Are the traditional tools of market research – surveys with explicit, direct questions –still up to the job of measuring brands in the new era? The explosion of new understanding about how the mind works could not have been foreseen by the founders of market research, back in the 50s, but modern practitioners have less excuse for still using more or less the same approaches. Traditional (System 2) methods still dominate: researchers still ask direct questions (and people still answer them), but any marketer or MR professional with even a smattering of knowledge of recent developments in mind science would surely ask: Is that all there is?
The fact is, direct questions measure what they can measure and miss what they cannot. In other words we often measure what people can and will tell us rather than what they can't and won't tell us. What we capture is often thought-through or deliberative, while what we miss is emotional and implicit.
The implicit mind is, of course, highly elusive, yet it is possible to measure, provided we do not fall into the trap of seeing it as a kind of submerged version of our explicit, deliberative mind. What modern cognitive science, neuroscience and behavioural economics have shown is that the implicit mind is not the same as the explicit mind: it's fast and furious, not slow and deliberate; it's automatic, not controlled; it's associative, not rule-based, and, above all, it's emotional.
So unless we change our methods to reflect this difference, we fall into the trap of trying to measure implicit response with System 2 tools. Emotions and simple heuristics exist in the implicit, automatic part of our minds, and once they enter the conscious domain (of System 2), they turn into (explicit) thoughts and feelings. Thus System 2- type questioning not only fails to penetrate the implicit mind, it actually hastens the process of turning the implicit into the explicit. Nor does asking people (System 2 type) questions on smartphones get round the problem – people might think less about their response, but it's not automatic.
All this seems to have been blatantly obvious for at least a decade, yet relatively few companies have wholeheartedly embraced the knowledge. Why? Is it simply that it's an inconvenient truth which, if accepted, might undermine the MR industry? I'd like to think not, and attribute it instead to the absence of a proven alternative to surveys (and focus groups).
For a while, indirect physiological measurement (so-called neuromarketing) promised much, but has proved something of a chimera – at least when it comes to understanding attitudes and feelings.
But a more plausible explanation is simple inertia and timidity. As Zaltman observed 10 years ago, much of the reason we haven't changed our view of the ‘rational consumer' is that it's easier to think that way and to ask questions that way. Yet modern cognitive science and behavioural economics now provides us with the theory and methods by which to enter the implicit mind and to measure System 1 processes. Let's do it.