Helen Edwards on Branding: United We Understand

Marketing, April 13, 2011 | Go to article overview

Helen Edwards on Branding: United We Understand


Conducting research with, rather than on, people can give incisive glimpses into their behaviour.

Researchers probing human behaviour have always confronted a problem: how do they know whether respondents are actually telling the truth? Classically, their solution has been to get their deceit in first, obscuring from respondents the true objectives of the research, and masking the real methodology involved.

This lab-rat approach to human understanding reached its nadir in the early 60s. In one infamous study, respondents were asked to apply electric shocks, in escalating voltages, to what they thought were fellow volunteers engaged in a pre-set task.

The ostensible research objective was to explore the connection between punishment and learning: the shocks were ordered to be applied each time a task-error was made. In reality, researchers were interested in the extent to which subjects would obey orders. The recipients of the shocks were stooges, whose feigned screams of agony were frequently ignored by respondents, in their obedience to the researcher's demand for more pain.

Today, nobody applies shocks, real or otherwise, to consumers in the search for truth; aside from anything else, the technology has moved on a bit. Today's dark arts are practised with the aid of MRI scanners, facial EMG electrodes and, as next week's MRS Retail Research Conference promises, 'eye-tracking and video surveillance' techniques. What hasn't changed is the objective: to extract veracity from respondents deemed to be too unreliable to be taken at face value.

Still, as a marketer, what do you do if you sense that consumers have become savvy and disingenuous in their answers to traditional focus group probing? Well, you could join the arms race and patronise these neuroscience methodologies and their supposedly laser-accurate, though creepy, technologies.

Alternatively you could venture to the opposite end of the spectrum, and invite respondents inside the research command tent. You could embrace co-operative inquiry.

This counter-intuitive methodology is well-known to academics but almost virgin territory for marketers. It challenges the most fundamental tenet of conventional qualitative research: the notion that some kind of 'we' studies some kind of 'them'.

Instead, the methodology closes the separation between researcher (traditionally the active agent) and respondents (traditionally the passive subjects). The result is 'active subjects', fully aware of the objectives of the research, and fully participating in the exploration of their own behaviour and the extrapolation of meaningful conclusions. …

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