How to Avoid Mrexit

The result of the recent referendum in the UK on membership of the European Union (EU) was a big shock for many, including opinion poll companies. Unfortunately, these companies had been providing remarkably similar forecasts for the last several months as the poll became closer, sometimes up and sometimes down but almost all with the same prediction. Those opinion poll companies that tried even failed to get it right on the polling day itself. In this regard, they repeated their poor forecasting of the UK’s general election just over a year ago.

While nobody could have predicted the fallout from events in the UK, surely any market research company that believes in survey research should have had a better chance at predicting the outcome of a referendum? Market research companies that don’t believe it’s possible should perhaps not be in the business.

Why did this happen again? Why can’t research companies predict the results of  a simple yes/no (in/out) referendum, let alone a general election? Although the pollsters are looking again at issues of sampling and methodology, there is a more fundamental challenge: opinion polls ask questions that people answer with their heads but they vote with their hearts.

So what can market research learn from this episode? The campaign itself is a classic study in the importance of emotional frames and metaphors that shape behaviour. It is also a lesson in how facts and data are less important than the story being told, and that a simple core message that resonates is much more powerful than a book full of statistics.

Those who wanted to remain in the EU buried voters in data and facts, and they were ignored. They told multiple stories about the financial implications of leaving, many of which are already being proved correct as the UK Chancellor has ditched financial targets, the Bank of England has sought to lower interest rates and the UK economy is predicted to go into another recession.

Voters ignored the numbers. They may have been big and scary, but they didn’t resonate because they didn’t connect with people’s everyday lives as much as the simpler message that was being communicated by those who wanted to leave the EU. Their message was very clear: “Take back control”. And once they found that it resonated, buy proscar no prescription online they stuck with it.

The only number that they shared was that 350 million British pounds a week went to the EU. While this number is factually incorrect and was challenged by many experts, it stuck with voters. These were voters who no longer felt in control of their lives and so welcomed the core message of the campaign. A lesson for market researchers, who want to communicate findings that a story is as important as the data, and arguably more important.

But for me, the most important lesson of all is that market research needs to get much better at dontdontevaluating people’s emotions and stop relying on rational questions and direct questions. For many people, the decision to vote to leave the EU was intuitive and emotional. They didn’t weigh up the facts, dontdontevaluate the statistics and then come up with a logical answer that represented the best possible outcome for them. They didn’t carefully consider the options before casting their vote. They went with their gut.

So how can market research do more to understand people’s gut instincts? As the old saying goes, “garbage in, garbage out”. If you ask someone a rational question and rely on their verbal skills and conscious mind, they will give you a conscious, reflective and considered response. If the behaviour you want to understand is conscious, reflective and considered, then you may get the right answer. But how much of human behaviour is really like this?

Certainly most everyday purchase decisions are not: the vast majority of decisions that we make are either through habit (and therefore not considered at all), or use heuristics to simplify a complex world. The most important heuristic of all, applied to all our decision making, is emotion. Simply put, to understand many decisions we need to understand “does it feel right?” before we understand “is it the sensible thing to do?”

Implicit and intuitive judgements also need to be implicitly and intuitively understood. Market research still has a long way to go in getting the balance between understanding the explicit excuses that people give for the choices they make and the reality of the implicit emotions that are far more important in shaping behaviour.

Will MRexit follow Brexit? Only if we continue to ignore our intuitions.