In Search of Deeper, Faster Consumer Insights
David S. Lundahl, President & CEO of InsightsNow, Inc.
The marketing research profession is standing at a crossroad. The way back is to a carefully controlled research environment where human subjects respond to stimuli and questions evoked through careful (atomistic) experimentation. The way forward is an inclusive, holistic research approach.
Many of the experimental methods used in our industry have evolved out of the experimental psychology laboratory. Yet, consumers do not normally experience products and services in the laboratory or in the context of research situations such as a focus group or web surveys. Consumer psychologists note that emotions, not necessarily rationally based affective responses elicited from research design, are the true motivations for behavior.
And emotions – as well as all response measures of affect, depend on situational context. How do the situational contexts we place respondents in alter or even bias affective responses and the respective insights that business decisions are often based upon?
As researchers, we must understand consumers through the lens of the respondents. The laboratory based research paradigm of the past limits our clarity of consumer insight. To improve this clarity, we need a fresh, new approach to research.
Atomistic and Holistic
The international marketing research organization ESOMAR makes a distinction between an atomistic and holistic test. While, atomistic testing aims to assess response behavior evoked by individual elements of a product experience, holistic testing aims to assess response behavior evoked by all aspects of a consumer product experience, experienced as a whole.
Quantitative methods within the marketing research industry tend to follow a very atomistic testing paradigm. The field has been greatly influenced by experimental psychologists that have taught us to control environmental conditions in order to observe response behavior to a small number of product elements varied in accordance with an experimental design. These methods allow for large numbers of consumers to be surveyed leading to assessments about populations through the application of statistics.
Some qualitative methods, such as ethnographic research, are more holistic. This approach to gaining insight includes observation of consumer behavior in the context of true product and service experiences. Insights are dependent on the internalization of observations by the observer. While there is merit to applying qualitative methods to gain some types of insights, observational techniques do not allow for assessment of large numbers of consumers without a significant cost in time, financial, and human resources.
This leads to the following questions. Can quantitative research become more holistic? Can experimental designs be applied within situational contexts that evoke more holistic response behaviors? Might a more holistic approach to research lead to deeper insights? Might these deeper insights improve the accuracy of marketing and product and/or service development decisions?
Figure 1. Holistic Research Framework
Consider the example of three successive encounters (see Figure 1) with a food meal entrée by a family. The first encounter may be in the grocery store where a woman, as primary shopper, first encounters the entrée product. The situational context of the shopping experience affects her expectations and concerns.
Is she seeking specific product features and functionality? Is she depleted of time and energy? These expectations and concerns contribute to the formation of her emotions during the shopping experience and impact her decision to purchase and try.
Is she intrigued about a specific promise that manufacturer of the food entrée makes to her? Her expectations and concerns from the shopping experience also impact the psychology of how she will experience the product during food preparation and consumption.
As the product is prepared and eventually consumed by members of her family, she will encounter the product under different situational contexts. Each encounter will contribute to an evolving cascade of interrelated expectations and concerns.
How a product performs under these situational context in contrast to formed expectations and concerns will impact the types of and intensity of emotions that she (as well as her family) experiences.
Did she enjoy the experience? Was she satisfied that the manufacturer’s promise was met? Does the product elicit pride that she is a good provider? These and other emotions form her motivation for a wide range of behaviors such as trial or repeat purchase, as well as acceptance or rejection by members of her family.
The psychology of the encounters by this woman with this product can be illustrated within the above schematic. This schematic characterizes the interrelationships between concerns, expectations and emotions experienced under different situational contexts and how they ultimately affect trial and repeat behavior.
Without a holistic approach to research, we are left with static snapshots in time of a consumer’s reaction to a product or service. We miss an opportunity to understand why she behaves and how to influence that behavior through product development and/or marketing decisions.
Figure 2. Results from holistic research study
Consider the results from a research study designed holistically (see Figure 2). At a central location, respondents first prepared the ingredients for a microwave entrée according to one of twelve sets of instructions. The prepared product was then taken away for cooking in a kitchen and brought out for consumption and taste evaluation. The respondents did not know they were all assessing a standard product, irrespective of individual preparation.
The above figure shows the psychological affect of the preparation experience alone on purchase intent after consumption. Product developers and marketers were given valuable direction for formulating and positioning a new product on the basis of what combination of ingredients and preparation instructions elicited the highest expectations and best met their concerns during preparation and consumption.
This example stresses the importance of taking a more holistic approach. If we are to improve the value of research information, we must move away from an atomistic research paradigm that measures consumer responses to individual elements of a product. We must in turn embrace a more holistic paradigm that measures response behavior to multiple elements of a product experience. This paradigm shift requires that we utilize a new framework for solving consumer insight problems through research.
Back in 2005, I had the privilege of listening to consumer psychologist Pieter Desmet talk about emotive topologies (see Figure 3). His talk inspired me to dive into the consumer psychology literature where I discovered there is broad agreement that product emotions can be characterized and measured discretely.
Consider your own experiences. You might like, love, hate or dislike a product. You may become bored with a product or desire to own it. You may enjoy, fear or be satisfied with a product experience. You may hold out hope for a specific experience outcome or be surprised by an experience.
You may feel pride that you are similar to someone you admire that is a brand advocate or feel shame that you over-indulged. The above schematic characterizes a topology of discrete emotions that are experienced in tandem and in temporal sequence in response to product experiences.
Product emotions include the feelings consumers have about products, and the people and/or experiences associated with products. The psychology for how these discrete emotions are elicited is becoming understood. This understanding provides a framework for a more holistic research paradigm.
The Consumer Behavior Ladder
The emerging psychology for how discrete products emotions are formed provides marketing researchers with a valuable, new capability to gain deeper consumer insights. This led to the formation of The Consumer Behavior Ladder (see Figure 4), a schematic that organizes the psychological causes and effects underlying consumer behavior into a holistic research framework.
The ladder is an evolving representation of our understanding of the psychology underlying consumer behavior. It represents a framework for thinking about and solving consumer insight problems. It is intended to assist in the design and interpretation of research leading to deeper insights into more than just purchase behavior.
It allows for consideration of other behaviors that might be observed or expressed in research, shopping, preparation, consumption and social contexts and includes a whole category of affinity behaviors, such as a purchase intent response.
The ladder includes rationalization behaviors that are expressed when we force consumers into a rational mode while filling out a quantitative survey and commenting behaviors that are associated with consumer complaints or with becoming an outspoken advocate for a product or brand.
At the bottom rung of the ladder are consumer qualities, the most tangible qualities we might use to characterize consumer behavioral tendencies. In addition to normal demographics such as gender, included are qualities such as identity, personality, time styles for organizing one’s life, life stage and life values, as well as culture and socio-economic status.
These fundamental qualities ladder up in a cause and effect way to psychographic qualities. These qualities characterize consumers on the basis of broad concerns (or goals) that are associated with one’s role in life (and which are related to life stages and values).
These also include “oughts” – or broad consumer beliefs for what they ought to do or ought not to do in situations, attitudes that consumers have about products and brands, and ideals they have (not just perceptually) but also in terms of their wants and needs in accord with their hopes, dreams and adherence to norms.
These psychographic qualities are the primers of behavior tendencies – actual behaviors dependent highly on situational context. When a consumer has a product encounter, their time available, level of depletion, mood, what they have at stake in the experience, and how much control they believe they have in the experience outcome all contribute to different emotions and behaviors. Considering how your research contexts (as best practices) differ from real consumer experiences can be a very enlightening exercise.
These situational contexts along with psychographic qualities of consumers ladder up to what are called emotive drivers. This includes the held concerns and expectations at the moment of a product encounter.
• Concerns are immediate top of mind goals defined as activities, tasks, quests, norms and standards, or anticipated use cases within a given situational context. Concerns may include consumption intentions, consequences or benefits
• Expectations are anticipated functional, emotional, and/or self-social identity benefits as well as the consequences of or the beliefs held about what control the consumer has with regard to product experiences within a given situational context.
Emotive levers are not the same as emotive drivers. Emotive levers are those aspects of the consumer experience under the control of the retailer, marketer or developer of a good or service. This includes a product’s brand, positioning, claims and substantiations, and more tangible product qualities such as sensory properties, features and functionality.
In using this behavior ladder, we become more strategic – and valuable in solving business problems through marketing research. By deepening insights into the underlying drivers of emotions, we also gain insight into new opportunities to utilize specific emotive levers within our control. Research leads to strategy that can turn up positive emotions and/or turn down negative ones.
This ladder challenges us to advance our best practices by becoming more holistic. It enables us to consider how to improve how we mimic normal use contexts. It enables us to improve best practices for recruiting and segmenting consumers. It also provides a framework to consider best practices for collecting responses about or observing people to characterize the discrete emotions that are, have been, or might be anticipated to be evoked during product experiences.
This Consumer Behavior Ladder is an evolving framework, subject to change as we learn more as a profession about the psychology underlying consumer behavior. While it only characterizes a snapshot in time for how a consumer may respond to a product under a given situational context, temporal dynamics can be built into the ladder providing a holistic research framework for marketing research.
This enables research design to characterize why consumers do grow tired of or become more accepting of products or services after repeat encounters.
Holistic Research Best Practices
If we are to become more holistic in our research practices we will need to think outside the laboratory research paradigm that forms the basis for current best practices. The Consumer Behavior Ladder provides a new, more holistic basis to establish best practices. Following are ten examples that may be applied to make your research more holistic.
• Situational orientation: A story board technique that enables the respondent to psychologically place themselves into situational contexts that elicit true feelings.
• Free-association profiling: A qualitative-quantitative technique that enables respondents to express their feelings, perceptions, and/or associated concerns and expectations in their own language.
• Protocept testing: A research strategy that enables earlier reads on emotive drivers that underlie product experiences leading to earlier insights within development cycles.
• Emotive recall and anticipation measurement: Measurement techniques for recall of past or anticipating future feelings enabling insight into emotive drivers.
• Real-time analysis: A technology-based capability that enables rapid, iterative learning to capture more aspects of a consumer’s product experience.
• Real-time profiling and screening: A technology- based capability that enables a mix of quantitative and qualitative research for deeper insights.
• Emotive tracing: A research information summary technique that enables strategic planning of emotive levers based upon insights into consumer qualities that ladder up to emotions and related behaviors.
• Temporal tracking: A research strategy that enables insight into the temporal dynamics of how and why consumers change in product and/or service acceptance after repeated exposure.
• Trade-off methods: Research methods such as willing-to-pay or willing-to-trade trade that incorporate a cost to decisions into choice that enables some choice-based research to become more predictive.
• Holistic mapping: Data visualization techniques to summarize multiple elements of a product experience that drive emotions and behavioral tendencies enabling deeper insights from complexity.
The quest to provide deeper insights into the complexity of consumer behavior requires the marketing researcher to cross the holistic frontier. We must continually strive to seek out new and innovative ways to meet this challenge. By challenging the traditional boundaries that confine our current thinking we can find a new way forward. This way is the adoption of a new, more holistic research paradigm that forms the basis for greater clarity in consumer insight through the lens of the respondent.
About the Author
David Lundahl is President and CEO of InsightsNow. He founded the company with a vision to combine deep consulting expertise with technology, achieving better, faster research services valued for their trust, speed, insights, and certainty. Dr. Lundahl has over 20 years experience in consumer research for product development, the last 12 as a business consultant.
His technical expertise is in statistics and business process improvement for product development. He has held management positions in the food industry, served as Associate Professor at Oregon State University and founded two companies.
An acknowledged industry expert in marketing research and consumer product evaluation, he specializes in integrating the business decision making process with market and consumer product research information.
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