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Predicting Consumer Behavior: Research vs. Intuition


In Isaac Asimov’s 1951 science fiction classic, Foundation, Hari Seldon makes a bold prediction: the fall of the Galactic Empire. He can make this prediction only because he has spent his entire life developing psychohistory, a branch of mathematics that allows him to make accurate predictions of future events with the help of mass data and statistical methodology.

Brand managers would love a tool like psychohistory. With it they could get their branding and campaigns right every time, merely by inputting the right information, accounting for the right variables, and religiously following the result, whatever it may be.  Brand managers don’t quite have psychohistory, of course, but do utilize a rudimentary version of it: consumer and market research. With research, marketers aim to extract helpful data from consumers in order to predict behaviour and future preferences, and to plan their brand accordingly.

Research is a useful tool, yes, but should not be a crutch. Using research data to inform every aspect of a product, brand, or campaign may seem like a scientifically-sound idea, but one that is very dangerous in practice.

Market research, and the information it uncovers, is inherently flawed. It’s flawed because what research asks respondents to do –to rationalize the irrational—is unnatural and nearly impossible. The deep forces that affect what we do and why we do are mostly unknown to us and impossible to put into words or rate on a 10-point scale. Instead, we can only post-rationalize our actions, assigning sensible reasons to our decisions, whether they actually played a part in them or not.

If qualitative research provides us only with post-rationalized reasons for past behavior, how can we expect it to predict consumer action in the future? Instead, marketers must allow room for intuition. It’s the reason why interviews, focus groups, and other qualitative research methods are just as important as quantitative research: they give the researcher an opportunity to sense the moods, dispositions, and meanings behind what subjects choose to verbalize, leading to better understandings. With these intuitive understandings, a skilled marketer can make far more accurate consumer predictions and better branding decisions than hard research could on its own.

Maybe one day there will be a “psychohistory for marketing” that identifies all relevant data and variables and outputs perfect brands and campaigns every time. Until then, marketers must not allow themselves to think that research is capable of that level of precision.

What role then should research play in brand planning? Marketers should digest research findings, forget everything, then allow intuition to direct their decisions. This way research becomes one of the streams of information that gets synthesized in the marketing process, rather than a dangerous one-off.

Written By: Stephen McVerry

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