Why even a bad reaction is a good thing

With 25 years’ market research experience under his belt, Jon Cohen has literally written the book on going beyond asking people’s opinions–Asking For Trouble: Understanding what people think when you can’t trust what they say. Following his appearance at the Quirks conference, Jon talked to us about how he approaches research and his advice for others in the field.  

The measure we use as an industry to define success is fundamentally flawed. For people to do something differently – choose your brand, buy more frequently, donate to your cause and so on – their behaviour needs to change. At the same time, as humans, we’re programmed to be attracted to the familiar. So, when we ask, “Which of these ideas do you prefer?”, people tend to prefer ideas that simply re-state the status quo. And the resulting marketing campaign achieves nothing. 

A great example of this in action is the hugely successful Paralympics’ Superhumans campaign. It was rejected in research because it challenged the way people thought about athletes and disability. Sometimes the most interesting ideas are in the elements that people don’t like straightaway. I always encourage clients not to be distracted by a smiling face. 

There are five questions I recommend asking yourself after listening to what your audience has to say:

  • Do people like my idea because it is familiar and similar to what they already know? 
  • Do they like my idea because it makes it easy for them to keep on doing what they currently do? 
  • Do they dislike my idea because it challenges the very behaviours and attitudes I am hoping to shift? 
  • Are the parts of my idea they reject the rough edges that are going to make my idea stand out? 
  • Do people like my idea because they’re being nice to me? 

Response and responsibility

There’s an assumption that the world of asking is a good reflection of the real world. It’s not. Research is not better or worse than the real world, it’s different.

As market researchers, we have a responsibility to build a bridge between people’s responses and the real world. What we do with their answers is more important than the answers themselves. 

Jon Cohen is managing partner of consumer insight company, Kindling, and author of Asking For Trouble: Understanding what people think when you can’t trust what they say which has been shortlisted for Business Book of the Year 2022.

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