Changing Buying Behavior: How Big Data Ethnography reveals both conscious and unconscious cues.

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VP, Client Experience

If you’re a consumer insight expert, a marketer at a Fortune 1000 or even a CEO trying to drive growth for your start-up, odds are you are wrestling with the problem of trying to better understand why your consumers behave a certain way. You want to understand the “why” behind the “what” and “how” they buy. Secondly (and even more importantly), you are likely laying down the framework needed to try and change that behavior, so that it leads consumers to your particular brand, product or service.

But how do you change consumers’ behavior in this modern world?

Well, it is not as easy as it used to be. The days of simply putting your message out via digital, TV advertising, promotions, or other traditional methods is over. Consumers demand more depth, more relevance, and more meaning. And while price is a consideration, consumers are more than willing to spend more if they can perceive enough value.

In order to authentically connect with consumers and change their existing behavior you need to connect with the beliefs and values that make that person who they are. Because it is these beliefs that shape how your consumer sees themselves in this world. And it is these values that shape the alibis consumers use to give themselves permission to buy one thing over another. These are the building blocks that shape the unconscious and instinctual rules we create to make instantaneous purchase decisions.

So much can happen in an instant.

Consumers today are as busy, as they are overwhelmed with choice. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a tremendous amount if meaning fuelling all the decisions they make. No… consumers are using a variety of different conscious and subconscious cues to quickly determine if a solution is the right fit for their particular values and beliefs.

Take me for instance — I ran out of dish soap on the weekend.

Here is what happened in approximately 25 seconds in the grocery store aisle.

  1. I stand back and look at the wall of options. I am overwhelmed by the choice. (After the fact, I went to look up the number of different skews available at this store. There were over 65 different types of dish soap available).
  2. I start analyzing the different brands. I see the cheap brand that my Mother would always buy and immediately remove it from my decision making process. (It represents where I have come from. Not where I am going).
  3. I look at the most expensive option and remove it from the decision making process (Rationally and logically, I can’t spend “that much” on dish soap and live with myself. You can take the boy out of Marmora. But you can’t take the Marmora out of the boy).
  4. I notice a bottle of Palmolive Dish Soap. But it is the “Gentle Care For Dry Skin” version. I can literally hear the protestant work ethic instilled in me by my Father screaming out from the void… “You do not deserve gentle care.” The void makes a very good point.
  5. I notice a powerful degreasing option on sale. I start to reach for it….
  6. I pause. “Wait a second.” I think to myself. “You’ve worked your butt off to start a company… to rise through the ranks of marketing and innovation and get where you are today. You worked to get out of the small town, to live an urban life. You’re not a kid who worked construction to make his way through University. You’re cosmopolitan. You’re successful. You’ve arrived. If you don’t don’t deserve gentle care when washing dishes now, then when? Maybe you should get the gentle care option? Isn’t it time to evolve?”
  7. No. It is not.
  8. Palmolive has an Oxy Infused Degreasing and Odor Removal Dish Soap. I look and see it is 20 cents more than the original Degreasing Dish Soap I considered. Sure, Palmolive is known for being gentle, but Oxy gets the job done. It is the perfect compromise.
  9. I put it in my cart.
  10. I mumble “Take that Dad.” as the cashier scans my dish soap at the cash register, making everyone in line, very uncomfortable.

You may think I am joking. But I am not. While this internal struggle becomes muted the more often and consistently we purchase a product or solution, when we are looking to purchase something new (or replace a product we are accustomed to buying) we have to weigh against its competitors. We also consider, both subconsciously and consciously how it will shape how we view ourselves as a person, and how the world around us will view us as someone that is willing to purchase it.

But here’s the problem.

If you would have asked me, directly about my beliefs and values towards dish soap, I would have told you that I don’t really think about a dish soap (because I don’t), and that I just look for the best deal (which I do). But when the moment of truth presents itself, both my heart and mind, tap into the core of who I am, in order for me to try and align the benefits of a product with the person I wish I could be.

After all, your dish soap says a lot about you.

How to tap into the consumers unspoken motivations.

First, we need to embrace that consumers no longer ask: “Am I right for this brand?” Instead, consumers ask: “Is this brand right for helping me the person I wish I could be?”

If you want to get consumers to choose your brand, you need to first understand what will be meaningful on a subconscious level. To do this, you have to understand the motivations, attitudes, values and fears that shape who they are. Then you need to bridge your brand or product to the best place where it can fit into the life they want to live. You need to be emotionally relevant.

But this does not mean you can simply be “emotional”. Too many brands simply try to create an emotional response, or piggyback on top-of-mind political or social movements. While these may have a short term impact on awareness, and even sales, they lack the authenticity to establish a deep and meaningful relationship with the consumer. Consumers are experts in knowing when a brand is trying to emotionally manipulate them. As a result, emotional benefits need to be rooted in the brand’s product experience. Your job is to not ‘trick’ them into feeling. Your job is to understand the emotional outcome that the consumer is looking to achieve and proving that your brand or product is the best fit.

We are more alike than we are different.

While my incredibly deep and moving story about buying dish soap may seem very, very unique and personal, there are millions of “Jasons” out there in grocery aisles across America.

In fact, as we at MotivBase set out to build an AI Anthropologist we had to set out and map the the most dominant motivations, attitudes, values and fears that shape how consumers behave in the marketplace. We call this our library of ethnographic factors.

We arrived at this library through the manual digital ethnographic analysis of over 1.5M individuals across the United States (powering our US version), and over 650,000 individuals across the UK (powering our UK database). When identifying these factors, our Cultural Anthropologists also identified and modelled the socio-demographics behind each of these factors. Over several years, this “ethnographic language” was taught to the machine, allowing the AI to not simply report on “what” was being said, but also the unspoken “why” behind.

Who knew dish soap was all about status?

When we search “dish soap” in our system, it immediately identifies the “lead consumer”. These are the people who are most passionate about a topic (often the lead users) tend to engage the most around that topic, while those less passionate tend to take a back seat.

Our AI Anthropologist knows and understand this dynamic. So while it models demographics and sizes the market by taking both the passionate and dispassionate voices into account, on the tool’s interface, it surfaces the most dominant and emerging meanings that people associate with a particular topic. That is, it surfaces those demand spaces that are being created and led by the lead user in any culture.

When we look at the culture of Dish Soap, not only can we see that the most engaged consumers are older (35-54 years of age). But we can also see that they are more educated.

But the most interesting insight into the consumer, is that while we see expected motivations like a desire to provide for one’s family, we also the role of status and ambition clearly evident in the unspoken motivations and the attitudes being exhibited by consumers as the engage around the topic of dish soap.

As you can see in the screen capture from the platform, consumers are motivated by finding ways to ensure that their success is not missed or unnoticed by people in their life. The soap one uses in one’s kitchen is linked to attitudes that not only highlight the desire to present oneself as affluent to the world, but they cherish the idea that if you are willing to put in the work, you will get the rewards.


The most important question you need to ask yourself, when you are contemplating changing consumer behavior, is do you really understand your consumer? I know that sounds simple, but we have so many clients who have taken a rational, or logical approach to understanding the needs of the consumer, and are shocked at how the consumer fails to do what they said they would do (or like what they said they would like). In fact, they often do the opposite.

Thanks to improvements in AI and the Fortune 1000 increasingly looking to augment their assumptions by looking at consumers through both an emotional intelligent and anthropological lens, we are seeing more meaningful products brought to market, and more authentic, relevant messaging making its way onto our tablets or flashed across our television screens.

But there is a long way to go. Those who try to force their beliefs on consumers will fail. Those you embrace the consumer’s perspective, and invest in understanding the values of their consumers will succeed. Now, if you will excuse me, I think we are low on laundry detergent, and I am not going down this path without talking to my therapist.

What do you want to research today?