Finding a Balance: Why & How to Tap Into the Emotional and Rational Sides of your Consumers

In late October, the World Health Organization issued a report indicating that processed meats raise the risk of colon cancer and consuming red meats “probably” raises the risk of cancer as well. Based on my very unscientific review of reactions to the report, I noted a tremendous amount of variability. Many in the scientific and medical professions applauded the research as it provided evidence of a direct link to a deadly disease and thereby offered the public a way to prevent the disease. Some of my friends with children took note of the research as admittedly, some of our children (including one of my own offspring) could survive solely on hot dogs, chicken nuggets and ketchup, and we found ourselves contemplating the fact that we’d actually need to cook from scratch.

Yet there also seemed to be a general feeling of “so what?” or amongst some, a more emotional, passionate backlash against the report akin to that you’d see when one’s personal liberties are threatened. Time recently wrote an article on the topic calling the report the “war on delicious” which I think is a fitting description of how many felt. Hashtags including #FreeBacon and #Bacongeddon were some of the top-trending topics on Twitter the week the WHO report was published. Meat lovers on social media also reacted by referencing recent reports that foods like pizza and cheese can be addictive and even vegetarian hot dogs may contain meat. It seemed many consumers, in the US and likely around the world, were fed up with research that is often later refuted and were determined to say that if meat is bad for us, so is everything else. It was also interesting to note that even Wall Street seemed to shrug it’s shoulders, with stocks for meat manufacturers and commodity markets showing minimal reaction to the report.

Manufacturers and Consumers Caught in the Cross-Hairs

As a market researcher who focuses on product testing I find these reports and subsequent emotional reactions to be interesting, especially when you think about how we might conduct subsequent research with consumers. As the world’s largest product testing advisor, myself and my Ipsos colleagues are working with numerous manufacturers who are focusing on making “healthier” and less “processed” products – manufacturers are reducing sugar, sodium and fat levels, eliminating preservatives and focusing on healthier ingredients. In many ways these efforts are consistent with the recent news that we should strive for healthier, less processed foods. Yet, at the same time a desire for higher protein products as well as a desire for “whole” foods is on the rise in the US. It will be interesting to see how meat manufacturers take advantage of and react to both of these trends.

As I think about manufacturers caught in the cross-hairs of these trends (and really, it goes beyond the meat industry), I am again reminded that the research we conduct with consumers must be holistic, embracing the rational, logical reactions as well as the emotional and nonconscious reactions. At Ipsos we are paying greater attention to the field of behavioral economics (BE) and what it means to the ways in which we engage with respondents. While BE can mean many different things one thing it asserts is that consumer reactions and choices are governed by both the conscious and nonconscious (i.e., Kahneman’s system 1 and system 2 thinking). And if we take the recent news on meat consumption as just an example, here is one more instance where the logical and emotional, conscious and nonconscious will play a role in how consumers react to stimuli such as ideas, concepts and products. It will be critical to measure both reactions to gain a holistic understanding of consumers. We must go beyond what consumers say and also tap into what they feel, as both will play a feel role in in-market success.

How can we obtain a more holistic understanding? Ipsos has a robust toolkit by which we are helping our clients do just that. We are far from abandoning the traditional scales and tools that we’re all familiar with. But, we are also adding new dimensions and/or paying attention to different aspects of the data we gather as we believe tapping into both the conscious and nonconscious reactions are critical to developing a marketing strategy and achieving success.

Be Open to Open Ends

For instance, Ipsos’ Marketing Sciences team has found that open ended questions can be effectively used to access unconscious knowledge and the associative networks in one’s brain. In this way direct questioning can tap into these connections and networks which may impact our behaviors on a nonconscious level. More specifically for product testing we’ve found that open ends are especially useful for identifying negative reactions to products and tapping into emotional connections to products and product related experiences. While consumers might love the products we are testing, it’s in our best interest to dive further with open ended questions to see if the products activate other associations, whether they be positive or negative. And we can go beyond the typical likes and dislikes – ask how you’d feel serving the product to your family, children or friends? Or why not ask if a product fits with one’s values and why? These questions do not replace the direct questioning of performance on product dimension but do provide a more holistic understanding of consumer reactions.

Take Time to Unlock the Consumer Nonconscious

IRT or Implicit Reaction Time is a neuro tool that we are also leveraging to tap into those same associations. The technique measures the nonconscious strength of associations, measured as the response times to questions in milliseconds. The idea is that questions, stimuli or experiences trigger the associations in our brains and IRT measures the closeness of those associations based on how fast we respond to a question. The closer the association, the faster we respond, the faster we stronger, more emphatic or more conviction we have in our responses. This tool can be especially powerful to gauge the emotional reactions to products. For any food, beverage or even personal care product striving to be perceived as healthy or natural, why not measure the speed with which they associate a product experience with such descriptors? And, if we ask them likelihood to purchase, serve to family and friends or recommend, it would be interesting to see the speed with which they agree (or disagree) with such a statement. It’s a creative way to measure the conviction associated with acceptance of a product, the associations one makes with that product and even how they might behave in market. And given the tool has been used historically in cases where a person may have conflicted feelings or may feel inclined to give polite, socially acceptable responses, it seems well suited to scenarios where consumers are trying to balance varying needs and wants.

These are just 2 simple ways to tap into a consumer’s nonconscious and emotional reactions. Ultimately it’s about engaging our respondents in different ways when we know the forces that cause them to act are multi-dimensional and complex.