Get Below the Surface to Understand Consumer Needs


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Focus groups and other forms of qualitative research are intended to surface consumer motivations and attitudes. Armed with this insight, companies can then create more insightful marketing programs and new products. Or so the story goes.

The problem is that consumers usually don’t provide breakthrough thinking when questioned using traditional and arcane research approaches. The trick is getting below the surface so that you can uncover consumer wants that are new, unique, potential moneymakers and not already being addressed by competitors.

For many products and services, consumers don’t pay much attention to why they behave as they do. They operate out of rote or fixed patterns and usually give superficial reasons for their behavior, often unaware of their unconscious motivations and reasons for behavior.

Consumers usually don’t provide breakthrough thinking when questioned using traditional and arcane research approaches.

Consumers rarely dwell on the kind of new or unique needs, wants, wishes, desires and emotional connections that you, as a marketer, can profitable provide. They are a particularly poor source of information when the research seeks to surface ideas for new products or areas where new strategies would motivate greater loyalty to current products. It’s no wonder that when asked in focus groups to discuss their unfulfilled needs and wants, consumers usually produce little that leads to a great “Aha!”

Take, for example, the paint company wanting to develop successful new products and began by trying to uncover the problems painting contractors had in a traditional manner. Questioning contractors in a two-hour focus group, the moderator asked them to discuss the problems they experienced on the job and to opine new product needs that a paint company could address.

The fallacy, though, is that if you question consumers in this manner, you get only top-of-mind answers. They aren’t wrong answers—unless company growth is at stake.

The painting contractors came up with a little more than 100 on-the-job problems. Not bad? In fact, it was terrible. Virtually all the problems they listed could be solved using products already on the market.

Real wants and needs

Research has never been very effective in addressing the gap between what consumers express in focus groups and how they behave in reality. What is finally changing, though, is that researchers are finding new approaches for understanding and explaining that attitude-behavior gap—and, in doing so, getting below surface.

When the same contractors were asked to keep a diary of the on-the-job problems that they experienced in a 30-day period, they came up with more than 200 different problems. Fully half of them could not be solved by products currently on the market. And when they were asked to do the same exercise for a second 30-day period, another 50 problems surfaced, with most of them presenting truly new opportunities.

What happened? Simply put, behavior happened. Prodded to become more aware of their behavior and to record problems at the time they occurred, the contractors came up with ideas that just weren’t in their heads when they were divorced from their work and put on the spot in the focus group sessions. As one contractor remarked, “I never think about these things. Now that I’m paying attention, there are a lot of products that would save me time and let me do a better job if they invented them.”

Consider, for example, what would motivate you to change your cell phone provider. Put on the spot, you might say, “cheaper rates,” or, “better coverage.” Given a week to ponder the question while you’re actually using your cell phone and making shopping trips to Cellular One and Verizon stores, you might say, instead, “better family plan,” or, “better international calling programs.” Or, after observing your own shopping behavior and because you now better understand what the competition is offering, you might come up with discounts for prepaying monthly bills. The point is that no doubt you could arrive at ideas phone companies haven’t even considered.

If you want to develop new growth strategies, be they in the form of new products or new marketing initiatives for current products, you must realize that consumers can help if you provide the tools for getting below the surface. Here are some guidelines to giving them those tools:

  • Allow time for incubation. New ideas will surface when people are given time. Therefore, plan your research as an over-time process. Realize that point-in-time exercises are very limited in their ability to get below the surface.
  • Stimulate observation. Have consumers keep diaries, shop competitors, talk to friends or do anything that will pique involvement in your products and services. Getting below the surface mandates that all the senses be involved. A good way to do this is by motivating consumers to be more observant of their own behavior and the problems that result—and to write them down at the time they surface.
  • Tap into the unconscious mind. There is a reason ideas come to us when we least expect them. It’s because our minds process information on both conscious and unconscious levels. Therefore, the more involved consumers are with your products and services, the more likely it is that their unconscious minds will “flash” on a new need, want, wish or desire. Call it the “Aha or Eureka Syndrome” or simply, “planned serendipity.” Whatever it is, it can work for you, if you build it into your research approach.

Getting below the surface to understand consumer needs takes patience and creativity. Set up panels. Give consumers tasks that help them become more observant of their behavior as you question them over time. You’ll be amazed at what you learn.

Bob Kaden
The Kaden Co.
Bob Kaden is the author of Guerrilla Marketing Research and president of The Kaden Company, a marketing research consultancy that works with clients in planning and applying research to make more money. He is a frequent lecturer and trainer in the areas of creativity and marketing research processes.


  1. I agree with Bob’s theme of needing to find out more than what the traditional formats for learning what customers want. In my experience it comes from getting feedback from the front-line people who interface with customers. Getting the feedback is difficult if there is no plan for getting the feedback if it is thought by front-line people that bringing up these comments will be seen as negative to their job security. Ergo, it has to be spelled out what inputs are wanted and not giving them is anegative and giving them is a positive.

    For general purposes, the things that need to be fed back to upper management are:

    * What did a customer ask for the the firm does not offer? (Once may be a fluke, more than once means there may be a demand for it.)

    * Where influenced the customer to ask for it? (People ask for something due to a lack of something to fill a need or because they learned of the need from some other resource(s).)

    * Does the firm have a product/service that could fill the need but is shown as being used for something else hence, could repackaging/renameing it meet the need?

    * If there is a complaint, what was the complaint, the cause and the solution? (Customers complain because the want to continue doing business with the vendor/resource, so complaining is a way of expressing this. Or, the customer complaining is only and “agent” for someone else that has the complaint.)

    * What is getting in the way of customers finding what they want? Can it be simplified to make it easier?

    All of these are part of Business Calisthenics program to allow/encourage front-line people to look for solutions for problems customers have. Remember, if customers don’t have problems, the resource has no business.

    Alan J. Zell, Ambassador Of Selling, Attitudes for Selling
    [email protected]
    Awarded the 1992 Murray Award for Marketing Excellence
    Member, PNW Sales & Marketing Group
    Member, Institute of Management Consultants
    Member, International Speakers Network

    You are invited to learn about our programs and services and read the
    articles on business topics that affect selling at http://www.sellingselling .com

  2. I agree with Bob on the issue of focus groups. (I often agree with Bob’s point of view; in fact, I use his book in a course I teach on Market Research!). When I worked at Cadillac, General Motors had invested a ton of money in their pavilion at the Epcot Center in Florida. We had viewed this as a marketing investment. We gave the public an opportunity to examine our latest products. When I went there from Detroit to look around, I found engineers from Toyota in our facility observing people interacting with cars – no focus groups, just observing behavior. We had not done this type of work there. They thought of our facility as a market research opportunity!

    How often do you gather a group of twelve strangers into a room to decide anything? It is an unreal situation leading to comments designed to justify behavior. No one wants to appear to be too different from the crowd or create controversy; they just want their $50. One-on-ones can be better and lead to better results for less money, as described in Abbie Griffin’s work in the early 1990s. I still like to have the customers’ “voice” as well as their behavior. I agree with Bob, though, behavioral data is extremely valuable!

    Chris Stiehl
    co-author of Pain Killer Marketing (WBusiness Books, April, 2008)

  3. 10 years ago I wrote an article for American Demographics entitled “What Your customers Can’t Say.” It drew the largest wave of reader responses in the magazine’s history. The central thought of the article was that contemporary brain science exposes traditional consumer research as largely humbug. For example, hypothetical questions posed by researchers are processed in different sites of the brain and draw on different processes than is the case in real life scenarios in which consumers make purchase decisions.

    Brain researchers tell us that 95% of the mental activity that goes into our perceptions, thinking and decision making takes place outside the realms of consciousness. Yet, traditional consumer research is overwhelmingly concerned with consumers’ consciously organized testimonies.

    It’s time that marketers face up to the biggest open secret in marketing: consumers are not the experts about their own behavior that is assumed in most consumer research. Henry Ford knew this: “If I had asked customers what they wanted they would have said ‘a faster horse.'”

    It seems that hardly any one in consumer research is aware that survey research has become less and less dependable as the median age has risen. The reason is generally known in adult development psychology, but few in marketing know why that is. Survey instruments are designed for computerized statistical analysis. A question that calls for graded responses, e.g. from Strongly Agree to Strongly Disagree is easily processed by a computer but often not so easily processed by the older mind. Why? Because while the younger mind tends to process information in absolutist terms, older minds tend to process information in conditional terms. The older respondent often wants to say, It depends,” while the younger respondent often quickly checks off “Strongly Disagree” and moves on to the next question without considering the possibility that there might be circumstances when he would Strongly Agree.

    So, long story short: marketing research is long, long overdue for a major overhaul. Short of that, we will continue to see a new product failure rate of over 90%.

  4. The frustration in knowing what to do has, it seems to me, always been the perview of the consultant. Ahhhh, but if we only had the power to get it done.

    Research does need an overhaul but it’s not likely to be the vendors and consultants that will make it happen.

    When company marketing and research management have the confidence to insist on exploring new apporaches to understanding the consumer attitudes and behavior, and then have the guts to follow often “in your face” findings, new product failure rates will most assuredly come down.

    Bob Kaden

  5. Yes, clients are indeed often like Frank Baum’s Cowardly Lion. Fear of trying the new is the inevitable product of hierarchically organized command and control cultures. That’s why in this era of unprecedented change (n scale, speed and type)many HC&C companies e.g. Chrysler and Sears are struggling for survival.

  6. Get below the surface and find out what your competitors are offering? 🙂
    Isn’t that the name of the game? And I guess that’s what businesses try to do, it is one of the cornerstone attributes of an entrepreneurial attitude. All that CRM data is geared towards unearthing those “hidden” needs.

    Have consumers keep diaries :), yes if you can afford to recompense them for their time and effort or may be then again a structured questionnaire would be more useful. Tap into the unconscious… hmmm.

    Piyush Bakshi

  7. The goal is to get below the surface so that you can as the marketer can surface unmet consumer needs that neither you or the COMPETITION is offering. The focus here is not on finding out what competition is offering…although that may an important step in designing effective research.

    My point is that while most businessness do try to discover hidden needs, they are not particularly effective at it when using traditional research approaches. That’s why so many new products fail.

    Compensating consumers to keep diaries can actually be less expensive. For example, if you are planning on conducting four focus groups to explore unmet consumer needs, first conduct two focus groups and then invite the same respondents back a week or two later after they have kept diaries. You should find that the incentives and other costs of conducting four groups in this manner are actually less than when conducting four groups with different respondents in each.

    Tapping into the unconcious comes when consumers are given time to observe there own behavior. In doing so, unconcious and new needs surface because consumers become more aware the things that will make life easier, better, more meaningful or whatever. It’s sort of like finding a long lost friend because you finally took the time to look.

    Thanks for raising these questions. They are important to address in convincing marketers to try new research approahces. Additional questions or observations are more than welcome.

    Bob Kaden

  8. Although I may fall into the ranks of open minded and willing to explore a better way, I would like to bring your attention to a company I recently have invested my time with, called OpinionLab. Why? Have you ever joined a focus group where the study was geared toward a particular reaction to a marketing product or campaign. You sat in a room with 20-25 tired, post work day individuals carefully selected for an hour of research and 75$ compensation. Upon arrival and several forms, they entered a room where the speaker asked specific questions seeking measurable answers for the folks behind the two way mirror. You were handed a prompter that had –, -+, 0, +-, ++ symbols in order for you to turn a dialer and express your likes or dislikes on a particular show, commercial, or marketing format.

    OpinionLab uses a similar approach, except it is on a voluntary basis, and used through the web in a form of [+]Feedback. You may have seen it on Motorola, or United Airlines. The methodology is: don’t waste money on gathering information post project, but get the answers as they are given, and on a voluntary anonymous basis so the people filling out the info are honest, not limited in word or description, and willing as they want to comment, complain, or point out. The limitations they are unaware of are – their prompts are based on a particular page, or ad campaign, and they comment on a dynamic card that also can ask measurable questions marketing, sales, or whom ever interested wants to ask. This is real time focused, “listening to customers needs” tool, with the ability to go quite far. There is much more to it, but technology is redesigning the architecture of collective, and behavioral information gathered to measure and improve. Lastly – case studies have shown that marketers can correlate their campaign efforts with real-time feedback for measurement of marketing expense to ROI impact and get further feedback on how to improve moving forward or halt the deployment without spending money on focus groups and surveys.

    Mario Bilotas
    OpinionLab, Inc.


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