Uncovering hidden consumer insights.

First published in BW Businessworld here.

In 1968, when the US was deeply mired in the Cold War, the U.S.S. Pueblo was busy collecting intelligence on Russia and North Korea. On January 23, as the ship sailed in international waters near the North Korean port of Wonsan, she was approached by North Korean vessels with fighter jets flying threateningly overhead. The ship was forcibly boarded, and its crew taken captive. Upon arriving in North Korea, the Pueblo’s crew was marched past a hostile public and then ferried to Pyongyang where they were displayed to the Press. Over the year that these men were held captive, the North Koreans forced them to sign false confessions, and write letters to their family declaring support for North Korea. They were also filmed and photographed for North Korean propaganda. That’s when the crew hit upon an ingenious way to show their dissent. Wherever they were photographed, the men subtly held out their middle finger. Their captors didn’t understand the American symbol of derision, and if asked, the Americans explained it as a ‘Hawaiian Good Luck sign’. The middle-finger became an integral part of the crew’s secret anti-propaganda campaign.

As amusing as this anecdote might seem, it holds some lessons for marketers trying to study consumer behavior.

David Ogilvy once said; ‘the trouble with market research is that people don’t think what they feel, they don’t say what they think, and they don’t do what they say. Marketers rely on a variety of tools and research techniques to study consumer behavior. While rich insights can be derived from techniques like Focus Group Discussions, many marketers, interpret results simply basis written transcripts, they go by just the words spoken, interpreting them logically. But respondents may not state everything they know or articulate how they really feel. Ignoring how people behave when asked to speak with a group of strangers i.e. ignoring respondent’s own “Hawaiian Good Luck’ signs could lead to missing valuable insights, or worse, misleading conclusions. Emotional and implicit processes that drive most of our buying behavior can be gleaned from seemingly innocuous gestures. And, experienced moderators interpret the subtle nuances of words used or gestures like respondents leaning forward or the change in the group dynamics while answering questions where even silence says something.

It’s tempting to conclude that the closest reflection of consumer behavior comes from observing what people do rather than asking them to talk about what they do. But even this could suffer from the observer effect; (also called Hawthorne effect), where subjects modify an aspect of their behavior in response to knowing that they are being studied. Yet another version of the consumer’s Hawaiian Good Luck sign.

But, it’s not to say that all market research tools and techniques are useless. We simply need to recognize the research context and first see respondents as people. And people are not as logical and rational as classical economists believe nor as emotional and irrational as behavioral economists lead us to believe. The truth, and hence the most valuable insights, lies somewhere in between.