Storytelling In Research

As market research has developed it has become more remote from the people it wishes to study. Technology is a great enabler, but also creates an artificial barrier between the researcher and customer. Similarly, short and narrowly focused questions and prompts encourage short and narrowly focused answers, missing the full story of human behaviour and failing to capture the goals, emotions and context of decision making.

It is time for market research to think in narratives rather than bullet points. Stories contain our beliefs and knowledge of the world and are the basis of learning, thinking, remembering and sharing. In the words of Lawrence Nault, “The point of a story can penetrate far deeper than the point of any bullet”. Stories tell us much more about real lives, real people, real goals, real obstacles and the roles that brands can play in helping customers.

Here are three ways to build storytelling into market research, not just in presentations, but in the way research projects are conducted.

Cultural stories

The Fundamental Attribution Error is a warning to market research to pay far more attention to the context of behaviour than it currently does. We are highly social animals, seeking to imitate those around us and share what we find exciting and pleasurable. This is why office workers will contribute almost three times as much to the pantry kitty when there is a pair of eyes in the picture on the wall, and why many like to click “like’ on social networks, especially those living in cultures which place greater emphasis on collective identity.

Although the environment and social situation shape our behaviour, the most important context of all is our culture. The analysis of the signs, symbols and codes that surround us, can often illuminate the hidden truths of how culture shapes our decision-making. These are hidden because they reflect the core framework of assumptions that shape our thinking but are hidden deep in our implicit memories.

Semiotics is the science of identifying and decoding these assumptions to build understanding of how a topic, category or behaviour is interpreted through the lens of a culture and its collective patterns of thoughts. It can reveal the deep associations and metaphors at play in a category and the key themes that are used to communicate these associations. And semiotics can identify future potential through an understanding of the most important stories shared across cultural groups, the narratives that link the stories and the key contradictions and tensions that they reveal.

Semiotics is a great tool for building powerful communication frameworks, brand identities and product designs that harness the implicit thinking of target customers.

Human stories

Businesses talk constantly at customers but rarely engage in meaningful conversations and unfortunately too much research does much the same. Asking customers to complete pages of attribute ratings is a world away from listening to a story of the role of a product or service in their life. Even much qualitative research barely engages beyond a tedious list of questions and concerns thinly disguised as a “discussion” guide.

In any case, the majority of our knowledge, beliefs, understanding and decision-making is implicit and not possible to access through explicit memory and direct questions (as I have argued in previous columns). Digging deep into someone’s unconscious mind requires time, effort and techniques that talk in the language of the implicit mind, such as those of the senses and experience.

Using images, metaphors and objects as stimulus to provoke customer stories through open questions and laddering up their chain of values provides far richer insight into the real drivers of behaviour. Although such approaches are structured to uncover the unconscious motivations of customers, they do this without imposing a structure on the way they are allowed to express themselves. Too often, market research seeks to impose a client’s way of thinking about a problem rather than letting customers explain their own way of thinking about a problem.

Archetypal stories

The brain is a highly effective pattern recognition machine, constantly looking for recognizable signals from the world around us in order to be able to make better predictions and decisions. This pattern detection is the reason that metaphors are so powerful, as the basis of memory is the connection between pieces of information through analogy. The most fundamental patterns that the brain seeks are those that connect events in time, allowing us to make causal inferences about the world. Some patterns are common across cultures and time, and reveal themselves in the archetypes that Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell and others have written about.

In understanding the hierarchy of values that drive customer behaviour, ultimately we find one or more ‘core values’ that reflect their most fundamental motivations. For example, the customer may value independence and the feeling of being free, while fearing conformity and being trapped, in which case they have much in common with the Explorer archetype. They may even be a Rebel if this sense of freedom gives them the confidence to break the rules and challenge accepted wisdom.

Twelve archetypal characters are able to describe all the key values that are important to us in our lives. These are the Warrior, Artist, Explorer, Rebel, Joker, Seducer, Everyman, Caregiver, Idealist, Ruler, Guru and Catalyst. The reason these archetypes appear in stories and myths of all cultures is that they reflect the goals, drives and values of all of us.

The power of the archetypes lies not only in how well they can capture the essence of the different characters that surround us, but also in the way in which they allow brands to build distinctive identities which communicate how they can play a role in people’s lives. Having a clear identity is what makes many brands so successful, including Harley-Davidson and its Rebel image.

To summarise, storytelling is a powerful tool for researchers in understanding and describing the cultural stories, human stories and archetypal patterns that drive our thinking and make us who we are.