The fascinating story behind consumer insight research.
Consumer Insight has come a long way in fifty years.
In the 1950s, society was inherently stable and predictable. Back then we confidently defined brand target groups as “Housewives With Children” or “Young Males 18-34”. Consumers appeared conveniently obedient to the habits and mindsets their demographic group supposedly embodied.
Then along came the 60s and 70s, and everything started to fly to pieces, with the concept of The Consumer As Individualist. Consumer groupings became more attitudinal, arbitrary, and transitional. Values and attitudes research began to change marketing in the 1970s, when SRI in California introduced its hugely influential VALS (“values and life styles”) segmentation model. Suddenly demographic stereotypes were being overtaken by labels like “Achievers”, “Experiencers”, Strivers” and “Believers”. Mass-marketing suddenly seemed old-hat.
Segmentation as a basis for defining different consumer groups is still with us 40 years later. Some advertisers have adopted proprietary segmentations from SRI, Yankelovich and the rest. Others have opted to custom-build segmentations limited to the peculiarities of their own brand-users or market sector.
But segment names lose relevance as time goes on. (Yuppies, anyone?) Some try to “identify” segments with well-known public figures, like David Beckham, Mother Theresa or John Lennon. But different people see different things in the associations. To some people Lennon was a visionary secular saint, to others a substance-abusing philandering degenerate.
The complexity of attitude profiles makes everything harder to pin down. Classic segmentations, by forcing each research respondent into only one segment “box”, miss important subtleties of attitude and behaviour. Some segmentations manage only to give us “dim and mysterious glimpses into the obvious”. How useful, for instance, is knowing that buyers of high-end cellphones are in a “Mobile Networkers” segment?
What other tools are available for probing consumer mindsets? Some opt for detailed usage-and-attitude (U&A) studies, focusing on the brand’s user constituency; but the necessarily narrow focus on the brand involved often means missing the unexpected trends which may herald a key market shift.
Other advertisers rely on focus groups, which reveal much but have the drawback of not being statistically projectable to the market as a whole. Attitudinal or perceptual maps also have their devotees. The maps look great, but their results are only as meaningful as the relevance of the attitude questions they are based on. Interpretation can be a very hit-and-miss affair.
It was high time for a fresh approach, a way of going… beyond segmentation.