Customers Don’t Know Why They Buy. Do You?

Over a decade ago, Gerald Zaltman wrote How Customers Think, a book that fundamentally altered the way I view markets and the consumers that inhabit them. It is a cornerstone of my go-to-market philosophy. I recommend you factor his concepts into your planning:

  • Most of the thoughts that influence a consumer’s purchasing behavior are unconscious.
  • Customers generally don’t understand or can explain why they make the choices they make, and that efforts to uncover those motivations thru Q&A and other standard techniques, typically miss the mark. If a consumer doesn’t understand their motivations, how can you?
  • You should revisit your persona, segmentation and messaging strategy by (1) increasing the volume of customers you research — making sure you not only talk to the middle of your market bell curve but also the tails — the extremes, (2) drive your market research with business ethnographic techniques (here’s a primer ) and (3) ensure your messaging doesn’t rely on self-reporting.
  • Marketing strategies which are based on customer reported feelings, preferences, desires or statements typically underperform.
  • Focus group failures are a regular occurrence with the output not accurately representing actual consumer intent.
  • Incenting customers to utilize metaphors as they are probed about product preferences, is an excellent substitute for self-reported content. Metaphors make it easier for the consumer to convey useful information about their purchase behavior. Here’s an example from an interview with a CEO. He uses liquid metaphors:
One breakthrough idea can be a tidal wave, sending people scurrying to higher ground for protection… But people are just afraid to swim in moving waters, they prefer wading in a stagnant pool.

The quote above is dripping with metaphors (couldn’t resist). But you get the point. The words convey ideas such as fear, involvement, incrementalism, and status quo. Personally, I’d use this information when crafting a marketing message that would address those feelings.

So. Are you marketing to thoughts, feelings or both? Each marketeer needs to find their sweet spot. With my teams, we initially engage a customer by majoring on nonconscious motivations and ideas and minoring on rational arguments. As the prospect moves through the buyer journey more rational content is added to the mix. Experiment. Fail to succeed.

If you want to learn more about my perspective, here’s a talk I gave at Confluence back in 2015.