Should I believe my Customers?

Is market research accurate?

I’ve been spending a little time dispelling some myths about marketing from the work of Prof. Byron Sharp, et al, and as a sideline, I’d like to talk about marketers and market research.

Is market research accurate- well it depends. As business leaders and marketers we spend a large part of our lives listening to customers, and typically the most effective means of doing this is through market research.  And one of the foundations of research is people thinking in a consistent way.

We like to think that as humans we have a consistent outlook on the world. If you ask us our attitudes on an issue today then we think these are not likely to be very different to the attitudes we held last week, last month or even last year. Yes, the argument goes, these may shift around a little but fundamentally they remain stable. The idea that we are consistent is important to us as human beings.

Typically, survey tracking data shows very little difference in consumer attitudes to brands over time?  Attitudes are typically represented by long flat lines which, outside of calamitous events for a brand, only move up or down very slowly. Market researchers are therefore fond of saying that consumer attitudes are very stable, will take a long time to shift and to do so requires a lot of investment in advertising, customer service etc. But is this empirically correct?

I think a challenge we have is in the tools we have available. Typically market research surveys are independent samples over discrete periods of time. The samples are carefully monitored to ensure they are consistent so that any changes between surveys are not due to the design of the study. But, in effect, we are taking a series of ‘snap shots’ which, when put together, the researchers  believe will show how attitudes are changing over time.

Maybe this snapshot method of tracking different people occasionally may not be representing their true feelings.  And even more important, does the act of asking a questions force respondents to propose an answer? And is that answer a refection of their true feelings?


Here’s another myth Prof Sharp addresses, that we believe our consumers’ views when we ask what their opinion’s are.  And we believe that consumers have a fairly consistent view of our brands and businesses. We believe our research

When researching consumers we ask about brand attributes- “refreshing” vs “youthful” vs “everyday”? And we believe it when some say our brands are refreshing or youthful or everyday they actually and firmly believe this.

But research across a longer period of time, using exactly the same consumers shows that when asked about their beliefs about a brand’s image twice, consumers changed their answers 64% of the time. So, less than half of all people agreed with their own brand attitudes over the course of a short period of time!

Here’s a sample of consumers views of Banks in Australia; the same consumers were surveyed twice. They were asked the same questions, about quality, distinctiveness etc. Here’s the general response

consumers inconsistent views

For Australian banks the average repeat rate- agreed twice to the same assessment was only 37%. Are these consumers continually changing their minds or is it that consumers don’t know or don’t care about these brand attributes, and will merely give and answer if asked, but may not care about the result.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do research on consumers, but that we should understand that consumers rarely care about our brands and their attributes as much as we do. There are MORE important things in their lives than whether Tiger beer(TM) is refreshing or Heineken Beer (C) is international. Consumers will give an answer, if asked, but does it really matter to them?

Not only this, but it is well-established that people’s attitudes are often very different with their actions in the first place- which means just because someone says something, doesn’t mean that they will act in accordance with their belief. In 2002, Paschal Sheeran concluded that only 28% of intentions explain the resulting behaviour. As such, brand loyalty, or even a “loyal” attitude, towards a particular brand is not a helpful metric for growth. Brand beliefs are not absolute nor predictive.

So please take your research with a grain of salt, and focus more attention of measures of penetration- winning the battle for the mind, growing saliency through memorable icons and daily reach, and the battle for the shelf by being present in more places and more prominent.