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Open systems consumers
How behavioural science tools are adapting to a changed world
For well over two decades, there has been a constant theme by brand marketers that one of the biggest challenges they have is gaining cut-through, as consumers are overloaded by choice. And there is no doubt that consumers have an abundance of choice; most shopping activities involve having to funnel down a wide range of alternatives.
The traditional narrative is that modern consumers are overwhelmed and will use ‘bounded rationality’ to make choices; by this it is meant that we will use mental short cuts to quickly filter the huge array of inputs we have to make ‘good enough’ choices. The mental model was that of consumers as somewhat helpless creatures, at best making good enough decisions with sub-optimal reasoning.
But we could look at this a different way. Perhaps we are actually pretty good at operating in the environments, the shortcuts we employ (using heuristics or habits) allow us to quickly make decisions. Because as consumers, we expertly operate in a network of deep, shared understanding, with a sophisticated knowledge of the landscape of options and associated outcomes. At times it might be hard to see this given intimate, embedded nature of our consumer lives but our expertise as consumers means we can think quickly and not too deeply. Just as a skilled tennis player acts quickly and intuitively, our ability to navigate the consumer world became tacit.
The types of research questions were increasingly well defined and could include how to:
· garner greater attention / salience
· defend or grow share of the market
· extend into new consumption occasions
· encourage purchase of premium options
It was hard to see at the time, but the system we were operating in became an increasingly closed one with its own rules, rituals, causal relationships. As consumer researchers, we were able to move from an exploratory understanding to one which was increasingly understood through using ‘laws’ and ‘predictive models’. Market research was able to develop and evolve to measure, understand, even predict, Byron Sharp offered a handbook of the laws of this closed system, Daniel Kahneman and others demonstrated how automatic we had become in this system.
At this time there was much talk about disruption (such as climate change, demographic shifts, financial deregulation, political polarisation) but did we take it seriously enough? Despite all these changes, behavioural science continued to apply the same logic of the closed system, not quite seeing what was happening. What the discipline failed to recognise was that that we increasingly had to apply some fundamentally different logic to consumer insights.
But then COVID-19 hit and suddenly the global economy ground to a halt. This is a planetary disaster that we all knew would happen one day but had not expected it now. What we knew, as consumers, about how to navigate the consumer world, was in freefall. We have suddenly entered an ‘open system’ world where we don’t recognise the rules any more.
The logic of the ‘closed system’ still exists, of course, but we can see that it is losing its primacy – we have no choice but to engage in an ‘open system’ way. The logic of closed-system consumer decisions continues to be important but ‘open systems’ means that a whole new raft of challenges have also been introduced such as:
· changing the channel (move to online),
· the mode of consumption (e.g. from petrol to electric),
· a new business model (e.g. from shopping in store to subscription service)
· different formulations (e.g. sugar free, no plastic, low calorie).
We suddenly see that we have been living our lives without fully understanding the bigger picture; we have entered a world where our minds are necessarily ‘unthawed’ as the narrow logic of the past gives way to much bigger challenges that we now need to tackle.
Much of discipline of behavioural science had failed to see that consumers’ tacit, more automatic behaviours, was a function of the environment they were in not a reflection of the entirety of who they are. Behavioural science had fallen victim to its own fundamental attribution error. The explanatory value of using automatic explanations (e.g. ‘habit’, heuristics and biases, nudges) of behaviour is understandable for narrower, ‘closed system’ consumer decisions. But in an open systems world we are asking consumers to make decisions that go beyond the narrow logic of the past.
We need holistic models of behaviour that enable us to understand the breadth of consumer decision making. As consumers seek to navigate this changed, open-systems world, we need as researchers to turn to ‘behaviour change’ tools working alongside the skill sets of consumer researchers to effectively diagnose what sits under behaviour, design intervention activities and specify way of delivering these effectively. Consumers often want to change and meet their purposeful goals. As researchers we now need to match our tools up with the world we inhabit.
Pic of the week: Philipp Schmitt considers the underlying power relationships in algorithmic photography (see Reads and Views below)
In a new Ipsos survey of nearly 20,000 adults from 27 countries, 74% say they would get a vaccine for COVID-19 if it were available. The reason most commonly given by those who would not get a vaccine is worry about side effects (56%) followed by doubt about its effectiveness (29%).
We are increasingly understanding the way that beliefs (not least about vaccines) are formed socially and culturally, and not simply a matter of individual consideration. We live in a socially embedded way and as such our beliefs are formed by the metaphors we use, the stories we tell each other and so on. The means for tackling vaccine hesitancy therefore needs to reflect this – plenty more to come on the topic in the coming weeks.
This article has a theme that definitely resonates: “There are in history what you could call ‘plastic hours’. Namely, crucial moments when it is possible to act. If you move then, something happens.”
My colleague Tamara Ansons and myself hosted a webinar on behaviour change; register here to view.
The UK’s Market Research Society’s ‘Delphi Group’ (which I chair) this week issued a report on the impact of COVID-19 on the industry. In the conclusions section we explored ways in which we have moved to ‘ground zero empiricism’ (echoing some of the themes of the main article this week).
Ryan Garner, working in FinTech, is something of an expert in the discipline of Jobs To be Done. I think this approach chimes with the need for understanding consumer goals. For those interested in attending Ryan’s digital meet-up talking to one of the leading thinkers in the field then do sign-up here.
Reads & views
This is an interesting commentary on AI – artists Philipp Schmitt’s Declassifier project exposes the myth of magically intelligent machines.
I would recommend anything by William Davies – his latest book, while something of a take on recent British politics, summarises nicely his thinking on the psychology of how we the way we regard ‘facts’, experts and institutions has changed.