In the words of the great Rocky Balboa in his victory speech over the gargantuan Ivan Drago, our bruised and battered hero boldly declares to the slowly thawing Soviet crowd, “;Tonight, I”;ve seen a lot of changing.”; Well, Sly, if you think that was a change, I”;d love to hear what you make of COVID-19!

In a recent expert panel on the future of market research, one of our panelists enthusiastically exclaimed that “;we are experiencing the largest behavioral change experiment of our lifetime.”; It is one of those comments that warrant a moment”;s pause and reflection to appreciate its distinct ring of truth. In the UK, first, it was the panic buying of toilet roll and hand sanitizer. Then came the government”;s herd immunity tease, only for us to be shackled into lockdown a day later. Gyms across the nation were replaced by YouTube workouts with the British fitness coach, TV presenter and author, Joe Wicks, duly crowned the nation”;s PE teacher! The world shared a gazillion lockdown memes -; my favorites are still the fake plane rides – and people did what people do best: adapt!

However, it is this unparalleled human ability to adapt that has left so many marketers anxiously scratching their heads while peering into their COVID-19 crystal ball for the answers of tomorrow. The truth, plain and simple, is that to predict and plan for tomorrow, you first need to understand today. The lockdowns and social distancing measures brought about by today”;s pandemic have created a colossal empathy deficit between brands and their consumers at a time when an intimate understanding of consumer behavior and mindset couldn”;t be more valuable.

Why is the Behavioral Context of Empathy so Important?

Insights without behavioral empathy are nothing more than data. To properly understand changing habits, growing needs, or new tensions, you need to feel them and examine them in a behavioral context. The best way of doing that is to get up-close and personal.

It seems painfully obvious.

Yet in these extraordinary times, we are witnessing some of the world”;s largest management consultancies and their research companies”; partners, running trackers and surveys prognosticating about the future (of retail, of consumer consumption and business in general.) Their conclusions, intended to predict the direction of change, are derived by asking questions around “;claimed behavior”; now and in the future. Incidentally, did you know that in the UK 62% of people will be more likely to purchase from brands that are doing good for society; 29% would pay a premium for brands that contribute to the community and 42% would pay more for domestically produced goods?

Well, there you go brand managers, that”;s your portfolio strategy sorted!

Back to reality for a minute…

If you take out one thing from this article, please let it be this: Humans are woefully poor witnesses of what they do today, let alone what they”;ll be doing next week, month or year.

Psychologists attribute much of this human ineptitude in predicting the future to our projection bias. Essentially, this is our tendency to overestimate the importance of what is affecting us today and projecting it into a future context. This is why it is crucial when trying to understand the nature of change, to adopt an evidence-based approach built on solid actual behavioral data that gives authentic context to the insights revealed.

Video is both a highly agile and immersive means to capture behavioral data, in the context of the consumer”;s lives, as the behavior takes place.

In fact, we”;d be hard-pressed to name a more triumphant Knight in Anti-COVID armor than the Video app, with platforms such as Zoom, Skype, and Microsoft Teams, formerly the preserve of business conference calls, becoming virtual living rooms, cafés, pubs, and bars overnight.

While digital video platforms are far from new in the insights industry, our newly founded dependency on them has confirmed their impressive functionality, prompting researchers and marketers to reappraise the added value of this virtual complement to in-person research.

I”;d argue, however, that the real advantage of video data isn”;t so much that it”;s a more agile alternative to in-person immersive research, but more that it”;s actually better equipped for capturing authentic in-context behavioral data, especially when it is analyzed and interpreted by true behavioral experts.

PRS IN VIVO”;s own consultative LAB approach to Leveraging Authentic Behavior was originally designed from the beginning to alleviate the empathy deficit. Now an essential antidote to the uncertainty brands are facing. Our LAB toolkits have combined carefully defined immersive, observational behavioral research approaches-;both digital and in-person-;that capture the implications of authentic behavior TODAY, providing the foundations upon which our clients can begin to understand tomorrow.

For an understanding of what is happening in consumers”; lives today, our LivingLAB module uses a fully integrated online platform to explore daily behavior at home, in online shopping, and product usage and consumption. We ask participants to carry out a range of tasks across a range of devices while recording their screens and providing live commentary without the required physical involvement of a researcher. These digital video ethnographies provide the context of consumers”; behaviors in real-time, giving meaning and gravitas to the revelations and insights that are uncovered.

For the more future-focused insights, critical to brands”; planning and decision making, LAB includes additional digital functionality. Our ListenLAB module enables digital digs across social media platforms to capture behavioral trend data, identifying emerging “;hot spots”; that are gathering momentum or waning in impact, including specific geographic locations or venues, brands, and products. We then run early-adopter qualitative friendship group interviews online, longitudinally in various durations, depending on clients”; needs. The results pinpoint the relative importance and impact of influencers on behavior, within the same target groups, over time. We can then identify those durable behavioral changes to consumer habits versus ephemeral, reactive changes brought on by conditions, like the current pandemic, likely to revert once the crisis subsides. Thus, clients have an evolving calibration of the things they can influence as consumers adapt and behaviors are in flux.

In our recent virtual event featuring A Behavioral Conversation with Mark Earls and BV Pradeep of Unilever, they discussed the three imperatives if the insights industry is to create a viable future as partners in brands”; decision making.

Interrogation (of the all available data),
Observation (of actual consumer behavior) and
Living in the Shoes of Consumers (the basis for Empathy).

For our money, as an industry, if we can aim all our behavioral, contextual, and digital assets at these challenges, this will be the optimal way to create a living, evolving enlightenment map for clients for the future.

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