily motivated by stimuli that are not consciously processed, the more evolved, rational areas of our brains have developed the ability to explain -- or even invent -- the reasons for our actions.

These neuroscientists have chronicled that the parts of the brain that help us remember, feel and react to stimuli -- often called the limbic system -- get us through each day efficiently, without having to evaluate each and every little movement, action or decision. This non-analytical, subconscious area of our brain allows us to quickly sign our name, keep our car on the road during a phone call and interpret a friend's facial expression -- all without "thinking" about it.

But, as our species evolved over the past million years or so, a newer area of our brains, our cortexes, grew and developed to not only help us solve complex problems, but also make us more socially aware. Whereas the limbic system protects us physically, our analytical, language-based system serves to protect us socially. Without conscious awareness that we're doing it, we're wired to make logical, rational connections to explain our actions.

This misunderstanding of behavior and decision-making often leads researchers to collect bad data, which then misleads marketers down a path of positioning their brands only in regard to functional utility and product facts and features. Market research methods need to catch up to accommodate this more nuanced, scientific understanding.

If you're a busy marketer, you're leaning on your marketing research team to counsel you on the best means to understand consumers. How do you know if you're getting the best consumer feedback or insights? Here are four strategies:

1. Challenge your team with methodological questions about how they plan to contend with issues of subconscious perceptions.

2. Spend more time studying consumers' actual behavior. How consumers behave in other parts of their lives can give you clues about how they'll behave within your category, and in the future.

3. Test more in the field and less online. Because it seems "cost effective," too many clumsy marketing studies are happening online. Study actual behavior by doing more testing in the marketplace, not in an artificial setting like a focus group or an online survey.

4. If it's too expensive to study the marketplace, engage in some of the emerging, more progressive research methodologies that measure what's happening in consumers' subconscious, like eye-tracking, facial coding or implicit testing.

It's up to all of us to push market research toward a more nuanced view of how consumers behave and choose. And it starts with understanding the limitations of the question "Why?"

And, while I'm not exactly sure why, I've started hankering for a pair of wingtips.

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