What Consumers Say vs. Mean vs. Do: Toward Understanding the Emotional and Subconscious Drivers of Behavior


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Seemingly forever, marketers and researchers have been trying to identify stable and predictable links between what consumers say about product and service experiences, what they mean, i.e. the emotional and unconscious underpinnings about what they really think and believe, and what they do in terms of actual decision-making and actions in the marketplace.

There is an intersection between customer experience with a product or service, internal reaction to that experience, informal peer-to-peer communication about the experience, and downstream customer decision-making.  It occurs in the personal emotional and subconscious distillation of that experience in forming the customer’s behavior.  This may sound a little technical and psychological for some, but reckoning with the meaning of emotional and subconscious response to experiences has important ramifications in the marketing world.  It can mean knowing what customers really want

Some experiences are pleasurable in the subconscious, some are painful, some are superficial, some go deep.  They can create sensations and feelings that can be a challenge to articulate, but which causes people to take action.  Translating these subconscious emotions and feelings is the ‘holy grail’ of customer journey design.

As behavioral scientists report with frequency, workings of the subconscious mind , and understanding it, is the key to identifying the driving force behind actions.  Learning, judgment, and a liberal amount of illogic and irrationality enters into the subconscious.  Some actions take place as a result of the conscious, analytical and logical, but much of it comes from a deeper realm.  Scientists also tell us that, governed by the subconscious, humans can foresee and envision behavioral outcomes, and this is important to marketers.

My colleague Colin Shaw often points out that, though Disney theme park vacationers and visitors often say they want salads and other healthy foods for themselves and their families, what they really want, and buy, are hot dogs and hamburgers.  If Disney only followed what customers said, they’d focus on salad; and this would diminish the overall park experience, potentially leading to churn.

In another  example, an IBM consumer study revealed that, while 43% of consumers said they preferred the “browse, click, and purchase experience”, that is shopping online and picking-up in the store.  However, only 29% reported using online shopping for their most recent store purchase.  The reasons for this say-do gap have to do with trust and assurance issues – the need for on-demand customized promotions both online and in store, knowing beforehand that the desired product is in-stock prior to making a trip to the store, ability to have personalized communication with a retailer when online, etc.  In other words, consumers want the digital experience to be seamless, irrespective of touchpoint or technology  used.  Understanding, and narrowing or eliminating, that say-mean-do gap gets us into the subconscious response to digital retail experiences.

Knowing what consumers really want, i.e. what they mean when they say something, and how they will act and communicate to others, can be extremely impactful.  Cracking the ‘code’ enables marketers to interpret and translate the difference between consumer-stated  comments, complaints, and concerns and what they mean in terms of behavior.  Here are a few

  • “Your product/service should be more like your competitor’s” really means they like your product/service but they prefer what the competitor offers
  • “I think your product/service concept is great” really means that a first impression is positive but may not lead to positive experience and action
  • “I’d like to have this product/service feature” really means that they likely have fundamental issues with a product or service, and that a better understanding of why customers want this feature, and/or would they prefer an alternative
  • “I regularly use your product/service” really means that, because memory is selective,  they recall having used the product/service (at least once) in the past
  • “I really like your product/service” really means that they don’t love the product/service and that it needs to be improved
  • “I’d pay more for this service” really means that, when push comes to shove, they wouldn’t, believing that they deserve more value for the same price
  • “I’d be glad to recommend your product/service” really means that that any such recommendation could range from bland and passive, or even negative, to active and enthusiastic

Consumer recommendation deserves special treatment in assessing results of the say-mean-do gap.  Very often, claims of correlation between what customers say, mean, and do with respect to positive, neutral, or negative recommendation leaves out the actual causes, or levers, of emotional and unconscious processing.

As an example, in customer research, actionability of the one-number recommendation score question has been challenged by some practitioners, as have other elements of the research.  Among the issues, the question asks “Would you recommend…” rather than “Will you recommend…” or “Have you recommended…”  The latter two variations are considered superior since, in the case of the first variation, the question calls for customers to have greater emotional and subconscious certainty; and, in the case of the second variation, there is actual evidence of having taken action, i.e. actually behaved.

There are many more problems with putting too much emphasis on stated potential recommendation and referral, and taking them as surrogates for actual meaning and intended or real action.  One of these problems is that if other information is available about customer behavior, as it often is through targeted emotional driver research, the over-focus on a single number suggests that these more in-depth insights will receive less consideration and relevance.  For example, if a company discovers that it has a high incidence of unresolved customer complaints, a situation certainly jammed with emotional and subconscious feelings, that serious loyalty-leveraging situation can get  low priority, and might even be brushed aside, as executives seek to create ever-higher positive recommendation levels.

Again, knowing what customers really want and what they’ll really do, often despite what they say they’d do, can be critical to a business  So as my British friends would say, “Mind The Gap.”  What they mean is “Be Careful Not to Get Your Foot Caught In The Open Space.  It’ll Hurt.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC
Michael Lowenstein, PhD CMC, specializes in customer and employee experience research/strategy consulting, and brand, customer, and employee commitment and advocacy behavior research, consulting, and training. He has authored seven stakeholder-centric strategy books and 400+ articles, white papers and blogs. In 2018, he was named to CustomerThink's Hall of Fame.


  1. Hello Michael,

    I grew up living in different cultures. In the process of growing up I found myself puzzled by what people said and what people did. At the age of about eight I found myself saying to myself “It’s all made up!”. I have never forgotten that – people make stuff up all the time and usually without being consciously aware that they are making stuff up.

    I suspect you have come across Timothy D. Wilson’s book Strangers to Ourselves. Great title, it says it all. Here is the key assertion:

    “The Nisbett and Wilson argument can be reworked as follows:

    1. Many human judgements, emotions, thoughts and behaviours are produced by the adaptive subconscious.
    2. Because people do not have conscious access to the adaptive unconscious, their conscious selves confabulate reasons for why they responded the way they did…”

    It gets more interesting:

    “Perhaps the most radical part of Nisbett and Wilson’s argument is that despite the vast amount of information people have, their explanations about the causes of their responses are no more accurate than the explanations of a complete stranger who lives in the same culture…

    Why don’t we realise that our explanations are confabulations, no more accurate than the causal reports of strangers? …. people’s reasons about their own responses are as much conjectures as their reasons for other people’s responses. Why then don’t they feel this way?

    One explanation is that it is important for people to feel that they are the well-informed captains of their own ship and know why they feel they are doing what they are doing …. Another key, I suggest, is that the amount of inside information we have produces a misleading feeling of confidence, namely the sense that with so much information we must be accurate about the causes of our responses, even when we are not… the vast amount of inside knowledge we have about ourselves increases confidence in our self-knowledge, but does not always lead to greater accuracy..”

    Is this as bad as it gets? Listen some more:

    “One of the most important lessons from social psychology is that people are masterful spin doctors, rationalisers, and justifiers of threatening information and go to great lengths to maintain a sense of well-being. And the psychological immune system operates largely outside of awareness.”

    How useful is it for us to introspect – look within? How useful is it ask our customers (or potential customers) to look within? Here the philosopher Immanuel Kant has something useful to say:

    “We can never, even by the strictest examination, get completely behind the secret springs of action.”

    Here is how Wilson puts it: “People cannot discover through introspection the extent to which seeing an ad for Tylenol influences their purchases the next time they go to the grocery store… It is quite possible they are being influenced more than they know.”

    So what are his recommendations?

    “Observing other people’s reaction to us and reading the relevant psychological literature are not the only means of discovering the nature of our adaptive unconscious. Our own behaviour is another source of information that can be quite telling. Be being careful observers of our own actions, we can learn a lot about ourselves…”

    I’ll leave it there. Now you will understand why I pay little or no attention to what folks say or what I say. Instead I look at what people do – under a variety of situations. If we take what Wilson says seriously, what does it imply about the whole Voice of the Customer industry?

    All the best

  2. Well written Mike!

    Absolutely share your sentiments, as companies need to dig a lot deeper into the true emotional driver of her customers for better insights.

    Solely relying on a score based NPS system, will fail to shed enough light on the true intents of customers.

    What they say at times is a minimal reflection of what they will do, until companies employ incisive emotional analysis to study what drives the particular customer.

    In today’s business environment, companies tend to be drawn to customer feedbacks and recommendation score than their motives.

    Businesses should be less concerned about what customers think of their brand and focus more on what makes them think a particular way about your brand.

    Dig deeper and you build a customer brand.


  3. There’s a samurai proverb that ends with “….it is well-known that gold lies hidden underground.” For these purposes, I’d translate that saying as seeking to understand the underground, or subconscious and often hidden, meaning of what is said, because that is the gold represented by having a clearer perception of what leads people to decision-making and action.


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