The value of context

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Or what qualitative research can learn from behavioural economics.

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The value of context

  1. 1. In Focus1Share thisThe value of context,or what qualitative research can learn from behavioural economicsOpinion LeaderResearch excellence
  2. 2. In Focus2Share thisThe value of context,or what qualitative research can learn from behavioural economicsQualitative research is uniquely positionedto uncover the true drivers of consumerbehaviour, but can only do so if it starts tolook beyond our articulated wants and needsThis report is based on an original paper first delivered at ESOMAR and subsequently the winner of theprestigious WPP Research in Practice Atticus Award in 2013.
  3. 3. In Focus3Share thisA successful city trader walks into a fashionable New York City bar.As he scans the bottles of spirits behind the bartender, he is excited tosee a rare bottle of single malt: his signature brand with a distinct tastethat he believes makes it the best whisky ever distilled. It’s expensive butwithin his price range. However, when the bartender asks what he wouldlike, he pauses for a moment and orders a bottle of Johnnie Walker BlackLabel instead. He also asks for four glasses.
  4. 4. In Focus4Share thisIn New Delhi, a woman makes her way purposefully along the aisle of asupermarket, quickly and efficiently picking out her regular purchases andadding them to her basket. Next to the section filled with instant teas andcoffees, she pauses. She picks up a jar of Horlicks from the shelf, studies itfor a moment and then replaces it on the shelf and moves on.
  5. 5. In Focus5Share thisAnother woman packs up her belongings at her desk in an office incentral London. She scoops up a gym bag from beside her chair, looksat it and sighs. Then she walks downstairs, heads for the tube station,and goes straight home.
  6. 6. In Focus6Share thisSituations such as these illustrate an issue with which qualitativeresearchers are very familiar: the fact that that behaviouralintention, such as going to the gym, losing weight and stayinghealthy, does not always translate into actual behaviour; thatstrong, personal brand preferences do not always translate intobrand choices. Qualitative research offers marketers the greatestopportunity for revealing why such intentions do not producethe behaviour that we might expect. But its ability to deliver thecorrect explanation depends on where it looks for the answers.The value of context,or what qualitative research can learn from behavioural economics
  7. 7. In Focus7Share thisTell me what you want, what you really,really wantMost qualitative research today starts from apsychoanalytical view of human behaviour that isderived from Freud and considers that apparentlycontradictory behaviour results from hidden emotions,wants and needs. Researchers prompt interviewees tothink in more detail about why they fail to make thedecisions their stated preferences suggest they should,seeking to uncover deeper motivations or beliefs thatmight explain the behaviour.In the case of our whisky connoisseur, the deeperbelief that emerges might be a conviction that hisfavourite whisky is best suited to quiet, contemplativeevenings at home rather than lively, buzzing nightsout. For our would-be gym-goer, the explanationcould be that she believes she is not in the best stateto visit the gym after long taxing days at work andinstead needs to unwind, recharge and visit in themorning. For our supermarket shopper, the subject ofa test interview conducted by TNS to demonstrate theresults delivered by different approaches to qualitativeresearch, the answer lay in the fact that she used tolove Horlicks as a child or a young woman but she isnow an adult, and no longer ‘needs’ the ‘fattening’milk that is the main ingredient in a Horlicks drink.The value of context,or what qualitative research can learn from behavioural economics
  8. 8. In Focus8Share thisGood answers, incomplete questionsInviting consumers to consider more deeply thereasons for their actions almost always producesan answer. And if we ask the right questions we areoften able to avoid superficial, rationalised responsesand touch hidden layers of needs and motivations. Theproblem, as advances in neuroscience and behaviouraleconomics keep reminding us, is that needs andmotivations are at best only half the picture.There are few more powerful fits with motivationsthan a gym and the desire that it embodies to be fit,attractive and healthy – but many people still do notgo to the gym despite spending a lot of money ontheir membership. There are other mental forces atwork that are not apparent to a needs-based approachand cannot be revealed simply by exploring feelingsmore deeply. In fact, they rarely feature in spontaneousanswers at all.The value of context,or what qualitative research can learn from behavioural economicsBehavioural economics teaches us that humanbehaviour is often automatic and unthinking, andis shaped far more heavily by momentary contextualfactors than we realise. These contexts can be bothinternal and external. They include our automatichabitual responses, the heuristics or rules of thumbthat we follow every day, and the constraints of thephysical environment. The problem for qualitativeresearchers is that these factors, which we adapt towithout thinking, are not easily brought to mind whenwe are asked to think about why we behave the waythat we do.
  9. 9. In Focus9Share thisWhat Freud wouldn’t do: the lessons ofbehavioural economicsIn this way, the ‘unconscious’ factors that often triggerbehaviour are not a pool of deep desires and feelingssuch as that conceived of by Freud, but an active,adaptive management system, focused on navigatinglife and responding to the physical environment asefficiently and effectively as possible. One frequentlyobserved outcome is that people do not usually seekout ideal solutions; instead they ‘satisfice’, adoptingchoices that are ‘good enough’ but avoid themexpending angst and energy seeking something better.Our whisky connoisseur is a satisficer in action,modifying his own strong personal convictionsbecause, in this situation, he is buying a bottle for agroup of four colleagues to share and his governingheuristic or rule of thumb is to buy the bottle thateveryone will like – and consider suitably upmarket.Setting aside his own preferences, he goes for thebrand that he knows everybody else is most likelyto approve of.‘Fridge fit’ is a well-known example of a satisficingheuristic that leads shoppers to make unexpectedchoices in categories like salad dressing. They choosetheir dressing not based on how well it fits with theirbeliefs about food and nutrition, but on how wellit fits into their fridge. Rustic, wholesome, organicbrands which use rustic-looking, squat, wide bottlesfor their dressing, often fall foul of this heuristic.Qualitative research has traditionally focused onunderstanding the needs and emotions associatedwith brands and categories: the connoisseurshipand distinction associated with single malt whisky,the nostalgia and nurturance in a mug of Horlicks,the warmth and homeliness of a rustic brand ofsalad dressing. This approach aligns with the humanbrain’s inherent striving for meaning, interpreting,categorising and generally making sense of ouractions for future reference.The value of context,or what qualitative research can learn from behavioural economicsThe need for rustic, wholesome dressing is in noway less ‘real’ or ‘true’ than the inclination to buysomething that will fit in the fridge, but it is not thefull picture. And if we are to influence behaviour indesired directions we need as full a picture as possible.This is the real lesson of behavioural economics: theimportance of focusing on real choices; what peoplereally do, not just how they feel.Focusing on needs and motivations helps usidentify positioning opportunities, shape brandidentities and give them meaning, and craftcompelling communication. Focusing on behaviourhelps unravel habits, shape usage and influencechoices at the point of purchase. Both are essentialfor a complete understanding of how we make thechoices that we do – and for qualitative research tomake the fullest possible contribution to brand andproduct strategies.
  10. 10. In Focus10Share thisAnalysing the adaptive unconsciousIn his book ‘Strangers to Ourselves’, psychologistTimothy Wilson talks about how “It can be fruitlessto try to examine the adaptive unconscious by lookinginward.” Wilson argues instead that “It is often betterto deduce the nature of our hidden minds by lookingoutward at our behaviour (…) and coming up with agood narrative.”Since habits and heuristics are shaped by contextualfactors, understanding their influence often requires usto observe or recreate the contexts in which choices aremade. Diary formats and observation of live behaviourare good ways of capturing behaviour in context, asit unfolds. And where the behaviour of interest is notcurrent, it is vital to find ways of reconstructing pastevents and behaviour in as vivid and accurate a manneras possible. In this area, qualitative researchers can makegreat progress by borrowing techniques from anotherprofession that involves a lot of similar questioning.The value of context,or what qualitative research can learn from behavioural economicsPolice interviewing and unreliable eyewitnessesEyewitnesses who have unsuspectingly witnessed theevents surrounding a crime have often been exposedto trivial details, which have since acquired vitalimportance. The problem is, they had little interest inrecording or remembering these details at the time:What was the number plate of the car that drovepast as they were walking down the street at 8 pm?Was the window they passed open or closed? Whosewere the voices they heard as they passed a door?Were they arguing or merely excited? Such detailswere not accompanied by any emotional charge whenthey were first experienced, to help lay down strong,readily recalled memories. And in the absence ofthose memories, officers must use other techniques toactivate the neural connections around the everydaydetails that witnesses observed.
  11. 11. In Focus11Share thisRecreating contextThe technique that police officers use to achieve thisis known as cognitive interviewing. It was developedin the 1970s by the researchers Ronald Fisher andEdward Geiselman and adopted by police forcesworldwide when it was shown to improve thequality and accuracy of eyewitness recall.Cognitive interviewing is based onthe idea that a failure to remembersomething is a failure of recall ratherthan a failure of encryption: oncesomething has been encoded in ourlong-term memory, it is there to befound, if we know where to look. Ananalogy is a lost computer file: if wehave the right codes to retrieve it, wewill be able to do so.The codes that cognitive interviewing uses to achievethis are contextual: an event is stored in memoryalong with the images, sounds, emotions and innerstates of being that accompanied it. Any one of thesecontextual factors can help to bring back a memory –think of the flood of memories we can unexpectedlyexperience when we visit a childhood home, smell afamiliar perfume or hear a ‘forgotten’ piece of music.The closer we can take the mind to a state in which itoriginally experienced something, the more likely thememory is to return. There is even evidence that anevent experienced when you are drunk is more likelyto be remembered if you become drunk again.The value of context,or what qualitative research can learn from behavioural economics
  12. 12. In Focus12Share thisThe value of context,or what qualitative research can learn from behavioural economicsThe case for cognitive interviewingApplying these cognitive interviewing techniques toqualitative research can provide interviewers withthe tools to access the details of habitual behaviourand heuristic-driven decisions that their subjectsdo not consciously think about. Doing so requiresa patient, narrative-building approach to interview,which follows the subject’s story and allows it toproceed in a free-flowing manner that enablescontextual connections to emerge. And it requiresan interviewer with particular qualities: the abilityto allow meandering and avoid interruption, beingcomfortable with silence, and above all, having deepreserves of patience.When TNS asked the lapsed Horlicks drinker todescribe her daily routine in this way, no longerfocusing directly on explanations for lapsing, otherclearly important factors started to emerge. Ratherthan declining, her emotional need for Horlicks hadactually increased with the pressures of work – andshe deeply missed drinking it. Rather than changingneeds or motivations, the explanation for her changeof behaviour in fact lay in changing contexts andinternal and external cues: working long hours andgetting home late meant she did not have the timeor patience to make herself a cup of Horlicks late atnight; she had switched to drinking green tea as partof a fitness regimen, and this started to spill over intoher evenings since the drink was easier to make; shehad also switched to soya milk to lose weight andher occasional inclination to make a cup of Horlicksat home was squashed because only soya milk wasavailable in her fridge; she had taken up smoking andsavouring her first cigarette of the day in the morningdid not leave her time to make Horlicks; besides, teawent better with a cigarette than Horlicks did andwas easier to make as well. The heuristic that greentea was more convenient to make became a habitthat triggered her to drink it in almost every situation,despite the fact that on balance, she expresses astrong preference for a comforting drink like Horlickson several of these occasions. Ironically, the need tobe healthy should have given a ‘health beverage’ likeHorlicks a firmer place in her repertoire of beverages.However, the habits and heuristics resulting from newcontexts for her consumption pushed Horlicks out ofthe picture entirely.
  13. 13. In Focus13Share thisThe value of context,or what qualitative research can learn from behavioural economicsThe presence or absence of contextual cues oftenlies behind changes of behaviour that individualsthemselves have trouble explaining. Our would-begym-goer, for example, is frustrated because sheknows that in her last job, when she worked in anoffice with a gym downstairs, she worked out almostevery evening. Why can she not bring herself to do sonow? After all, the nearest gym is only a stop awayon the tube. The answer lies in a contextual cue thathas been removed. At her last workplace, colleagueswere always stopping by her desk on the way to thegym. This provided a stable context and a regularlyrepeated cue for her to go. When it was removed, inan environment where colleagues no longer go to thegym as a group, the gym-going behaviour ceased. Thestrength of her motivation has not changed, but thetriggers for her behaviour have.For Horlicks, the recommendations that emerge fromthis approach are very different from those revealed byfocusing on the brand’s fit with the user’s needs andmotivations. Rather than re-engineering the product orbrand identity in an attempt to make it more relevant,(it is already very close to this woman’s ideal), Horlicksshould focus on making it easier for our shopper todrink it: communicating behaviour and consumptioncontexts that fit with her current life: making Horlicksavailable in the right format for the constraints of hertime and the physical environment (via office vendingmachines or as single-serve sachets for example), orsuggesting the possibility of using soya milk as aningredient.
  14. 14. In Focus14Share thisThe value of context,or what qualitative research can learn from behavioural economicsCommitting to interpretationTechniques such as cognitive interviewing can makean immensely valuable contribution to understandingconsumer behaviour and developing strategies toinfluence it. However, it is a contribution that requirescommitment on the part of qualitative researchersthemselves: a commitment to the interpretative roleof expert interviewers. Fragments of consumercontexts need a researcher to string them togetherinto a coherent narrative, and the answers rarelycome directly from respondents’ own analysis ofevents. Taking people’s responses and self-diagnosesat face value is a trap that too much qualitativeresearch is starting to fall into. To understandconsumer choices in a meaningful way, we mustcommit to a role for techniques that can add crucialadditional perspective by revealing the role of ouradaptive unconscious. Otherwise, the true threatsand opportunities for brandswill continue to remainsomething of a mystery.
  15. 15. In Focus15Share thisAbout In FocusIn Focus is part of a regular series of articles that takes an in-depth look at a particular subject, region ordemographic in more detail. All articles are written by TNS consultants and based on their expertise gatheredthrough working on client assignments in over 80 markets globally, with additional insights gained throughTNS proprietary studies such as Digital Life, Mobile Life and The Commitment Economy.About TNSTNS advises clients on specific growth strategies around new market entry, innovation, brand switching andstakeholder management, based on long-established expertise and market-leading solutions. With a presencein over 80 countries, TNS has more conversations with the world’s consumers than anyone else and understandsindividual human behaviours and attitudes across every cultural, economic and political region of the world.TNS is part of Kantar, one of the world’s largest insight, information and consultancy groups.Please visit for more information.Get in touchIf you would like to talk to us about anything you have read in this report, please get in touch or via Twitter @tns_globalAbout the authorAnjali Puri is Managing Director, TNS Qualitative,Asia-Pacific. A seasoned qualitative researcherwith over two decades in the industry, Anjali hasbeen active in the development of new qualitativemethodologies, and has contributed to shapingcontemporary thinking in qualitative researchglobally, particularly in the areas of consumerchoices, behaviour change and social media.Passionate about understanding cultures andhow they shape our relationships with brands,Anjali is currently working on understanding howarchetypal needs translate across cultures.Anjali is a frequent presenter at ESOMAR and otherindustry forums, and has received multiple awards,including the ‘Best New Thinking’ award by theUK MRS as well as the prestigious Atticus Award in2013 in the ‘Research in Practice’ category.You may be interested inA manifesto for qualitative research >The Brain Game >