Published in Sep-Oct 2022
Consumer research is an elementary piece of the marketing jigsaw. Thanks to efforts by multinational companies and industry experts, consumer-and-market research has taken a central position in the brand decision-making process. From syndicated tracking research (a kind of longitudinal study to track the movement of brands and categories in different markets) to customised research carried out to explore the depth of a subject, consumer research, in its multifarious facets, has been helping brands on several fronts of their performance spectrum, enabling them to strategise their moves going forward.
However, despite the availability of data, there is uncertainty around the credibility and reliability of the research techniques deployed and the outcomes of research projects. Their ability to reflect on-ground consumer reality, the credibility of the results and unearthing actionable insights are common concerns expressed by brand custodians.
Furthermore, enhanced exposure through the media and increasing consumer touch points have exposed consumers to different influences which determine their choices almost instantly. Although in the past there were fewer options available to address the evolving patterns of consumer behaviour in the research process, now, thanks to modern techniques, it is possible to step closer to obtaining a better understanding of their behaviours.
There is ample literature available to substantiate the fact that consumer choices (as captured through traditional surveys, polls, central location tests, etc.) may not necessarily reflect actual consumer preferences at the point of purchase or in the decision-making phase. Many factors are responsible for this deviation, most of them related to psychological factors, environmental influences, cultural norms and other ancillary domains. These factors do not allow for sole reliance on the stated responses from a sample of respondents towards a stimulus, as there can be cause for them to vacillate between idealism and reality.
For example, a conventional research setup, where a group of individuals is polled about their preferences for a subject may leave many nuances unaddressed, such as the impact of being in a new environment, excitement about the study, and overthinking the answers due to over-focused attention. All of this leaves an impression on the respondents’ minds and influences their approach to the study as well as increases the likelihood of idealistic responses that are not aligned with their actual preferences. Furthermore, expecting respondents to recall every aspect of their engagement with a brand may be overwhelming. Therefore, unless the respondent is a trained professional, who can accurately remember every bit of relevant information, seeking information about quantifiable measures in an artificial setting is unrealistic.
More often, consumers who reach their truths about their preferences may not be able to articulate them effectively. This can either be due to an inability to speak about the elements in a comprehensible manner; it can also be a result of cultural bias. We all have an inherent tendency to seek approval from others and the intensity to do so varies culturally. What also varies is the tendency to not criticise an idea. Studies of cultural relativism show how different societies differ in how they communicate and express their thoughts. In a Pakistani context, in particular, the act of being negative is usually shrouded in a neutralise-and-delay strategy; in other words, people tend to take a neutral stance and step back rather than be critical. At times, this may also be due to an urge to maintain a positive persona before the audience. Whatever the reason, this tendency has implications for research that is conducted solely on stated responses. Sugar-coated data hardly helps brand custodians to confidently decide about the options before them, and in essence, minimises the utility of the entire process.
The failure of New Coke in the eighties is an apt depiction of these errors. The launch of New Coke was based on the response to a stated study about colas which put Pepsi in the leading position. This led Coke to reformulate the drink in an endeavour to save its market position. Little did they know at that time about these limitations of stated studies which eventually led to the revival of the old formula. The point is that many times, consumers are not aware of their truth, so relying completely on stated responses may lead to a misguided business direction. What is needed is an approach that can study evolving and volatile consumer behaviour and takes into account nuances.
Rooted in a blend of stated and behavioural responses, modern methods allow for stepping closer to true consumer choices by their immersion into real-life scenarios and therefore bring greater reliability to the results. In contrast to a conventional set-up, these techniques dig deep into the normal day-to-day life of consumers, thereby generating insights garnered from their different ways of engaging with brands. In doing so, they shift the burden of reaching the truth from a respondent’s active mind (System 2) and focus on their subconsciously practised habits and behaviours (System 1) – a better predictor of their real-life choices. Some known studies in this domain include text analytics, mobile ethnographies, door-to-door methodologies and shopping simulations that do not require the absolute truth to be spoken; rather, they are extracted from consumer engagement. An added benefit of these techniques is their inherent actionability, owing to their cross-disciplinary insights that facilitate decision-making, which would otherwise largely depend on the experience bias of the data handler in driving the insights.
More advanced techniques involve the deployment of neuroscience in consumer research which is considered highly accurate in depicting the true choices of consumers in a more sophisticated manner. Their overarching techniques and methods are layered above all the levels of consumer research and directly analyse activities in different regions of the brain, bypassing the need for speech or behavioural observation. The electrical activity in the brain provides the necessary information about likability, intention, excitement and other important metrics, without requiring respondents to be consciously aware of them. Owing to their accuracy, these techniques are employed to dig deeper into factors that can influence behaviour through tailoring brain activities via artificial stimuli and are also used to optimise retail and service-oriented environments.
Despite the benefits, consumer research has always been a tricky business to deal with. Especially in Pakistan, where conventional techniques have a stranglehold over prevailing practices. Consumer insight and brand managers have expressed their concerns about factors that can promote bias in the research. With changing societal trends and increased avenues of exposure, it is imperative to upgrade the research landscape and modernise the techniques to better cater to the brand custodians. This is not to say that conventional techniques are flawed, but advancement is required to help brands better understand their end consumers better.
Foreseeing this need, NielsenIQ, launched the NielsenIQ Booz-Allen Sales Estimate System (BASES) in Pakistan in 2021. It comes with a set of proprietary research toolkits able to solve the challenges of conventional research by providing a closer reflection of real-life scenarios. The analytical frameworks minimise the risk of downplaying meaningful insights and prevent being carried away by overstated responses that ease decision-making for marketers. Now is the time for the local industry in Pakistan to reap the benefits of modernised research toolkits and level up to gain insights through better higher accuracy, reliability and actionability, and stay ahead of the curve.
Danial Pirani is Manager, NielsenIQ BASES MENAP. email@example.com