Mind the marketing gap – why won’t people do what they say?

For marketers, the gap between what people say and think, and what we say we will do and what we then do is well known. So, what can we do about it? Can it be an opportunity as well as a challenge? 

Aug 17, 2021

By Neil Davidson

If like me, you’re a football fan (Aberdeen, Fulham, Scotland, a difficult trio, but ideal for a Stoic) you’ll have said ‘never again’ walking home after a particularly bad defeat, and meant it, but gone back the next week. We’ve all also failed on heart-felt New Year’s resolutions, and said things we’ve never quite meant. The expression ‘I’ll never drink again’ may also have resonance for many of you, often said but rarely seen through. The gaps between saying and doing, and the truths of being complex humans are numerous, wonderful, and frustrating in equal measures. 

For marketers, the gap between what people say and think, and what we say we will do and what we then do is well known. So, what can we do about it? Can it be an opportunity as well as a challenge? 

It starts with rejecting self-reporting 

While the answers sit as much in how we develop and execute marketing strategies, it’s impossible to avoid highlighting the opportunity to change the ways we get under the skin of what makes people tick, particularly the weaknesses of research built on self-reporting and responses in qualitative research. Many skilled researchers may be able to interpret the difference between what people say and really mean but almost all marketers have still fallen foul of inaccurate self-reporting in research.  (Work in areas such as sexual health, drug misuse and alcohol consumption as I did, and you’ll lose all faith in self-reporting.) We’ve all also seen numerous research groups where respondents contradict themselves, as well as claim to never watch, be influenced by, or enjoy any advertising, then recount numerous TV commercials in detail. Yet we still stick with self-reporting when we shouldn’t. 

Start by tackling the right questions in the right ways instead 

Two useful observations from behavioural economics that illuminate the issues of self-reporting and what to do about it are the power of now and the influence of context on our behaviours. We humans aren’t good at self-reporting because we live and thrive in the moment, and our lazy brains struggle to articulate our previous behaviours and their triggers and motivations accurately. We also struggle with the effort of putting ourselves in future contexts and then articulating likely thoughts and behaviours. 

After two years recently in the world of academia, I was struck by the difference in how that world gets under the skin of people and what makes them tick compared to in marketing research. In marketing, we invest disproportionately in researching people and products in abstract ways instead of investing in experimentation. Asking people vs observing their behaviours sits at the heart of better and more surprising insights, as well as tapping into the power of now and the importance of context, rather than being thwarted by it. 

Meaningful behaviours will get you to meaningful results 

Binet and Field’s insightful work on increased marketing effectiveness through focusing on specific objectives is often quoted, and its impact applies to pretty much everything we do in marketing. It also asks us to question when we do focus on behaviours, whether our focus is tight enough on the right one.  Get more granular on the specific behaviour you want to influence, and you are likely to come up with better strategies and be able to measure them more insightfully: is the behaviour you are trying to change really picking something off a shelf or, is it actually starting with getting a product out of a cupboard, which will eventually trigger a shopper behaviour?  Are you targeting the shopper first or are you really targeting a consumer, potentially a different person, motivated by different triggers? 

The power of focusing on a meaningful behaviour and tapping into the insights gained by neuroscience research is that it gets you to better objectives, ideas, and results, but not always in the ways you expected.  In the early days of using neuroscience research, we discovered that our downloadable content we expected to trigger young males to engage with Lucozade through smartphone technology was successful because the new advertising and packaging to support this campaign had the unintended consequence of making it less masculine and more accessible to younger females. The same desired result of a sales increase but through a different behaviour and audience, an insight that self-reporting would probably never have uncovered.