About Me

John Fahy is the Professor of Marketing in the University of Limerick and Adjunct Professor of Marketing at the University of Adelaide. He is an award winning author and speaker on marketing issues around the world.

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Book Review: Consumer.ology

I had the pleasure of reading this book while travelling to the EMAC annual conference last month. It wasn’t hard to keep the pages turning. This is a well-researched, lucidly written book that will force the market research industry to address some fairly troubling questions about what it does and how it does it. By implication, the academic research ‘business’ is in the firing line too, given that empirical data is often collected using the same techniques.

The core of Graves’ argument is that people are unlikely to be able to accurately explain what they have done in the past or are likely to do in the future. Doubts about the value of market research have always been there, particularly when one looks at the long line of research mistakes such as Coca Cola, Absolut, the Millennium Dome, Chrysler Minivan, Red Bull and so on and on. One can only speculate how many potentially successful ideas have been shelved based on some erroneous research findings. The key to the problem as Graves points out is that most consumption is an unconscious activity but research participation is a conscious exercise. He cites a wide range of studies from the fields of psychology and neuroscience which demonstrate how the environment, context, priming and so on influence people. Unfortunately, these types of influences are pervasive in marketing research. For example, the ever popular focus group is a particular offender with its boardroom-style environment, the video recording of discussions and the inevitable social influences of the moderator and the other group members. How can the findings of such an activity measure the reality, whatever that is? In short, Graves argues that the research process is inherently flawed and provides compelling evidence to back this up. By studying the subject we influence it and even if we didn’t, responses are likely to be inaccurate anyway. As a research consultant, he has also had the opportunity to observe first-hand the kinds of misleading results that it can generate.

So if research doesn’t work, what are the options? Graves proposes that if research is to be carried out, it needs to meet certain criteria that he outlines which are designed to limit the influence of the process. However, it is better still not to ask customers at all. Instead just monitor what they do, where they go on the website, how they behave in a shopping environment (but be careful what conclusions you draw!). Create situations where live tests can be carried out to observe what people actually do. As he suggests, we should believe nothing of what we hear from consumers, half of what we see them do and almost everything the sales data says they have done. Uncomfortable for some alright!

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Book Review: The Social Animal

The Social Animal is an ambitious, wide-ranging and very cleverly written book. It’s author, David Brooks is a columnist with the New York Times and has had a long standing interest in the human condition. In this book, he aims to synthesise a great deal of research from fields like neuroscience and psychology to present a status update of why we live in the ways that we do. But what could be a heavy-going academic study is made much more accessible by his use of a fictional narrative as we follow the lives of Harold and Erica on their journey through growing up, marriage, careers and growing old. All human life is in there along with many fascinating explanations of why we do what we do.

Each of the chapters deal with issues that are of interest to the marketer or strategist such as decision making, attachment, learning, self-control, culture, choice architecture and so on. We are also introduced to some less well known concepts such as limerene (harmony between our inner and outer worlds) and metis (wisdom emerging from the interaction of the conscious and unconscious). In each case, extant research from different fields is summarised to provide explanations of human phenomena. For example, the discussion on human choices contrasts the rational choice models of classical economists with those of behavioural economists who emphasise peer pressure, overconfidence, laziness and self-delusion. Anyone seeking to explain the recent global financial crisis would tend to find more answers in the latter.

Overall, this is a multi-faceted book that different readers will get different things from. For example, business jargon takes an indirect and deserved hammering – ‘we are driving maximum functionality with end-to-end mission-critical competence to incent high-level blue-ocean change’!! It is packed full with interesting questions. The unconscious is responsible for peak performance? The pursuit of ‘objective measures’ in political decisions have destroyed social capital? And of course, what is the meaning of life? Indeed, Brooks introduces the interesting notion of epistemological modesty – that is, the knowledge of how little we know and can know. Despite decades of advances, the human condition remains a fertile area of study.