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The Non-Conscious Consumer: Why Do They Do What They Do?

Consumers make choices about products and brands without consciously processing why. They are not sleep walking, or “unconscious,” yet they are “non-conscious” of what their brains are processing when they choose a particular product or react to a brand’s marketing efforts.


Editor’s Note: Alex is one of the co-chairs of the IIeX Forum on Nonconscious Consumers.  Join Alex and other industry experts November 14-15 in Chicago to learn how the world’s biggest, most successful brands are turning to the behavioral sciences and nonconscious measurement tools to better understand, measure, and predict consumer behavior. Find out more here

By Alex Hunt

Lots has been made about the behavior of consumers, which we know is instinctive, intuitive, from the heart, without the burden of rational thinking.  Some in the industry have called it “emotional” as a proxy for what Daniel Kahneman labels System 1.

However you want to refer to it, what we know is that consumers make choices about products and brands without consciously processing the reasons why.  They are not sleep walking, or “unconscious,” yet they are “non-conscious” of what their brains are processing when they choose a particular product or react to a brand’s marketing efforts.

Famously, it is said most automotive advertising is actually read AFTER the purchase of a car so the proud new owner can “post-rationalize” to why they made the emotional decision about the brand and model. It is also true that in the hyper distracted, time constrained environment of the everyday shopper, “good enough” choices are most likely to be actual choices. Consumers process some identifiable variant on a brand such as a color, an approximate logo, or other recognizable distinctive asset, as a proxy for a considered deliberate analysis of rational benefits and reasons to believe.

So what is the implication to Marketers and their Research and Insights partners?

Well, first of all the non-conscious consumer is an unreliable witness to their own behavior. So old models of explicit questioning surely are ineffective at unpacking *what* consumers do, much less why they do it. If we accept that the “whys” are totally driven by System 1 emotional triggers, the follow on is that any rational or “conscious” probing is unlikely to yield reliable or predictive insights.

So the first objective is the urgent need to measure the right non-conscious thing. We need to be able to measure them reliably, at scale, and to have confidence in their ability to predict ROI and market success of innovation, communication or brand propositions, in the moment, and over time.

For marketers the implications are obvious.  They are placing huge bets and they want assurances, or confidence from *SOMEBODY*, that those bets will be winners.  They need new products and advertising to make consumers’ choices “fun, fast and easy”. They know that System 1 decision making is locked inside the brains of “non-conscious actors” and they need Insights to predict the chances for success of those bets on what the consumer will choose. Marketers have been willing to try the most improbable, non-scalable, often outlandish ways of getting to those “non-conscious” decision triggers, from full on MRI brain scans to galvanic skin response. They want Insights partners to tell them which are the approaches closest to the Holy Grail of reliability! And they get that measuring emotion or true “mind-reading” remains a work in progress.

For Insights professionals the implications are even more fundamental to the future of our industry.

For much of research’s history we have collected the data and, when we were brave, interpreted the data, but Marketing has been the ones placing the bets. It’s been “their money”. Perhaps this reticence to back the bets, has come from a place  . . . a secret “non-conscious” place, where researchers asked ourselves:  “Who are we to place the bet?  And what if the data are wrong?”

Marketers want full partners, brave enough to place a bet by guaranteeing the ROI of communications/adverts/NPD being developed and researched.  Yet researchers recoil from the very answer Marketers crave:  Can you guarantee me ROI?

If we are measuring the right non-conscious things, and *IF*we can rely on our methods, so that we are confident in the accuracy of the outcome, we should be able to take that bold step and say:  ABSOLUTELY!  We can guarantee ROI!

If we can’t get there, then the fate of research will potentially be irrelevance. Marketing will seek confidence and assurances elsewhere.  Big data, analytics, management consulting. Any place but Insights.

If we can get there, the partnership between Marketing and Insights will be rock solid and unbreakable.  The consumer may be “non-conscious” but we as Insights/Marketer partners will be consciously and confidently uncovering the whys behind what those consumers do.

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3 responses to “The Non-Conscious Consumer: Why Do They Do What They Do?

  1. Alex,

    great article. It includes some great nuggets. Thanks for sharing. I especially like the post-rationalization after the automotive purchase. Being a high consideration category, this makes sense. If post-rationalization is the key, then marketers need to ask the question, of how they can use that to help drive more post-purchase advocacy.

  2. Hi Alex:

    This is exactly the issue. Research did a great job of post purchase analysis but we don’t need that anymore now that big data can report activities in real time. Snapshots of loyalty, satisfaction etc. also of little use when we can see actual purchase patterns in situ. I doubt seriously that we are ever going to predict beyond a semi-solid measure of intent for exactly the reasons you outlined above.

    Years ago companies like Yankelovich developed methods to explore the impact of external events on purchase patterns and I think that was a huge step in the consolidation of SYS1 thinking but it fell out of favor as the internet drove the 1:1 connection. SYS1 likely has multiple levels that consist of long held beliefs, new information and pleasure sensation that compete for dominance (and exchange positions often) in the purchase process.

    The driver though is likely confidence and that confidence is based on internal and external factors. Perhaps the best measures consist of an understanding of how people develop both internal confidence and external confidence in a product or brand.

  3. Isnt there a question that needs answering here. If market reserach has got it so wrong for years how come we are where we are? Is anyone going to seriously suggest to me that teh consumer adapted to these offers and they weren’t really the premium solutions they were looking for?

    Basically consumers see pretty happy with branded products that were driven by research. They seem to like their beer, their cars, their TV programs, their fast food, their hair shampoo, etc, etc. Too much is being made of this “unable to really get to what is really driving the consumer”. Maybe it isn’t that hard after all?

    I dont think CMO’s are as greatly fussed about this as market researchers are. Most of our clients get great value from smart research design and good qual work. Its not that hard.

    And as for that System 1 2 trope that is all over ever discipline, how comes it isn’t reproducible in any neuroscience work so far. In fact some recent work suggests that the two systems are in fact one working simultaneously and from the same neural locations.

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