Seeking the human meaning in consumer behavior

The Holy Grail Of Market Research

The Holy Grail Of Market Research

At a recent gathering of marketers, I was struck when a speaker told the audience, “Behavioral change is the Holy Grail of market research.”

I hadn’t thought about it in those terms, but the term fits what I’ve seen, years watching frustrated clients confronted by what seem like insurmountable barriers. No matter what they tried, they couldn’t convince their customers to change their basic decisions about how to live and what to buy. Despite all the innovation in marketing over the last century, the field has yet to devise a consistently effective method for getting consumers to change longstanding patterns of behavior. That’s because, by and large, marketers have accepted a static view of consumer identity. People are who they are, many marketers have concluded, and that’s not something anybody can change. Is it?

If behavioral change is the Holy Grail, perhaps it’s something we’re reluctant to obtain. What chance does anyone have of wielding its power in their day to day work? The whole point of the Holy Grail is that no one can really ever grasp it. The grail is always out of reach, something to yearn for, but never actually use. The Holy Grail creates a repository for what anthropologist Grant McCracken refers to as “displaced meaning”, a collection of ideals that, although beautiful in the abstract, are unrealistic in practice, and so are purposefully imagined to be just beyond reach.

Faced with this limitation, marketers have focused their efforts on working with market segmentation, increasingly powered by the tools of Big Data. They seek to categorize consumers into different types, and then craft methods to target the right type of consumers – people who are already engaging in the kind of behaviors that fit with their products and services.

As quantitative techniques for gathering Big Data are perfected, marketers have an unprecedented ability to identify and categorize consumers into target segments. Segmentation is static, however, in the sense that it categorizes consumers into types that are thought to drive their purchasing behavior, rather than considering the potential for these consumers to change their behavior over time. Segmentation is very useful in targeting efforts to appropriate audiences, but marketers also need an understanding of when, how and why consumers shift from one segment to another.

Applied anthropologist Kate Sieck points out that rituals have the potential to change consumer interactions with the products available to them in the marketplace. “Rituals are culturally salient experiences designed to transform a person, and thus their relationships to others and to material goods,” she explains.

Ritual brings together biological instinct, cultural insight, psychological need, and social power to create sustained changes in what people do by changing who people are. That’s something that simple persuasion, whether logical or emotional, cannot do.

The power of ritual to create shifts in brand loyalty comes in part from its unique ability to integrate multiple levels of human experience. Ritual literally moves people, providing them a means to grapple with psychological and social barriers through dance, procession, travel, gesture and other symbolic movements. As Connor Wood, scholar of religious studies, explains, “Ritual helps shift what the mind values by dictating what the body does.” The ritual process liberates people from the zeal of the logical mind, bringing people through a series of actions that begin in the body, rise up through the structures of emotional motivation, and receive a veneer of rational justification before being shared and reproduced in a social network that is strengthened by the shared ritual experience.

At its heart, ritual is the method that people use to give physical reality to their beliefs. Ritual transforms what people want into what they do. An understanding of ritual can therefore be useful to anyone who seeks to go beyond abstract discussions of consumer motivation, to influence the tangible reality of consumer behavior.

The practice of ritual moves people over the threshold that separates intention from action. Larry Neale, Richard Mizerski, and Alvin Lee from the University of Western Australia point out that ritual must be an activity, not just a way of thinking or feeling. “Rituals are laced with emotion, symbolism and even cognition, but rituals must be performed,” they write. This distinction is essential in marketing. It is the difference between purchases we intend to make and completed sales. It marks the boundary between profit and bankruptcy, which the rituals of commerce help us cross.

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