For Best Customer Insights, Ask Them How They Feel. But Don’t Actually Ask Them.

How Technology is Transforming Market Research


Take a typical adult to an ice cream parlor, says Richard Thorogood, and before making a choice they’ll weigh as many factors as there are flavors. “Well, I kind of want strawberry,” they’ll think, “but I always get strawberry, so maybe I should try something different, and I haven’t had this other kind in awhile, and that seasonal flavor is here for a limited time…”

Ask a six-year-old what they want, Thorogood continues, “and they’ll say, ‘I’m going to have strawberry today.’ And if you ask them why, they’ll respond, ‘’Cause I just want it.’”

“It’s pure emotion. As adults we rationalize.”

As Colgate’s VP of Global Insights, Thorogood wants to tap into the childlike side of how we make purchasing decisions. Traditional market research techniques – focus groups and lengthy surveys, for instance – actually aren’t great predictors of consumer behavior. These tools encourage rational responses which don’t reflect how customers truly feel about a product or how likely they are to buy it.

Technological solutions are emerging that prompt people to respond more organically. One strategy is to incorporate consumers’ existing habits and behaviors into the research methods. Other tools measure physical factors such as heartbeat and facial expressions, then interpret these involuntary reactions in an attempt to predict behavior.

Thorogood finds the latter approach especially enticing, but the challenge, he acknowledges, is how to evaluate tools “in their infancy.” Select the right one, and the unparalleled insights could lead to increased sales and a major competitive edge; select a dud, and it’s a major waste of resources.

This quandary is hardly unique to Colgate’s industry. Whenever emerging technologies offer new solutions to old problems, how does anyone choose which solution is the best?

“You have to choose wisely where you want to invest in technologies. What are the real pressure points for your business?”

Thorogood advocates the approach of looking outside one’s own industry for best practices, citing examples in the health care and pharmaceutical industries where partnerships helped large firms to successfully deploy emerging technologies. Similarly, figuring out the best tool for what he wants to do, he says, will “have to come from talking to a group of diverse people and looking very broadly at how other people reach the conclusion of what’s the best thing.”

Watch the above video to see how Thorogood thinks firms will need to adapt for new customer insight tools.

Thorogood spoke at the Mack Institute’s Fall Conference 2014. Browse more Mack Talks here.