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I'm Not Your Consumer: How Research Misses The Human Behind The Demographic

Deutsch’s Douglas Van Praet discusses how focus-group feedback, and the whole notion of the consumer, are misguided and how research should focus on understanding the unconscious and improving human lives.

Whenever I hear the word "consumer," a term unavoidable in marketing, a part of me winces. The label is counterproductive and misguided, suggesting hubris by putting corporate interests over customer concerns. The worst offense is that it presupposes a response you haven’t earned yet. Their purpose is not to consume your product!

Yet this label frames market research, with an emphasis on sales and usage, in other words, the bottom line, market share, or ROI. The ultimate goal is profitability, not helping people better themselves.

How these research studies are done is at sharp odds with what science now knows. The elephant in the room is that the vast majority of our decisions are made unconsciously. What is a no-brainer for any cognitive scientist remains mind-boggling to marketers. The conscious mind is simply not running the show, but we’ve created an entire industry pretending that it does.

Advertisers are doubling down on this myth, investing in exhaustive investigations of self-reported preferences, attitudes, opinions, and beliefs. These deceptions become guideposts for product and campaign development. For $150 and a ham sandwich, panelists are drilled for hours in formal focus groups before two-way mirrors and cleverly concealed microphones that elicit groupthink and inauthenticity. The best become "professional respondents" glibly dominating groups on the topic du jour—from potato chip to microchip.

The problem is we’re profoundly social beings having spent 99% of our evolution relying on vital resources from tribal affiliates whose opinions mattered. Group rejection likely meant a death sentence. So it’s no surprise we still only put our best face forward while artfully maneuvering ourselves competitively in the pecking order.

The brain is designed to hide most of our intentions and promote self-confidence, an adaptive function that improves lives and prevents information overload. So we invent stories and believe our lies and confabulations. Social science experiments reveal that we are inherently self-righteous and consistently overrate our knowledge, autonomy, and abilities. We say advertising doesn’t influence us even though sales say otherwise. And we maintain these self-serving delusions when wired to a lie detector, which means we are lying to ourselves and not intentionally to the experimenters!

But marketers cling to these false convictions and post-hoc rationalizations in large-scale quantitative studies that test and track "awareness," "topline" reports that skim the surface because they ignore real motives that lay hidden in the depths of our "unawareness."

This vast data dump is distilled into a target "persona," the "true north" for creative inspiration. Psychologist Carl Jung is turning in his grave because he coined the term to describe the façade we contrive to make an impression on others while concealing our true nature. The persona is the mask of overconfidence that colors reality in our favor to adapt to social situations.

We need to penetrate this veneer. As Jung put it, "In each of us there is another whom we don’t know." This inner "self" is a term he used to describe the totality of the psyche that includes our unconscious intentions or, in essence, "the real you."

And we all share an inner essence through our DNA. We’re not consumers, eyeballs, non-responders, laggards, Millennials, or Hispanics. We are humans. And by raising our sightline and defining customers more broadly we will not only deepen empathy and relevance but also widen appeal.

I’m not saying all research is bad research. Measuring sales and online engagement is very useful because we observe what people do, not what they say they do. And despite the pitfalls of qualitative research we can still observe face-to-face, micro-expressions and body language that belie words. Skilled moderators can unveil hidden agendas and unconscious defenses. But these researchers are rare. Strategists who inspire through traditional methods make subjective leaps beyond the data. They succeed in spite of current research protocols, not because of them.

I have developed a 7-step process shedding human insight on how idea becomes action: 1) Interrupt the Pattern, 2) Create Comfort, 3) Lead the Imagination, 4) Shift the Feeling, 5) Satisfy the Critical Mind, 6) Change the Associations, and 7) Take Action.

When marketers interrupt the pattern, they also have us looking for threats. We have evolved to avoid harm, making us skittish customers. Step 2 is to Create Comfort, which is needed to open us to new possibilities, a state of mind that only occurs with easing tensions and building trust. Before anyone can get excited about your pitch, you need to first engender receptivity to your overture.

Take for instance a TV spot called "Smiles" we created for Volkswagen that debuted around the presidential debates to lighten the vitriolic mood. It featured one of the most effective ways to create comfort. It showed a series of clips of real people laughing uncontrollably in order from infant, to child, to adult, to elder without a single word or car, ending on the logo and line: "It’s not the miles, it’s how you live them."

Laughter is social bonding communication. It’s like saying, "I like you" or "I want you to like me." Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar says that belly laughing may have worked like "grooming at a distance" for early ancestors, allowing them to maintain bonds within larger groups, which explains why humor in ads can bond people to brands. Laughter is an innate, cross-cultural response triggered unconsciously, which is why it is hard to fake or control. Shared laughter synchronizes our brains in emotional attunement, the hallmark of successful communication, releasing oxytocin and tension, firing our trust circuits.

This approach felt authentic and compelling only because the brand had earned the right. VW had a storied legacy to "think small," not boast big; not through sales talk, but by speaking human. And they attained massive sales growth back then as well as today. That’s in part because they recognized that our purpose as people is to lead better lives, not to consume their products.

Douglas Van Praet is the author of Unconscious Branding: How Neuroscience Can Empower (and Inspire) Marketing. He is also Executive Vice President at agency Deutsch L.A., where his responsibilities include Group Planning Director for the Volkswagen account. Van Praet’s approach to advertising and marketing draws from unconscious behaviorism and applies neurobiology, evolutionary psychology, and behavioral economics to business problems.

[Images: Flickr users Kevin Dooley, Thomas Heyman, Todd Anderson, and Michele Catania]

Add New Comment


  • "by raising our sightline and defining customers more broadly we will not only deepen empathy and relevance but also widen appeal." Searching for inclusive ways to create and market is crucial for sustainability. Considering edge cases/outliers in research is just good business by all counts. By building campaigns with data from a stratification of the "consumer", we can't help but be inclusive--and human-- by design.

  • Statguy49

    Douglas, please be mindful that there are many forms of research other than focus groups.  Throughout the 30+ years I worked as a statistician and thinker in market research, focus groups were the tail on the dog, albeit an important one because we used them when needed to elicit the consumer issues involved in the product or service category we were interested in.  Qualitative research (when needed), in combination with client interests and objectives, category experience, etc. allowed us to craft paper-and-pencil or online surveys that provided a plethora of consumer experiences, behaviors, motivations and attitudes/opinions we needed to address the objectives of the research.  We used analytics (beyond crosstabs) tailored to clients' business issues -- performance vs. competitors, consumer segments based on attitudes & motivations & behaviors & demographics, unmet needs, etc.  These are issues that drive corporate and brand growth and survival.       

  • Donna Bonde

    I have to agree with Ava. I don't there is anything inherently wrong with the term consumer or anything wrong with a purpose to consume. (Just watch me eat a Cadbury Marvelous Creation chocolate bar and you'll understand this clearly). When I read the article I couldn't help but liken the process of developing products and campaigns without consumers to doctors dishing out medical advice without talking or listening to patients. There's a lot to be learned by inclusion in the research process and consumers are arguably one of the most important elements. Including them is, and always will be, best practice.

  • Geoff Lowe

    So, so true. In fact I wrote, albeit it more briefly and less eloquently, on the subject myself a few months ago. Check it out if you like ( You'll see I make a case that even the status quo apologists in the comments here are wrong to argue that it's OK if we're referring to only the consumer part of us or that we have participants, not respondents...

  • ecommerce consultant

    I have long been of the opinion that surveys, focus groups etc. immediately start with a handicap. There are many avid consumers who simply refuse to take a survey because they feel they are voicing their opinion through their choices, not by answering questions. Focus groups, well they only do it for the free stuff.

    We have never had so much research happening in real time for us analysts and the results are always surprising which gives me hope to bin redundant marketing models and create opportunities crafted to the mind of the individual. 

  • ava_lindberg

    As a qualitative researcher who uses many levels of research to gain insight into consumers, subjects, panelists, participants, women, men, teens -- however they are termed -- I do feel that there is a "consumer" part of ourselves even if this is only one side of the total picture.  I don't feel that the word consumer is deprecating; I am a woman; I am a creative being; I am a mother; I am a lover; I am an introvert; I am a speaker; I am a consultant; and I am a consumer.  The consumer part of me is on at times and off at other times, but it interweaves through my life despite my spiritual, research, intellectual, and lifestage elements that at times are more important.  I do feel that compassionate, intense, serious research using focus group discussions, quads and triads, authentic ethnography, co-creative sessions, and other forms of deep research can be immeasurably beneficial -- to the marketer, to the research division, and even to the participant-consumer who has a chance to voice and show her feelings about products, brands, problems, and dilemmas she or he face every day when wrestling with everyday needs.

    When participants, panelists, subjects, and consumers participate voluntarily, they are often excited and motivated to share their lives and feelings.  And researchers have a calling.  They love investigation, questioning, exploring, and creating new ways of approaching the question and research process.  When one has a deep calling and when one is motivated by a combination of compassion, a true need to know, an educated way of approaching research, experience, and a speculative client team who is as excited about listening to the consumer-participant or female/head head of house or executive as I might be, there is an amazing collaboration of intensity.

    Yes, it is true that we are many people, many personas, and often a research project only has a chance to see several layers of the total picture.   I agree with you about C.G. Jung, controversial and brilliant though he may be.  As you say about Jung -- “In each of us there is another whom we don’t know.” This inner “self” is a term... to describe the totality of the psyche that includes our unconscious intentions or, in essence, “the real you.” 
    Absolutely -- and in good research we can begin to glean the possibility of seeing elements of this layering of personas.  Perhaps it is not every project, but it can be done when authentic processes are used.In essence, my feeling is -- some research is always better than no research.

  • Jaqui

    Interesting article and I especially like the comment that "the conscious mind is simply not running the show. Read Daniel Kahneman's book, Thinking fast and slow, (the Nobel Laureate in Economics, Daniel Kahneman) then follow it up with Nate Silver's book, The Signal and the Noise, and this is the conclusion you'll come to.
    As a storyteller I am very aware of the power of stories to influence as a good story compels the reader to lower their intellectual defences and engage in the story-become emotionally connected. That's why many brands and companies are turning towards storytelling to get their messages across. I'm not saying this is necessarily a good thing but those in the marketing, research and content space need to be aware of unconscious thoughts, processes and the tendency to see patterns when there aren't and inbuilt biases and assumptions.

  • Tricia

    I'd like to add one last step: Share the experience. When we tell others, we begin that process for them, possibly even jumping straight to number 4 (shift the feeling).

  • Melanie Biehle

    I think that focus group data can be really useful when it's part of a bigger research strategy. It's a great way to follow up with a subset of respondents who've taken a quantitative survey to get deeper insights. And like Lucy and Karen mentioned, the moderator matters. 



  • Abc123

    Why make an article so difficult to read? It seems like the author goes out of hisway to confuse readers with rediculous grammar.

    "Before anyone can get excited about your pitch, you need to first engender receptivity to your overture."