Make them the focus

Editor's note: Devora Rogers is chief strategy officer at research consultancy Alter Agents. Rebecca Brooks is founder and CEO of Alter Agents. The excerpt from “Influencing Shopper Decisions: Unleash the Power of Your Brand to Win Customers” by Rebecca Brooks and Devora Rogers is ©2022 and reproduced with permission from Kogan Page Ltd.

While the ways people shop have changed sharply over the past decade, many market research practices have failed to keep up. When we took a hard look at traditional research methods that once served us and our clients well, we could see that they were not working in this environment. For decades, research has been built on what we call brand narcissism, where surveys focus on the brand first rather than the people who matter most: shoppers. It’s time to reinvent the way we ask people about shopping.

That’s why we sat down and wrote the book “Influencing Shopper Decisions: Unleash the Power of Your Brand to Win Customers.” It dives into our decades of experience in shopper research, starting with the advent of the supposed “never-going-to-catch-on” online shopping and moving through to the permanent changes the pandemic has brought to the shopping experience. Through our work with brands and projects like Google’s Zero Moment of Truth (ZMOT) study we’ve examined how shoppers behave – and what they expect – in the digital world.

Throughout the book, we take readers on a journey through our process of developing a new kind of research methodology, something we call shopper influence. After studying the buyer journey for numerous brand categories and closely examining the so-called path to purchase, we could clearly see that shoppers are savvy, information-hungry and more confident than ever before. We’ve emerged into the age of shopper promiscuity, where shoppers are uninterested in brand loyalty and are instead focusing on their own needs, looking past the brand to continuously try new options to find the best fit. 

Our exploration into information source usage and source influence is critical in understanding how to best resonate with target audiences who exhibit behaviors that are anything but homogeneous. In the final chapter of our book we present several strategies for change to help us take a path toward influencing shopper decisions with marketing that’s based on the right kind of insights. We’ve included an excerpt from that chapter below. 

Hopefully through all of this, our key message – that shoppers want and need more content than ever before – has stuck. Because it’s no longer enough for brands to promote a logo or an identity. Now, they must be content creators and news writers engaging with influencers and empowering shoppers to evangelize on their behalf. They must powerfully activate across dozens of touchpoints. They must inform shoppers with every detail they need to feel good about their decisions to buy their brand’s products and services. And, returning to one of the key findings from our Google ZMOT research: There is no linear path to purchase and every category can be a high-consideration category.  

As we have demonstrated, a critical consequence of shoppers being more informed than ever before is that they are more promiscuous than ever before. When they start their decision journey, they’re much more open to new brands, new experiences, new everything. And this has caused them to reevaluate all their decisions, even ones we might have called routine.

Key truths we have revealed include: 

  • Shoppers are not passively waiting on you to inform them about your brand.
  • Shoppers are “hunting” and hungry for information.
  • Shoppers perceive much less risk in trying new brands and products than they used to.
  • Because of the volume of information available to them, shoppers are far more thoughtful than they used to be. While they may be willing to try new brands and products, they do more research than ever before. This is especially true of Millennial and Gen Z shoppers and remote workers.
  • Shoppers expect transparency and thorough information to help them come to a decision with confidence.
  • Shoppers expect innovation. A brand will fail if they are not rapidly updating and innovating in their space.

The world was changing rapidly before the COVID-19 pandemic but we’re now seeing not only an acceleration of online tools but also shifts in priorities, attitudes and beliefs. These are not momentary adjustments. Shoppers are setting out on a new behavioral path that’s still evolving. If brands truly want to win with the promiscuous shopper, they have to orient their entire organization around a new understanding of shopper behavior.

We must acknowledge there is no limit on the options available to shoppers and the impact this increased access to choice, innovation and information has had on brands, retailers and shoppers’ brains. This transformation has resulted in a very different kind of shopper – an entirely new generation of shoppers, actually – while brand marketing and market research is based on an outmoded purchase model. This brings us to the shock of shopper promiscuity that brands are coming to terms with. And it’s long past time for those of us in the market research industry to acknowledge our role in pushing our work beyond the “norm” that results in brand narcissism.

Let’s admit the level of navel-gazing we have allowed to become standard in our research questions. Like you’re dealing with an insecure, self-involved date: How did you hear about me? What do you like about me? How do I stack up against your other dates? Are you going to go on another date with me? 

So many of the questions that we ask around the purchase funnel are from the brand’s perspective but really don’t reflect the shopper’s experience. Because our research finds that almost half of all shoppers no longer go into a decision-making process with a brand in mind. They are coming in with their own needs, priorities and how they want to solve the problem that this product is solving. These two things – brand narcissism and shopper promiscuity – are inextricable forces that have created a perfect storm. 

And here’s our Jerry Maguire moment, our cry for a change in research: We are asking the wrong questions of a population that has fundamentally changed. The ship we’ve built out of traditional research cannot withstand the power of the coming storm brought on by shopper promiscuity. We are sounding the alarm on shopper promiscuity and revealing that traditional research is not helping us. The emperor has no clothes.

We close out the chapter, and the book, with next steps and strategies that apply not only to researchers and marketers but also to executives and company leaders. From feeding the information-hungry shopper and remaining adaptive to breaking free of traditional assumptions around brand loyalty, we provide a step-by-step method for change that will ultimately help your brand gain a better understanding of its shoppers.

When it comes to specific research techniques, we make recommendations based on a holistic, consumer-centered approach that employs new methodologies like agile neuroscience; applies multimodal approaches; prioritizes data integration; puts the consumer first again and again; and other specific ways to enliven and reinvigorate your research methods. For marketers, we talk about how to more deeply understand your category, specific marketing channels, your shopper, your potential new shoppers, your competitors and more. 

We are acutely aware that none of this change can viably happen without leadership buy-in, so we issue a call for full support of research and marketing teams in every possible way – from funding to actually using the insights they produce in key decisions. 

In short, we maintain that influencing shopper decisions in this new age requires new ways of thinking and approaches that put the shopper at the center of everything.