Can You Believe Your Customer or Traditional Market Research?

May 08, 2006 3:57 AM  By

One of the most common objectives of market research is to find the customers’ wants and wishes, or their hot buttons. But what if traditional market research identifies the wrong hot buttons? What if conventional market research singles out hot buttons that will freeze your finger? What if standard market research uses a malfunctioning thermometer? A recent study by Dan Horsky, Paul Nelson, and Steven S. Posavac published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology examined this possibility.

The study compared the attractiveness of five sporty car attributes—performance, dependability, comfort, prestige, and exterior styling–calculated using answers provided in a market research study (what people say) against answers derived from the actual buying behavior of the car buyers (what people do). .

The relative attractiveness of the performance, dependability, comfort, prestige, and exterior styling attributes, calculated using the answers in the market research study, were 0.13, 0.22, 0.13, 0.16, and 0.20. The relative attractiveness of the same five attributes, calculated using the real behavior in the marketplace, were 0.24, 0.21, 0.13, 0.00, and 0.19 (note the change in values of the first and fourth numbers).

According to the authors, “a rather dramatic change in the ordering of the average weights occurs … Specifically, the tangible attribute Performance, previously one of the least important attributes on average, is now the most important to sporty sedan buyers. … In contrast, the weight of Prestige, an intangible attribute, falls dramatically and becomes the least important attribute. The remaining attributes change little.”

This “dramatic change” has dramatic implications. “The implication of our findings is that stated preferences may not be highly predictive of actual consumer decisions because the relative importance of attributes differs in value elicitation and choice. This finding is troubling because of the reliance of marketing practitioners on research data pertaining to attitudes, purchase intentions, and attribute importance rankings. If predictions based on stated preferences are markedly different from reality, marketers’ decisions (e.g., product positioning, advertising emphasis) made based on the stated preference data may be suboptimal.” In other words, “forecasts of choice based on stated attribute importances would have been erroneous.”

So, can you believe what people say about their wants and wishes? Yes, if you have the formula that converts what people say into what people do. If you don’t, be prepared to face some unpleasant surprises.

But don’t the traditional market research tools use a conversion formula? No, they don’t. They believe what the customer says wholeheartedly. The observations above show that they shouldn’t believe, but they do. In light of this gullibility, can you trust these tools?

Mike T. Davis, Ph.D., is head of Rochester, NY-based marketing research firm SCI.