We can all be a bit emotional… but consumer insight can benefit

Sarah Beams

April 4, 2017

The research industry is talking about emotion, and there’s an increasing need for studies to capture not only what consumers are talking about but also how they’re feeling. Maru/edr’s Managing Director of Consumer Services – Sarah Beams – explores the theory that businesses can unlock a competitive advantage through better understanding consumer emotions. Are we right to position feelings at the heart of Market Research, or are we all just getting too emotional?

It makes complete sense to me – I’m certain that how I feel plays a role in many of the choices I make as a consumer. But as much I can be a sucker for beautiful packaging, for poignant stories, or for ingenious tag lines, I am just as likely to make a purchase based entirely on practicalities. This adds an element of unpredictability to who I am as a consumer.

So when businesses need to make confident decisions based on the outcome of research, what’s really the best way for them to understand how their target audience feels? And, more importantly, how can they be sure whether or not these feelings will have an impact on the next decisions that consumer makes?

Is how we feel really that important?

As consumers, we’re not always trusted to know how we feel

In research, it is common practice to capture rationale to reinforce the responses consumers give to rational questions. If a product is considered appealing, it is important to find out why. If someone claims that they would definitely use a product within the next six months, we want to know why. But arguably this rationale is different to us being able to definitively comprehend the feelings that have played a role in their response.

People sometimes tell us what they think we want to hear. Fact. But there’s an entirely different challenge facing us when we add emotion into the equation; what if people don’t know how they feel, never mind them having the confidence to share these emotions with us?

The reality of this is that even if we ask the right question, the participant might not be self-aware enough to provide the right answer. So, perhaps quite rightly, self-completion questionnaires haven’t historically been the preferred mechanism with which to glean the emotions of consumers or to predict how this emotion will influence their behaviour.

Neuroscience approaches are taking research back into the laboratory

Research methodologies that embrace elements of neuroscience are broadening the ways in which we can gauge emotion, bringing with them the promise of unlocking the unconscious thoughts of consumers. They do this by taking the control away from the participant and by placing it back into the hands of the researcher.

EEGs are being used to measure the electrical activity in our brains, facial recognition software is reading the emotions in our expressions, and skin conductance looks to establish our physiological response to ideas. And by utilising these approaches we no longer need to trust the untrustworthy consumer. And it’s science, so it’s got to be right, right?

All of these methodologies tend to require expensive equipment and the time of those experts who know how to use it. Consequently, they each take us back into the laboratory. But is this really where we want to be? Reliance on a lab environment reverses all the positive progress the industry has made towards capturing in-the-moment feedback, and towards facilitating authentic responses by leaving respondents in their natural environment. It also somewhat quashes the benefits we’ve seen from reaching out to large volumes of consumers, anywhere in the world, in order to understand the subtle variations across sub-groups of participants.

Are we really confident that a small sample under laboratory conditions will give us the right answer either?

We’re smart: sometimes we listen to our head rather than our heart

Most importantly, relying on emotion alone fails to acknowledge the subtleties of human intelligence. We have evolved to be logical, to be pragmatic, and to dare I say ignore or contradict our emotions. Yes, emotions undeniably make our experiences more memorable, they make us more likely to be impulsive, and they can make us increasingly loyal. But they don’t necessarily prompt us to act in a particular way.

Emotion isn’t the whole picture, and any research that focuses wholly on the collection of non-conscious data is missing a trick.

There are many other more practical factors at play in our decisions and it’s essential that we understand as much about the consumer’s situation as possible before reaching conclusions. Context really is king. For this, we need to capture tangible information from the participants and ramp up the sample size to provide more than just anecdotal evidence. We most definitely shouldn’t turn our backs on the value that asking questions to large, varied audiences has brought us over the years. But as we know, that approach has never been ideal for gauging feelings.

So in our mission to understand the role of emotion in decisions, but without compromising the robustness of our research, what’s the right approach to take?

We just need to channel our emotion

Maru/edr’s Emotional Positioning System (EPS) offers a commanding solution. It taps into the pre-rational decisions of consumers instead of solely relying on their rational feedback. We achieve this by placing a fully digital, visual semiotics tool at the heart of our quantitative questionnaires.

By measuring emotional, non-conscious reactions we’re able to unlock what consumers cannot, or will not, tell us. And we’re doing this without having to sacrifice in any way the powerful analysis opportunities that you’ve come to expect from digital research. We’re Painting Better Pictures, Faster for our clients, and they’re really feeling the benefits.

Author: Sarah Beams


Maru/edr’s Managing Director of Consumer Services, Sarah Beams, is working with brands to unlock an additional layer of insight with Maru/edr’s Emotional Positioning System. To explore further, connect with Sarah on Linkedin or email her directly at Sarah.Beams@maruedr.com.