Customers don’t know what they want

 |  By: Steve Johnson In: Managing clients

Perhaps the phrase ‘Customers don’t know what they want’  will not come as a great revelation to anyone in marketing. After all, perhaps the single biggest truism in the business is that life would be easy if clients had clarity about what they stood for, what they wanted and what they expected to achieve. This probably extends right across the purchasing landscape.

That makes predicting customer buying behaviour challenging to say the least. This week, a new piece of research proves the point very neatly.

A group of individuals were asked their preferences for a selection of 18 movies. They were then shown trailers of each movie, and again asked what their preferences were. But the twist here was that while watching the trailers they were hooked up to electroencephalography (EEG) devices that read their neural responses.

At the end of the viewings, they could freely choose three of the movie DVDs to take home. So, which was more successful in predicting their final choice? Their own stated preferences? Or their brain scans? The answer is their brain scans. These revealed what the people really wanted when it came to the crunch, whereas their verbalised assessments were off.

So what does this mean for marketers and consultants generally? Does it show that clients can’t be fully trusted when articulating what they want? Well, yes. It does rather mean that.

So what can be done? That’s the difficult part. Short of wiring up clients and consumers to EEG machines, it’s probably best to do what marketers have always done: carry out the usual research, then take it with a pinch of salt. Your gut instinct might be more aligned to their real buying preferences than their words. And if it turns out that your instinct is right, you’re a genius and you’ll go far. If not, you can always blame the research...

Perhaps one day the population will be permanently wired up to machines reading everyone’s beta and gamma oscillations. Until that joyous day, you could do what Steve Jobs did. He didn’t say “We should all ask customers what they want”. Instead, he said: “You have to trust in something - your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life."


Journal of Marketing Research