What we don’t know about consumer behaviour

by Greg Hoyos

We marketers like to think we control the world, and that consumers are mere playthings in our hands. That’s the myth which comforts us at night.

But there’s a small voice in the back of our minds saying that consumer behaviour is never quite that predictable. Why didn’t our last promotion work? Why is our best-selling SKU down 10 per cent in volume last quarter?

Welcome to the real world
The fact is, we can’t control consumer behaviour; we can only try to influence it. “The consumer is not a moron”, adman David Ogilvy used to tell clients. “The consumer is your wife.”

We don’t really know why consumers buy the way they do. We can’t, because often they don’t know themselves. Oh sure, they can give us a perfectly reasonable post-purchase justification, which most researchers fall for and faithfully report back, but the water is muddier than that.

We behave as we do for a number of dynamic, interlocking and frequently changing reasons. It’s a whirling dynamic, and nobody – not we ourselves – can really keep track of it.

A recent book by a Harvard psychologist, “Strangers to Ourselves” is a fascinating if depressing read. He shows that we take decisions often based on unconscious influences, or on motivators that we dare not name, because they would reveal how vain or silly we are. And there’s the famous story of the business chair whose looks everyone hated, but which became the biggest-selling chair in history – because the manufacturers went ahead anyway.

The book may make some marketers want to throw their hands up in despair. But to me it’s wonderful. It says use your research carefully, and listen deeply. Listen behind what people are saying. That’s where the truth in consumer behaviour  is.

  • Greg Hoyos is the Founder and Chairman of GHA DDB; an affiliate of DDB Worldwide. Comments to greg@greghoyos.com