Beyond What People Say

Lorena Arrospide

‘People don’t know what they want.

Therefore, they can’t tell you what they want.

Therefore, market research is limited in what it can do.’

I was aware of this well-known criticism of the industry from the day I stepped into it.

But I continued to pursue a career in this field.

We persevere in market research. And, rather than pretend the criticism isn’t there, or deny it outright, we recognise its full validity.

In fact, this criticism becomes central to the development of the field, precisely because it spurs us to find ways to address the issue.

And this is where we are at Breaking Blue. We’re always on the lookout to address the limitation of ‘people not being able to tell you what they want’ by researching in a way that taps into things people do not say (or don’t say up front). We do this by:

  • Using formal technology for eye-tracking and ‘emotion-reading’
  • But, also: observing and sensing the vibe, mood, emotional temperature in the room. This doesn’t look for insight in things that are said, but in things that are sensed. It sounds simple but it isn’t always; it requires sensitivity and (self) awareness.
  • And, worth stressing: skilful moderation. Moderation that isn’t too rigid and that allows for free-association, natural tangents, a pace that evolves organically. This is not as obvious as it sounds. It’s actually quite risky because while this sort of conversation is taking place, the exact and explicit link to the project objectives may become momentarily fuzzy. But, it’s about being comfortable with this and realising that by veering off a little, a lot can be unveiled and gained. I emphasise the power of skilful moderation because, given the criticism thrown at the industry and the rise of presumably smarter and smarter technology, it feels as though we are losing faith in conversation. But, conversation is what we have, what we’ve always had; if done reflexively, it’s still very revealing and productive.

There’s also another sphere we look at to go beyond what people say: culture. On this subject, semiotics has been a source of great interest for me this year. It’s a different avenue to gain insight. Semiotics steps away from consumers. It does not focus on people’s spoken and conscious thoughts (rationalisations), but instead interrogates popular culture. Movies, music, ads, news… this is the semiotic sample, the hunting ground for signals (for example, language, imagery, narrative, physical properties) that is analysed. Rather than asking people how they feel about a particular topic, semiotics looks at how that topic is manifested in culture.

consumer researchThis approach has immense value, in particular for me, because analysing culture, as opposed to speaking to people, takes time into account in a more profound way.  It is true that people often repeat the norms of the day, giving you in-depth understanding but typically of mainstream themes. On the other hand, culture is in flux, and taking a wider view of culture allows you to identify themes that are mainstream and those that are emerging on the fringes. As such, semiotics is an especially useful methodology for informing innovation, and discovering new spaces for brands to move into.

So, I am still a qualitative market researcher. I still believe in effectively-moderated interviews and focus groups. But I’m convinced of the value that lies in assessing culture in its own right, in depth and detail. Semiotics has penetrated my thinking. I’m paying much more attention to signals I see in communications around me, interrogating what they mean and what they say about the brand they represent. I’m looking at how these signals sit in relation to codes in culture and what they assume is a cultural truth about their audience (here’s one I took particular issue with on these grounds). Semiotics has also changed the way I advise clients: I’m now concentrating on how the strategy I propose sits and operates within broader culture.

And on that note, I’ll finish off with what I personally remember as the most powerful ad I saw this year. Why do I think it’s so powerful? Precisely because it’s anchored in culture, more specifically, in a particular portrayal of a theme (i.e. masculinity) in culture. Plus, what makes it even bolder is that it breaks away from both, the dominant category codes for the product, and the brand’s own previous cultural positioning: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nx5oYrMuc1M