The Data-driven Pursuit of the Inconstant Consumer

   Ali Rana
Consumer attitudes can be shifted with a single tweet, and entire categories are being disrupted by the technologies we carry in our pockets. As the media industry has gone through massive upheavals in the past decade, our attitudes as consumers are more fickle than ever. Social media, in particular, can trigger flash points for brands, such as the horse meat scandal from 2013. Even for brands not directly involved in such controversies, they may also experience a slower and broader escalation of shifting consumer preference - consider the growing consumer and corporate interest in sustainable meat, including Chipotle and McDonald’s.
To succeed commercially, brands must be dynamic and innovative
Some innovation is a routine part of business: Moore’s law driving down the cost of technology and raising the bar for capacity, or evolving an existing product to deliver on changing consumer preferences (e.g. gluten-free cereal). But other innovations seemingly come out of left field, whether it’s from a new entrant to the market (such as Airbnb’s disruption of hospitality) or a radical re-imagining of an industry (like Amazon’s takeover of digital media content). Ultimately, both types of innovation must be supported by consumer demand (however latent), whether that is an incremental desire for a slightly better product or a rapid adoption of a transformative technology.
Savvy brands will need to tap into research to better understand how that consumer demand is shifting as well as to anticipate the potential for their own brand and category to proactively connect with and shape the consumer mindset. Marketers are anxious to anticipate the consumer-driven shifts, and they specifically crave access to the robust cloud of data we each generate.
In the age of “Data of Now,” there is a persistent sense that the next trend will leap off the page (or out of the database) just in time for a brand to pivot and capture a newly defined market. So as purveyors of consumer trends and insights, it is our own industry that is most ripe for disruption – if brands are looking to make data-driven decisions, they will be leaning more heavily on market research. Yet as researchers, we are caught in a paradox: consumer profiles, augmented by social, behavioral, and transaction data, can be richer than ever. But the same media ecosystem that helps foster this depth is also a quagmire. There are not only technological barriers to building these profiles (such as tracking a single consumer’s behavior across a computer, a tablet, and a mobile phone), but also serious ethical concerns around consumer privacy and consent. We anticipate that innovation could help ease some technological impediments, but that regulatory action as well as consumer concerns will constrain the full use of this data.
Finding meaning in mass data
Moving forward, it will be increasingly difficult to obtain comprehensive single-source data on a single individual. We may not know what Jane Doe saw on TV, how often she tweeted, or what she bought at which store. But by taking seemingly disparate datasets that reflect niche patterns of consumer behavior, and identifying their common patterns, we can generalize with more accuracy and meaning. Online behavioral data can give us a sense of search patterns and overall levels of product demand; social data can tell us what stands out about a brand over time; sales data can give us concrete outcomes; and survey data can help us calibrate each of these habits, attitudes, and actions in relation to one another. Some of the data may not even be direct consumer data, but broader market influences. Advancements in analytics allow us to be able to infer and simulate meaningful trends using a different set of data points than we’ve worked from previously. Enabling this diversity in the research ecosystem makes our ins ruments more sensitive to both consumer and market shifts originating from unexpected corners.
As disruption creates competition from unexpected sources, brands will need to do more than achieve parity with their category; it may no longer be enough to simply meet consumer expectations. Especially for companies whose branding is the primary source of differentiation, it becomes more important than ever to have a deep understanding of the consumer in order to connect the brand to the meaningful desires and values motivating our choices. Ultimately, the forward movement of industry disruption comes from a business – and not consumers – but integrating stronger consumer data into market projections can help companies better identify unexploited opportunities, and position their brands for growth among the consumers who support them.
Ali Rana is the SVP & Head Scientist, Emerging Media Lab, Millward Brown Digital.