Hearts and Minds, not Words

Currently, as the general election campaign in the UK gathers pace, television and radio news programmes are filled with the nadir of journalism, the vox pop.  Journalists are on every high street and in every market square asking ‘random’ members of the public their views on policies and who they intend to vote for in December.

The overuse of the vox pop (from vox populi, the Latin for voice of the people) shows a distinct collapse in the standards of British broadcast media.  When I did my journalism training, the vox pop was seen as the last resort tactic to be deployed when it was a slow news day.  Now, it appears no story can pass without microphones being stuffed under the nose of ‘random’ members of the public.

You will note that I have put inverted commas around the word random.  This is because there is a real danger that vox pops are anything but random.  And the same danger applies to much on street market research.  There are very good reasons that major polling companies, many of whom also carry out market research, no longer rely on street research and instead prefer to use telephone polling.

Vox pops and street research can be self selecting.  Often, those carrying out the survey will only get the attention of those who hold strong views on an issue; often those whose views are at the extremes of public opinion.

The BBC in particular has come in for some criticism over its use of vox pops. They have been accused of preying on those with educational disabilities and on focusing on areas of the UK where educational attainment is low and social deprivation is high.  these areas often coincide with areas where support for Brexit is highest.

Whatever your politics, it must be recognised that you are not going to get a broad view of public opinion if you only survey the midweek street market in a northern working class town.

There are other issues with relying on words and not doing deeper research into the thoughts and emotions which sit behind those words.

The characteristic British ‘reserve’ may be a bit of a stereotype. The idea that a British person won’t strenuously complain about bad service to the restauranteur but on leaving the premises will complain to each other about how terrible it all was.  many a comedian has played on this stereotype, most notably the Rook restaurant sketch by the Two Ronnies.

But there is some truth in the stereotype.  Comedy simply doesn’t work if at its core there is not a kernel of truth.

What is certain is that people often say one thing but think and feel something else.  And if you are solely relying on people’s words for your marketing research, you may be in for trouble.

There is a second problem, research based on peoples’ words often relies on an assumption that we are always rational beings.

This is why many economists rubbish the views of the economist Professor Patrick Minford; the Pet academic of the hard Brexit cause.  In particular, Minford’s ‘research’ models rely on the concept of perfect competition. That the primary determinant for consumer purchases is price.  Yet every day, every minute and every hour consumers make purchase choices which do not match Minford’s price rational.

Take as an example your purchase of salt.  Salt is a commodity.  All manufacturers of salt effectively sell the same product crystalline Sodium Chlorate.  Yet brands like Saxa dominate the salt market.  These brands have a price premium over generics and supermarket own brands. Yet they still outsell the generic option.

I was in the supermarket last week and needed headache tablets.  I had two options the supermarket generic or the market leading brand.  The pills were identical in strength, both contained the same level of active ingredient.  The branded version was over £4.00.  The supermarket own-label option was 49p.  I bought the supermarket brand but it was clear from the store shelf that the branded version was the preferred option.

It is clear that often consumers purchase for a wide range of reasons and often those reasons are irrational.  This fact also shows that much of Professor Minford’s work is, to put it politely, pure bunkum.

We buy products based on a whole range of irrational and often emotional stimulae; and we may not, for a host of reasons, wish to give a true and accurate reason for those purchases.

Take the purchase of salt.  We act irrationally and prefer the branded option. One reason could simply be familiarity.  Saxa may be the brand our mothers bought. Our ‘inner monkey’ takes over when we buy salt.  The brand brings connotations of our childhood and watching our mothers cook. We buy because of the feeling of familial warmth imbued in the brand. We buy Saxa salt because our mothers bought it.  Our mothers buy Saxa salt because our grandmothers bought the brand.

Research has shown that consumers offered a well-known brand and a generic unbranded alternative will select the branded option; even when they are told prior to their selection that the generic pack has identical contents to the branded option.

Choosing one identical item over another simply because of what is printed on a label is clearly irrational. It shows that we often do not buy on the basis of price but on the basis of emotional responses.  In marketing and in business, feelings matter.

In Emotional Branding: How Irrational Brands Can have Competitive Edge (Travis, 2000), Sir Richard Branson is quoted as follows:

The idea that business is strictly a business affair has always struck me as preposterous.  For one thing, I’ve never been particularly good at numbers: But I’ve done a reasonable job with feelings – and feelings alone. That accounts for the success of the Virgin brand in all its myriad forms.  It is my conviction that what we call shareholder value is best defined in how employees and customers feel about your brand.  Nothing seems more obvious to me that a product or service only becomes a brand when it is imbued with profound values that translate into fact and feelings which employees can protect and customers embrace.  These values shape my rather simple view of business but they are, or should be, universal”.

Irrationality prevails.  Emotions can over-ride fact.  This is clearly shown in the UK election debate and views on Brexit.  Brexit will harm the UK economy and its the countries place in the world.  The damage may prevail for decades.  All facts point to this. Our politicians know this. We know Boris Johnson is a liar.  His lying is a proven fact; so much so, that statement isn’t legally libellous; yet still much of the electorate will vote for him simply based on irrational emotional responses.  Despite Johnson’s long history of lying, many people still feel they can ‘trust’ him.

And emotion affects business to business markets.  In fact it has been shown that B2B markets can react more emotionally than consumer markets.

So when carrying out market research and developing marketing plans think emotions NOT words.

In the power of emotions, John O’Shaughnessy said, “Emotions are the energisers of meaning”.

John Kenneth Galbraith said, “The ordinary person wheeling their shopping basket down the supermarket aisle is in touch with their deepest emotions”

Think mind of the customer not voice of the customer. Understand what drives emotions and understand what lies behind aspirations.

Remember 95% of mental function is driven by non-conscious influences and automatic cues derived from familiarity patterns.  Think, how often do you get annoyed when supermarkets re-arrange their shelves and you can’t find items in the familiar locations?

My local supermarket has just completed a major re-arrangement of its stock.  Now, some product categories are spilt between aisles.  This is deliberate.  consumers now have to search different aisles for regular purchases.  They have to pass goods they do not regularly buy, and there exists opportunities for additional emotional purchases of less regularly purchased items.

Remember, people will often give what they feel is the right answer to market research questionnaires.  That may well lead your business to a low price/low margin strategy.

Also, people will only respond to the ‘bells and whistles’ of a brand if it is capable of deriving an emotional response.  People want brands to make them happy.