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What people do is more important than what they think

Opinion, 29 June 2011

On the 3rd floor of a London terraced house, I have a double bed with a very ancient mattress that I have been thinking of replacing for years. What stops me? The obvious problem, as Rory Sutherland noted in his recent British Brands Group Lecture is how do I get rid of the old one? A New York company apparently has captured virtually the entire market by promising to dispose of the purchaser's previous mattress.

The last 10 years or so have brought a flood of books that in one way or another focus on how people behave. In fact, we have probably learned more in the last decade than in the previous 50 years. And while what people say can be apparently interesting, it is rarely a guide to what they will do. My early life was spent trawling the murky depths of motivation, assuming rather lazily, that the link between motivation and actual behaviour was a more or less direct one. With the mattress problem the focus would have been on the insomnia index of the sleeper along with particular benefits of one mattress over others - the springs, the duck down component, the back support etc. All no doubt important but fails to grasp the real barrier which is much more mundane.

The concept of the 'customer journey' is probably underused. Shining a spotlight on just exactly what is going on in the purchase process gets you to not only the problem but often more interestingly, to the opportunities. As Asian food has become more and more popular, supermarkets have recognized that the average English kitchen rarely has a fresh supply of lemon grass, coriander, ginger, galangal, red pepper, etc and so have grouped them handily together in packets. Waitrose now nestles samphire and herb butter next to raw fish in the fish counter should you be seized with the urge for something fancy. Another of Rory's examples was the 'cocktail pod'. Just as English kitchens don't carry a load of fresh Asian herbs, neither do they carry the whole kit for cocktails. So Sainsbury together with Diageo have produced a place in the booze section which groups the tonic, the lime and the gin together. The possibilities here are endless.

Tim Ambler always felt marketers didn't get out enough: too much time in meetings and presentations. But nothing beats accompanying an ethnologist on a shopping expedition or applying, as Rory suggests, the many and useful principles of Behavioural Economics and other perceptual tools: framing, loss aversion, dummy choices, etc.

And finally, as yet another caution about believing what people say, never underestimate the self-deluding power of prejudice. Many years ago a man in a focus group explained with an apparent belief in the rationality of his reason for not drinking Guinness: "I never tried it because I don't like it".

About the author

Judie Lannon is a world-recognised expert in the field of market research and marketing strategy. She was appointed by J. Walter Thompson (JWT) London to establish their Consumer Research Department, then appointed to the Board of J Walter Thompson as its Director, Research and Planning. In l989, she became Research & Development Director for JWT Europe. She is extremely experienced in all aspects of consumer research and brand communications strategies through work with major international companies.

She established her own planning and research consultancy in l991, and in addition to this consultancy work, Judie designs senior management courses in the marketing communications, brand positioning and market research realms. She is particularly interested in the evolution of brands and the development of communications beyond advertising.

Judie Lannon is also a recognised writer, editor and speaker in the field of marketing. She serves as Editor of the Strategic Marketing Journal and Market Leader magazine (the Journal of the Marketing Society, Great Britain) and is Features Editor of the International Journal of Advertising.