Consultant Philip Graves: ‘Not All Pieces of Consumer Insight Are Equal’

Philip Graves is a consumer behavior consultant and author of the new book Consumer.ology: The Market Research Myth, the Truth about Consumers and the Psychology of Shopping. While he has a great respect for research and data, he also thinks brands should cautiously use market research as it can lead them astray. His AFECT approach – analysis of behavioral data, frame of mind, environment, covert study, and time frame – outlines the criteria to determine the reliability of consumer research.

Recently he spoke with us about the uses and limits of consumer research.  And he answers the question: What is a consumer behavior consultant?

What is a consumer behavior consultant?

I guess I would describe it as someone whose primary focus is on understanding the way in which consumers behave as opposed to methodologically asking what [consumers] think.

It’s designed to encompass a much broader set of disciplines that include observation, designing trials, recommending approaches to understanding consumers, but very much focused on understanding what consumers do because, as I talk about the book, the ability through questioning to get consumers to look into the future is pretty much wholly unreliable.

What is are the qualifications for becoming a consumer behavior consultant?

My background was always about informing marketing and business decisions. The knowledge base that underpins that comes from empirical study of actually watching people shop, psychology and social psychology, learning what academics can teach us about how people behave when they’re only manipulating one variable, an understanding and interest in statistics (my degree was in statistics), and having a concern for the robustness of data.

The book jacket for Consumer.ology says it “exposes some of the most expensive examples of research-driven thinking clouding judgment.” Can you explain that?

The problem is that once you speak to consumers, it’s very hard to identify the extent to which what they say is really what they believe versus a byproduct of the fact that you’ve asked them about something. So you end up in situations where you have companies that have developed new products, they’re very excited about them, but when it’s put in front of consumers they’re not interested in it.

Quite often initiatives are developed because someone who hopefully understands the business believes it’s worthwhile. Then that clarity is almost entirely handed over to consumers who are asked to validate it and, as I talk about in the book, they’re very poor at doing that. The product then gets changed and in essence ends up being devised by consensus and very often not pleasing anybody as a result.

When companies have a very clear sense of identity, very often they end up in a much more compelling place because they have that clarity and authenticity.

What are some of the basics for understanding today’s consumer activity?

Companies need to get much better at understanding the moment of purchase, the moment of consumer interaction with brands. Often they can get so caught up with looking forward and occasionally looking back that they don’t understand the “moment of now.” That will give you a huge sense of what your marketing challenge might be.

Understanding the finite limitations of what consumers are able to tell us with so much of what they’re doing at an unconscious level means that if you’re going to do something creative then that is a matter of building a creative bridge. Consumers are not well placed to validate that bridge for you. We have to back our creative people, and we have to put faith in our judgment and our own understanding of what our brand is about.