22 Mar 2022

A reality-check like no other

If you think you already know the answers, what can you possibly learn by listening to customers, asks Mike Rigby, CEO of MRA Research?

It’s a universal truth that humans are profoundly unwilling to change their minds. Opinions, perceptions, and prejudices tend to be firmly held, protected from challenge by smart defences in our brains.

We prefer to mix with like-minded people, and cluster in bubbles with people like ourselves so our views are reinforced and rarely challenged. Companies can be like bubbles over time, with people thinking along similar lines. In good times this ‘groupthink’ reinforces success. But when the market changes or disrupters change the rules, groupthink becomes a blind spot that stops people seeing clearly and reacting quickly to threats.

A term like cognitive dissonance doesn’t trip off the tongue, or one we use every day. First identified by Leon Festinger, a social psychologist in the 1950s, cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort and feelings of stress and tension that results from holding conflicting views and values at the same time. Our minds deal with this discomfort by quickly resolving the conflict. They do it by defending our existing views and dismissing the new information, or they rapidly align it to our original views, so we think we ‘knew’ it all along. Or we think in ‘fact’ that we’ve been doing it already so it’s not new or threatening.

But having disabled the new information and made it safe, our brains have reduced the likelihood of us learning much from it.

Beating the brain’s smart defences

It’s the job of market research to question people and dig out facts and insights which can change how we see things. Research can change minds, marketing, and even the market.

But sometimes, after we’d presented some really powerful insights, people said ‘we knew that, of course,’ although we didn’t think they did. Others suffocate it saying, ‘we’re doing that already’ so there was no need to act on the research.

Mirror, mirror

To get around what we saw as lost opportunities, we created the Management Mirror, a research tool to capture how management thought customers would respond before cognitive dissonance got in the way. Much like the Queen’s magic mirror in Snow White, it’s a sophisticated reality check that captures what management thinks customers will say before they see what they actually said. That enables them to clearly see the gaps between what they thought they ‘knew’ or expected, and the reality.

Some companies are hard markers and consistently overestimate bad feedback, others are perpetual optimists. Some, for example, are good at reading customers’ views on service and product but are less sure on support or relationships. A handful are stars, but very few are good at knowing how the market sees them across all aspects. But without an objective reality check, how do you know?

Fairest of them all?

Over the years, we’ve found that research users, who learned by looking in this Mirror and who could adjust for cognitive dissonance, made far bigger improvements than those who were less aware of the distorting effects of their own biases.

Market research is an essential tool for building an informed and effective marketing strategy, but unless we can see without bias, we’ll only ever see what we expect to see.

Does your marketing need a reality check? Email mike@mra-marketing.com.


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