Editor’s note: Rebecca Brooks is a partner and co-founder of market research agency Alter Agents, Los Angeles. 

Think about your typical morning. Many of us get up with our alarm, scramble to get ready to face our day and start our commute to work. If you are one of the contributors to the 2.25 billion cups of coffee consumed in the world daily, then your morning routine will involve coffee. Let’s imagine all your choices: make coffee at home, grab some in a drive-thru, conduct a morning business meeting at a coffee shop – there are many scenarios here. Your choice will depend on whether or not you are running late, have coffee at home, are headed to a meeting, want a specialized drink you can’t make at home … the list goes on. Add this to all the brands of coffee available to choose from and you have many possibilities when making a single decision.

This is all about context – the high number of factors at play at any given moment when making a purchase. Nearly every purchase decision hinges on influences that can be as unpredictable as roulette. A single person may make regular choices that seem completely disparate from one another, with no consistent patterns, due to contextual factors.

How can a brand keep up when today’s consumers are thinking of their own specific set of ever-changing needs, rather than brand, brand, brand? By shifting our research focus from loyalty in a hypothetical scenarios to alignment in a real-world context, we can glean more actionable insights. How can market research start to reorient to deliver insights for brands to truly connect with their audiences right when it matters? 

Here are four changes to research methodology that can help deliver the insights that will evolve brands to meet consumer needs. 

Ground everything in context by couching your questions in context. This can mean talking to recent purchasers. Our clients have found that data from recent purchasers (CPG in the last 24 hours, automotive in the last three weeks, for example) is much more relevant and actionable than more traditional research. However, it is costly. Another approach is to present a situation to respondents that allows them to frame their answers in a more realistic setting. An example might be asking respondents to plan an international vacation. Depending on the objectives of the study, you might limit them by spend, location or vacation type (cruise, land tour, etc.). When respondents are given constraints, they can more accurately answer the questions.

Define the needs that drive consumer decisions. Many brands focus in on consumers’ perceptions of the brand itself. But consumers are asking different questions: “Does this meet my needs?” “Do I feel good about this purchase?” “Is this the best decision for me?” Traditional research questions fail to acknowledge this reality by focusing on narcissistic questions like “How does my brand compare to others?” Bring consumer needs to the forefront and work to define each need. 

Compare how your brand aligns with those needs. The next measure of a brand’s ability to woo consumers comes in understanding how that brand aligns with those needs. It’s also essential to understand how competitors align with those needs. Let’s imagine that we are researching snack food. It is a fragmented category with people choosing products for low-calorie, organic, indulgent, value and nostalgic reasons, just to name a few. If your brand aligns with just one or two of these needs but competitors are aligned with more, you have clear choices ahead. Tough choices, perhaps, but they are actionable. For example, a brand might be focusing its strategy on the brand’s history of excellence and consumer preference. However, if this brand aligns most strongly with solving a functional better than competitors, they’d be better served promoting their existing and differentiating strength.  

Map out opportunities to strengthen your brand. So, your snack brand only meets one or two needs. What are your choices? Do you expand the brand to intersect with more consumer needs? Do you maximize the shoppers need with which you do align? Do you bring new shoppers into the category who align with your brand? Focus your research on how your shoppers are making their decisions, the context of those decisions and the influencers that can impact consumer choice. When you know how they are making their decisions, you can align brand touchpoints at the right places and right times to maximize impact. Shopper context can help drive occasion marketing and target marketing. For example, a mom shopping with children in tow will behave quite differently than a childless foodie browsing for some new ideas. Lastly, know what is influencing your shoppers – I guarantee that brand marketing is lower on the list than you would like it to be. Know how they are getting their information and how much trust they put into what they are hearing.   

Contextualizing our outreach 

By shifting the way we approach research, we can start truly understanding the new consumer and the unique challenges that they present for brand loyalty. By contextualizing our outreach and focusing less on perception and more on needs, we can start to see a clearer path to connecting with consumers.