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Helping Marketers To Sell More Stuff

The marketer has got to change consumer and shopper behavior in order for our team to win. We focus our research skills on figuring out what will produce a change in behavior and go do that. And we automate the rest.



Dr. Stephen Needel

It’s always seemed to me that marketing is a pretty straightforward proposition. You figure out what you can sell to people and then you sell it to them. Of course it’s a little more complicated than that, but then, you don’t have to do this alone. Today’s marketer has a manufacturing team that specializes in how to make stuff. If you have a good team, they figure out how to make stuff better and cheaper than the other marketer’s team. The marketer has a sales team who’s good at convincing people who sell lots of stuff why they should sell your stuff. The marketer may have an advertising team who’s good at telling buyers why they want to buy your stuff and not the other guy’s stuff. And you probably have a finance team that’s there to make sure you make money selling the stuff you sell. So with all these teams an essential part of the marketer’s world, why does the research team feel left out? The answer is simple – we’re not using the same playbook as the other teams.

Intellectually, we researchers understand that the marketer’s goal is to sell more stuff. We get that the sales team wants to sell more stuff, that most of the time the advertising folk want their output to lead to greater sales, manufacturing would love to add another line or another shift, and the finance guys would be happy with more revenue too. Our problem is, we often don’t focus our efforts on what marketers can do to sell more stuff.

And our bigger problem may be that we think we do.

Back in 2006, I gave a talk about the dangers of shifting to a “consumer insights” approach to marketing research. My argument was that the need to come up with insights takes us away from doing good research that would actually help our companies/clients sell more stuff. Alex Batchelor gave a great talk at IIeX Atlanta this past summer in which he pointed out this same fallacy – research is not about insights. He took it a step further and pushed for behavior change (or as he would write, behaviour change) as the goal of research. This would be a radical shift for our industry, perhaps as radical as when we were silly enough to adopt the consumer insights mantle. But this may be what we need to get back on the team and in the game.

What do we do differently if we’re focused on behavior change?

  • We stop worrying about tracking studies for one. That doesn’t mean we stop doing them, we just don’t devote a lot of time to them. Tracking studies become your early warning system, identifying trending problems. These can be automated and should be automated, giving you alerts based on a good set of rules. When you’ve got a problem, you worry about it. When you don’t have a problem, go off and do something more productive.
  • We stop worrying about how much people like our stuff. We figured out whether they liked it when we introduced it. Our sales data tells us if they like it more, less, or the same – if we’re selling less, they like it less. That’s when we should start paying attention – when our sales begin to decline.
  • If we want to see if we can make our stuff better, great, if that leads to more sales. But when we make our stuff better and nobody cares, give it up and move on to something else. It’s the same for line extensions – how many fragrances or flavors do we need? Actually, that’s a good question, and it would take approximately one study to answer it. After that, move on to doing something for your brand that’s not cannibalistic.
  • We stop worrying about the path-to-purchase. Indeed, please, in the name of God, can we stop talking about the path-to-purchase? I’ve lost track of how many different path-to-purchase models there are and the one thing I know for sure is that almost all of them are wrong. There are no quantified path-to-purchase models that have been validated and we’re unlikely to see one for some time to come. That doesn’t mean someone (read “academics”) shouldn’t be trying to build one. It just means that we corporate researchers and we research suppliers are not likely to build one soon.

What do we do instead? Easy – we get smarter.

  • We learn what leads people to choose the products that they choose. We understand why our products are what they want and, more importantly, why they aren’t what they want. Then we fix our product, create a new product, or just accept that our product is what it is and move on. We don’t need to keep on doing this repeatedly because why our product works isn’t likely to change much over time.
  • We learn how to measure the variables that drive our brand’s sales and stop worrying about 50-item surveys and descriptor check lists and purchase intent questions and whether it gets the blood in the brain flowing. Is our brand subject to social media influences? Do the experiment and if the answer is no, move on. Is it price sensitive? If so, figure out by how much and optimize.
  • We learn what happens when a shopper comes to our shelf. Are they just grabbing their usual product by habit (in which case we may need a disruptive package to break that cycle)? Are they comparing products (in which case, we worry about where we are on the shelf in order to force more favorable comparisons)? Are they price or value shoppers (in which case, we play with our value proposition)?

Most importantly, we recognize that the marketer has got to change consumer and shopper behavior in order for our team to win. We focus our research skills on figuring out what will produce a change in behavior and go do that. And we automate the rest. It’s like the old joke: How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? One, but the light bulb really has to want to get changed. Marketers need to get the light bulb to want to change and researchers need to help them figure out how to do that.

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4 responses to “Helping Marketers To Sell More Stuff

  1. As always Steve, a very insightful article. As a practitioner for many years on both the client and supplier side I managed to get a perspective from both sides on this issue. I believe much of the “consumer insights” trend has come from two things – a belief that somewhere out there is always a solution to greatness and secondly it is being reinforced by an era in which internet success stories make this dream seem even more likely – if only we had the insights!!. What is little recognized in marketing is that behind all the amazing brand success stories is how many flops or more commonly non-events there are. The hype from successes in the popular marketing press make clients and researchers believe there is a magic USP or brand positioning or copy line that will make the brand a superstar. The ad literature from the 70’s and 80’s was full of this potential just lurking around the corner. The reality is, certainly in household consumables, that most consumers basically don’t give a hoot about brands, because, well they really ain’t that important in the scheme of things. Yes we can all quote brands who through longevity have strong market shares and so called brand equity, but dig deep and you soon find most purchase decisions are un-thought out and basically often habitual. Can we, hand on heart claim strong brand positioning when the real reason for purchase are convenience, habit, easy solutions, etc. I know that the breakthroughs are common in some categories like cosmetics for example where irrationality looms large as drivers of purchase. But Steve is right, more focus on what gets people to buy more of our stuff ought to be primacy in research, not so called insights that often leave the average consumer behind, are often proven irrelevant despite the pre-testing and frankly just confuse the market place.

  2. There’s a lot to agree with here – but I’m glad I don’t work in a world where the role of research has been reduced down to identifying and measuring purchase drivers.

    The first problem is that this approach would ultimately fail to deliver any sort of competitive advantage. We’d live in a world where all the products in a given category were the same, because all of them had identified the same purchase drivers. Actually there are plenty of categories where that scenario already exists, despite endless micro-innovation.

    And that brings me to my next problem with this argument. What about the role of brands?

    You’re assuming that gaining competitive advantage is entirely dependent upon having a better product. It makes no allowance for the power of brands. Brands are so powerful because they connect with people on an emotional level, they promise something that goes way beyond a rational product benefit. Great brands – and brand campaigns – need great research that uncovers the human truths, tensions and emotional territory that may well deliver a far greater competitive advantage over time.

    But maybe the biggest missing element is ideas and inspiration. Identifying and measuring the variables that drive your brand’s sales is great if you want to give consumers more of what they like. And that’s no bad thing in the short term.

    But spending all your research budget measuring and responding to existing drivers does nothing to inspire the disruptive innovation that might well hold the key to your brand’s long term health.

    Oddly enough this article made me think about videotapes. Your approach might have helped a brand sell more videotapes. But not for long because sooner or later the brand with the skeleton and the fancy tie would run the best ad campaign, and you’d be left with the best product, but a collapse in market share. You’d adapt your approach, you’d see that the category drivers had changed, and you’d fight back. And then someone would invent the DVR.

  3. I love thought-provoking articles like this one! But I don’t agree with all of his conclusions about what researchers would do differently if we really cared about helping marketers “sell more stuff.” In particular I think the criticism of a focus on insights is a red herring. For instance in the author’s own list of things we should “do instead,” he mentions “we learn what leads people to choose the products they choose.” It seems to me some credible “insights” could be quite useful to that end.

    Of course it is all about changing customer behavior–but hasn’t it always been so? Have we now decided that understanding attitudes, motivations, influences, decision processes, etc. is no longer effective in guiding us on how to change customer behavior? Our tools and methods change but I don’t think the fundamentals of human psychology have.

  4. Stuart and Brian – I’m not sure I buy all the suggestions I wrote either, but they seemed a good start to a discussion. Insights are great – the pursuit of insights is not. As a social psychologist, I’m sure that attitudes, motivations, [social] influences and so forth are critical to driving behavior change (I used to teach attitude theory). These would be among the variables that drive our brand’s sales and explain why shoppers choose one brand over another. However, I’m pretty sure that most of the 30-item attribute ratings sets I get are not all that relevant. Maybe a few of the attributes (measuring attitudes) are. So we figure out which ones relate to brand purchasing and only ask those.

    As to ideas and inspiration – I’m just walked around my house and looked at all the products I have in the cupboards and pantries and the refrigerator – not a lot of new stuff and not a lot of inspired stuff there, which, as Chris mentions, is likely to be the case for CPG products. Okay, my Swiffer was inspired – that’s one.

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