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Why Consumer Psychology and Narrative Research Beats Focus Groups and Surveys Every Time

If you’ve sat in on a Marketing 101 lecture in the last 30 years, you’ll no doubt have heard the tale of woe that was Coca-Cola’s 1985 ‘New Coke’ debacle. Enjoying near-mythical notoriety in today’s marketing lore, the company’s failed launch of a new flavor is a lesson in what we call the ‘say/do gap’. Having spent several million dollars in research and testing, some $300 million in product went on to sit idly atop shelves after it was discovered that consumers rarely mean what they say, say what they mean, and know what they want. At least, not when you’re conducting simple focus groups and surveys.

Despite the lessons we (should have) learned at Coca-Cola’s expense, many agencies continue to tout traditional market research practices as the answer to every brand manager’s prayers. The question is: How can brands avoid a Coca-Cola-esque blunder, spot the say/do gap, and come out on top with new initiatives?

The answer: Consumer psychology and narrative research.

But what does this approach include that makes the winning difference?
Why does a blend of qual and quant methods yield a more accurate picture of the situation?

Here we share four key benefits of taking an approach that blends consumer psychology and narrative research.

It Embraces the Distractions and Non-conscious Opinions

Distractions are 90% of a consumer’s reality. It’s time we stopped ignoring that fact, as traditional market research frequently does. Researchers often fall into the trap of removing the distractions, the superfluous data, the periphery. Instead, drilling down to focus on a product, a concept, a price point, and tailoring surveys to suit. In trying to strip away the irrelevant, researchers aim to help respondents concentrate on the issue at hand. What many don’t realize is that this is precisely the wrong approach. Because in reality, the distractions a consumer is facing are nine-tenths of the game.

In traditional market research, when we try to simplify things, we are ignoring most of what would give us a real insight into the consumer. What we are left with is a totally artificial set of data that might look great in a presentation but doesn’t begin to approach reality. By creating what is essentially an artificial situation, we risk receiving a completely artificial response. Imagine respondents in Coke’s 1980s testing pool, sitting attentively in a stuffy interview room, poised to receive what is rumored to be the ‘next greatest thing’ for the world’s most popular soft drink brand. When presented with a glass of the exciting new flavor, respondents couldn’t help but attest to their delight. Of course it tastes great, they tell the researchers, we can’t wait to see it on shelves! Oh, what a shock for the brand when tens of thousands of cases of their fabled new flavor gathered dust on supermarket shelves and in convenience store fridges.

Where did researchers go wrong? For starters, testing was likely done in a vacuum. That means, ignoring the bigger picture for their consumers, and not accounting for non-conscious consumer opinions (in this case, a bordering-on-zealous fondness for the original Coke flavor and all it stood for, sentimentally). For researchers to gather realistic data, they must embrace the distractions and consider the non-conscious behavior of buyers. Creating a testing scenario that includes and embraces distractions and peripheral insights will give the most accurate picture of a shopper’s journey.

It Focuses on Listening to the Stories your Customers are Telling

Market research and consumer behavior experts too often rely on outdated methodologies and, sadly, appear to have learned little from the now-infamous Coca-Cola disaster. The result is countless additional tales since added to the ‘we got it wrong’ file in the Misadventures of Market Research collection – a hefty tome.

If researchers had asked, ‘What does original Coke mean to you?’ rather than ‘How do you like this new flavor’, a lot of blood, sweat, tears, and dollars would have been saved. For brands today, listening to their customers’ stories is crucial to understanding their buying decisions, brand preferences, openness to new products, and propensity for brand-switching, for example.

Considering the sensory overload of a supermarket aisle is one thing and can help a marketing director to make decisions about planograms and messaging. But being sympathetic to the goings-on inside a shopper’s head takes market research one step further. A great big step, in fact.

Narrative research is a powerful tool in a consumer insights specialist’s arsenal. Instead of asking, ‘to what extent do you agree with the following…?’ it calls on the respondent to tell stories. ‘Tell me more about your day before you’re heading out to do the groceries’ is a question that evokes a more genuine response, giving researchers true insight into consumer psychology and what impact it has on their decision-making. By unlocking memories, inviting speculation about the future, and encouraging participants to express emotions using the right kinds of prompts, researchers discover all sorts of stories they hadn’t expected. With the right technology, these stories can then be analyzed – even on a large scale – translating stories into a “web of conceptual connections, brand maps, and rewards scores – all of which can be measured and tracked over time.

It Allows for Co-exploration as your Competitive Advantage

In a typical focus-group setting, moderators arrive with a pre-determined guide for discussion with lines of inquiry largely pre-determined by the client. These prompts are important for starting conversations aimed at addressing a particular business question. The trouble with this approach, as valuable as it can be in some scenarios, is that the alignment and preparation of the discussion guide make assumptions that inevitably lead the conversation.

Where narrative research differs from the traditional market research approach is in doing more listening and encouraging participants to share their stories – both conscious and non-conscious. As research technology advances and researchers develop solutions to the pitfalls of traditional market research methodologies, the opportunity arises for something we like to call co-exploration.

Co-exploration is a consumer insights manager’s greatest asset, adding phenomenal value to insights through deep-diving into consumer psychology. It’s a tool that’s often underutilized by marketing research and consumer behavior specialists, as it requires advanced systems and tools to operate at scale. But as more brands are beginning to recognize, it’s well worth the investment.

In using a collaborative approach with the consumer, both in qualitative and quantitative moments, researchers are essentially recruiting the consumer to help brands solve problems. Rather than simply asking for answers to researcher-determined questions (and facing an inherent and unavoidable researcher bias), co-exploration in consumer behavior research goes beyond listening to buyer stories and works with them towards a mutually beneficial outcome.

It Includes Narrative Prompts for Story Sharing

Even the most advanced market research technologies fall victim to researcher bias, as pre-determined lines of questioning narrow the capacity for candid responses and storytelling from respondents. Thankfully, online tools are emerging, designed to guide people through the co-exploration process, using narrative prompts to open up dialogue and encourage more genuine, in-depth responses. These responses help to reveal more about what’s going on for the customer on a macro level, uncover how they feel about a brand, and illuminate how forces like COVID-19 and the economy (to name but a couple) are impacting their behavior.

A prompted storytelling approach, like the one we use at Irrational Agency, gives us a greater depth of understanding of consumer psychology. But it’s what we do with that data that makes this approach truly ground-breaking. In the analysis stage, our researchers use a combination of narrative analysis, grammar analysis, and language analysis to uncover non-conscious behavior and beliefs, respondents’ individual word associations, and their values. Bringing the perfect blend of qualitative and quantitative data together means getting the benefit of what both approaches offer, all while letting respondents illuminate what is important to them, rather than being influenced by narrow-focused guides and questionnaires.

The Bottom Line

The closer researchers can get to recreating the real consumer decision journey – warts, distractions, and all – the better a reflection of reality the data will be. Any sophisticated market research professional knows that one approach and one approach only is not going to provide the depth of insights into consumer psychology necessary for real business impact. While traditional marketing research and consumer behavior methodologies have their place and shouldn’t be abandoned entirely, consumer psychology and narrative research beat focus groups and surveys every time.

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