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Why asking “why?” is a dangerous question

Market research needs to catch up to neuroscience.

Article by
Tom Denari
President & CEO
Young & Laramore
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Every time I see it, I can’t help but mention it. My wife, Maggie, is so sick of me pointing it out: sharply dressed men in expensive-looking suits wearing goofy-looking sneakers. Turn on ESPN, or maybe one of the NBA pregame shows, and you’ll see it too.

Back in the day, if you were to show up at a business meeting in a suit and sneakers, you would have probably received a few snickers and maybe even a question from a colleague asking if you left your house too quickly.

Heck, even a few years ago, our YMCA held a series of fundraising galas inviting everyone to dress up in tuxes and gowns, with the twist of encouraging everyone to wear sneakers or running shoes. The idea was to draw attention to the contrast of these dumpy-looking shoes to demonstrate a solidarity around an active lifestyle.

Now, wearing white-soled sneakers with a suit is no longer considered a twist. And some (not me) might even consider them stylish.

I’ve casually asked a few of these young, fashionable suit-wearing-white-soled-sporting men why they’re wearing shoes that a few years ago would have been considered goofy. These guys gave scrunched-faced answers like, “I just like the way they look.” Or, “I saw them in the store and they just looked cool.”

What they didn’t say: “I’ve seen a lot of famous guys on TV with them lately and I thought I should get some, too. Heck I don’t want to look outdated or out of touch.”

Over the years, I’ve found that marketing research often misses this not-so-subtle nuance in the way consumers make and rationalize purchase decisions. To marketers’ credit, they want to understand why a consumer does what he does. And, in the quest to get the voice of the consumer, they ask direct questions, thinking they’ll get direct answers. And they do. But the answers may not be as straightforward as it seems.

What too many marketers still haven’t come to realize yet, is that this “holy grail” they seek, this answer to “why?” is often flawed, at best—and sometimes dead wrong, at worst.

Talk to any behavioral neuroscientist, and they’ll tell you that we humans have a very difficult time understanding why we do what we do, even though our brains provide us with a very specific rationale. They will further explain that while we can be easily motivated by stimuli that are not consciously processed, the more evolved, rational areas of our brains have developed the ability to explain—or even invent—the reasons for our actions.

These neuroscientists have chronicled that the parts of the brain that help us remember, feel and react to stimuli—often called the limbic system—get us through each day efficiently, without having to evaluate each and every little movement, action or decision. (Just imagine how exhausting it would have been to have to contemplate every possible action in the last hour.) This non-analytical, non-conscious area of our brain allows us to quickly sign our name, keep our car on the road during a phone call and interpret a friend’s facial expression—all without “thinking” about it.

But, as our species evolved over the past million years or so, a newer area of our brains, our cortexes, grew and developed to not only help us solve complex problems, but also make us more socially aware. This more analytical part of our brains is where language resides and our self-esteem is built, nurtured and protected over time, and it increasingly contributes to the amount of time and energy we humans spend thinking about how we’re perceived and what relationships mean. Whereas the limbic system protects us physically, this newer, analytical, language-based system serves to protect us socially. Without conscious awareness that we’re doing it, we’re wired to make logical, rational connections to explain our actions.

This misunderstanding of behavior and decision-making often leads researchers to collect bad data, which then misleads marketers down a path of positioning their brands only in regard to functional utility and product facts and features.

You might be scoffing as you read this, thinking to yourself that you’re completely in control of everything you do. Therein lies the rub. We’re fooled by our own perceived rationality. Because we’re certain about our own personal, sensed experience, we’re convinced that everyone else must be just as certain, too. We feel like we’re reasoning our way throughout our day—a series of well-considered choices. But, recent discoveries over the past couple of decades have proven that we aren’t reasoning our way throughout our day, we’re simply justifying throughout the day. And market research methods need to catch up to accommodate this more nuanced, scientific understanding.

If you’re a busy marketer, you’re leaning on your marketing research team to counsel you on the best means to understand consumers. They’re the experts, right? How do you know if you’re getting the best consumer feedback or insights?

  1. Challenge your team with methodological questions about how they plan to contend with issues of subconscious perceptions.
  2. Spend more time studying consumers’ actual behavior, both inside and outside your category. How consumers behave in other parts of their lives can give you clues about how they’ll behave in yours, and in the future.
  3. Test more in the field and less online. Because it seems “cost effective,” too many clumsy marketing studies are happening online. Study actual behavior by doing more testing in the marketplace, not in an artificial setting like a focus group or an online survey.
  4. If it’s too expensive to study the marketplace, engage in some of the emerging, more progressive research methodologies that measure what’s happening in consumers subconscious, like eye-tracking, facial coding or implicit testing.

It’s up to all of us to push market research toward a more nuanced view of how consumers behave and choose. And it starts with understanding the limitations of the question, “Why?”

And, while I’m not exactly sure why, I just tried on a pair of sneakers with my new suit. Eh, it doesn’t look half bad.

Tom Denari, President & CEO at Y&L

As Young & Laramore’s president and Chief Strategy Officer, Tom has overseen marketing and communications strategy— from audience observations to creative executions— for brands like Angie’s List, Goodwill, Stanley Steemer, and Steak n Shake. Tom’s expertise in developing sound communication strategy is guided by his continual study of how emotional and non-rational factors influence consumer decision-making, which he's written about regularly for Advertising Age.