24 Sep 2020

Part 1: Why Culture eats Consumer Insight for breakfast

It’s one of the most enduring beliefs in marketing: that brands are doomed without ‘consumer insight’. Are they really? (spoiler alert: not necessarily)

In this three-part blog I’ll argue that:

  1. brands don’t need consumer insight to create competitive advantage (Part 1)
  2. psychology is overrated as a tool for understanding people (Part 2)
  3. marketing ignores culture at its own peril (Part 3)

Enjoy the ride!

Part 1: Consumocentrism

The better brands understand people, the more successful they are. So far so true. Yet the prevailing concept of consumer insight is based on a problematic assumption: that you need insight in the ‘personal’. That is, people’s needs, attitudes and motivations.

Yet evidence from a range of sciences shows that most people can’t tell us what they want (until you show it to them), don’t know themselves very well and don’t have stable opinions about many things in life, including brands. If this is true the insight industry’s foundation is shaky at best.

Moreover, the industry is obsessed with studying people as individuals, largely ignoring that people are deeply social beings who absorb much of their wisdom from other people and ‘culture’. Most of us grossly underestimate this[1].

Why do we continue to believe in the myth of the autonomous consumer?

First of all, it’s how we and our clients experience the world. A little self-delusion makes the world go round.

Second, for legacy reasons: despite lipservice to the influence of context and the subconscious on behaviour, insight departments at client companies and business models of most agencies are built on the premise that asking ordinary people direct questions is perfectly okay. Without people to answer surveys, insight as-we-know-it is dead as a dodo.

Third, our infatuation with people-as-individuals stems from the imperative to keep it simple. Seeing people as rational and autonomous agents allows us to cut out much of the abstract stuff from our projects. This, in turn, keeps our bills down and ensures clients understand our debriefs. In insight and marketing, easy does it.

These are three reasons (there may be more) why Consumocentrism is so persistent. Yet it can easily blind us to other powerful drivers of behaviour. Such as culture.

Take Millennials – they are often accused of being opportunistic. The underlying assumption is generally that this is hardwired. Millennials are opportunistic people.

An alternative, and perhaps better, explanation is that opportunism is a behavioural response to an increasingly Darwinist culture, in which mass higher education has eroded social distinction and homeownership and job security are distant dreams. From this vantage point, seemingly engrained values are in fact coping mechanisms for a competitive and uncertain system. In an individualistic meritocracy, in which the economic pie isn’t getting bigger, Millennials simply feel compelled to latch on to whatever furthers their personal cause. If the system in which they operate changes, Millennials’ behaviour will change too.

Long story short: if your aim is to help brands understand the outside-in perspective (which is what insight promises), studying individuals’ needs, attitudes and motivations has limitations.

Can we dig ourselves out of this Consumocentric hole? Possibly. But not without taking a hard look at insight’s main tool – psychology.

Read more about the pitfalls of psychology in Part 2

[1] ‘Recognising’ a product makes a positive outcome more likely i.e. we may buy it; however, this doesn’t mean we hold any deep or stable beliefsabout the product in question (also see Phil Graves in Eat Your Greens)

[1] For those new to this claim I highly recommend Herd by Mark Earls.


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