The Real Me

Apr 05 2010

To change a business or brand we need to change behavior. To do this we must understand why people behave as they do now and in turn how we can influence them to change.

If I think about myself for a moment, the challenge becomes clear.  I don’t always really know why I do the things I do. I misplace my keys, I get distracted, sometimes I am just on autopilot, thinking about something else. Half the time I struggle to explain things to myself, let alone to someone else. I am surprised how illogical I can be, and at times how downright emotional I can get.

I am often juggling “to do lists”, trying to remember the kids, my partner or that client presentation tomorrow. I don’t always think things through. When I bought my flat, I just walked in and the one I chose just felt right, I thought, “Yes I will buy this one”.

Brands in truth are a small part of the fabric of my daily life, and I don’t always give them a lot of thought.

Science has established that human beings are not very good at accurately making sense of our actions.  We are very prone to post-rationalizing and even distorting and recreating ‘memories’. What we recall is dependent on place and company. Indeed, how we behave is very much dependent on circumstances. Behaviour and even attitudes change depending on the situations we encounter.

Most of what drives attitudes and behavior is not always accessible to conscious introspection. We often act on intuition or gut feel alone.  Emotions are a lot more important than the business World would like to admit. Take the recent financial crash and the rise of behavioral economics!  We are finally recognizing that consumers are human and not textbook economists.

So we are ‘human’. Our brains evolved to help us survive long enough to reproduce and raise offspring. Our thinking needs to be expedient more than accurate.  It records patterns that link to our life goals and wellbeing. We did not evolve to answer questions like, “tell me your decision tree for buying this brand of shampoo?” We do not have a computer between our ears, and our thinking is often illogical, impulsive and imprecise.

What does this mean for our search for our search for insights? Well clearly just asking people why they do what they do is unlikely to yield much in the way of insight. Indeed we are going to have to take what people say ‘with a large pinch of salt’. As we have said in qualitative research for many years:  “People don’t say what they mean nor do they mean what they say”.

We need to increasingly think how our research can tap into real life. In other words, be careful about where and when you talk to people. If you rely too much on the traditional laboratory style focus group setting you maybe divorced from the reality of brand interactions.  If we want people to recall the real influences on behavior we should do more research in a real life context. Every research proposal should include a real life component.

We also need to be more realistic in our exploration of human motivations. Clearly this has been the subject of not just market research, but science generally, religion, art, poetry, philosophy and many other disciplines over the centuries. Our understanding continues to advance but we are unlikely to establish the truth of the human condition in a single market research project.

Our ability to discover meaningful insights goes up if we consider multiple viewpoints. It is surprising to hear people bemoan that; “the focus groups told us something different to the survey”. Of course they did.  Every piece of research is contextual and no single method is a pure rendition of “the truth”.

We should embrace use of multi-perspective research methods. Using multiple frameworks and methodologies researchers are empowered to produce more rigorous insights. Such an approach avoids the reductionism of ‘monological’ research orientations.

So if you are scraping the bottom of the barrel on your survey results, searching for insights, ask yourself whether you know the real consumer.

I went back to the doctor
To get another shrink
I sit and tell him about my weekend
But he never betrays what he thinks
Can you see the real me doctor, doctor

Source: “The Real Me“, a song written by The Who. It concerns a boy named Jimmy, with four distinct personalities. The song describes how he angrily deals with several individuals to identify “the real me.”


“Out With the New, In With the Old by Wendy Gordon, Admap, January 2005

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