Thursday, September 6, 2012
Data point No. 1: You wouldn’t think that a company like Steelcase, the 100 year-old office furniture manufacturer, would be doing well in this economic environment, but both revenue and profits at the company are up. When asked how Steelcase does it, CEO James Hacket said, “It begins with trying to get an intense sense of the patterns of the way people actually behave. Focus groups used to ask people about preferences, and often they would do that in groups, which actually makes it worse. You’re tending to get opinions about how they’d like to behave, versus how they really behave.”
Data Point No. 2: Leading packaged goods companies like Kimberly Clark, Unilever and Procter & Gamble are now using special glasses equipped with eye-tracking technology to understand how people process information in grocery store aisles. The new technology is showing real business results, lowering the cost of product development and increasing sell-through. Vanderbilt University marketing professor Steve Posavac succinctly captured the reason why: ”There’s a big disconnect between what people want to do and what they say they want to do.”
These are just two data points, I know. But we could add to them many others that lead to an inescapable conclusion: the best research is the real world.
Yes, focus groups have their place, but they can be notoriously misleading. Quantitative studies are statistically reliable but are often mistakenly interpreted. And copy testing tends to quash breakthrough ideas. There’s simply no way consumers can effectively and reliably articulate how they think, feel or act about real-world stimuli in an unreal environment.
The best (though still imperfect) research is that which is designed to observe and understand the behavior of people in their natural habitat–qualitatively (like Jane Goodall sitting among the chimps), quantitatively (through test market programs) or anything in between. We humans are incredibly complex creatures with highly efficient information processing capabilities that science doesn’t yet–and may never–fully understand.
Marketers that draw too hasty or overly simplistic conclusions based on the false authority of an impressive looking research report are doing a disservice to their brands. Consumers don’t often know why they do what they do until they do it, and perhaps not even then.