With my book Consumer.ology now published I’m starting to hear back from people who have heard about it, read it or read or heard an article or interview about it.

One of the very positive upsides to this is that more people are starting to share their stories of market research getting it wrong. 

Whilst I managed to unearth a good number of examples for the book, the fact is that it’s not really in anyone’s interests to publicise occasions when money spent on research was wasteful.  Occasionally there’ll be times when someone’s decision was vindicated and they’ll speak about it, but often the people making the final decision are also the ones who have decided to spend several thousand pounds on research, and choosing to ignore it doesn’t reflect particularly well on that decision even if it’s the right thing to do!

One reader contacted me to tell me about the conclusions of a focus group for a beer that was being tested with consumers in the UK, with a view to importing it.

The conclusions from the research were that the beer was “weak”, “watery”, “gassy”, “… like kissing your sister!”.  It certainly wasn’t a real man’s beer.

However, the autocratic head of the business decided to push ahead with launching the beer in the UK.  His name was August A. Busch III; you may have seen the product around here in the UK since then… it’s called Budweiser.

If you have any market research stories you would like to share, please do get in touch (philip(at) philipgraves.net)

Philip Graves


  1. Jay

    …and Budweiser’s brand image in the UK is indeed “weak” and “watery”. Type “Budweiser is” into Google.co.uk and it autocompletes with “gross” and “not beer”. Furthermore, despite a major marketing spend this year it’s not available in that many pubs/bars – especially not on tap.

    Anyone who likes lager drinks Budvar instead.

    So I’m not quite sure what your point is with this example.

  2. Philip Graves

    Your view of Budweiser may be all of those things (although I wonder if you would be able to tell it apart from Budvar in a blind test); however, I think Budweiser would probably say that isn’t the brand image they’re gunning for with their marketing.

    As for it not being available “in that many pubs/bars” and “anyone who likes lager drinks Budvar”… it’s impossible (or do I mean pointless) to attempt to refute such statements with anything trivial like facts about numbers of bottles sold in the UK… but what the heck.

    For what it’s worth in 2009 Budweiser was the fifth best selling take home “beer” (including bitter), and it’s considerably more popular than Budvar. But hey, what do most people know about anything? That doesn’t disprove your preference, it just means it’s not shared.

    As for the point I was making; market research doesn’t work. I could write a book about that… oh hang on…

  3. Philip Graves

    @Kevin McLean
    Hi Kevin
    Thanks for dropping by. It’s very interesting to read a review of an interview about a book; I’m glad that most people choose to read the book and review that. You can read those reviews here if you’re interested:

    Perhaps if the reviewer at your website had read Consumer.ology rather than an interview by the MRS about it he or she would have learned the following:
    – I don’t only advocate behavioural research, prototyping and live testing.

    – Consumer.ology is not dressing my approach up as a science; it’s a reference to the fact that market research is a pseudo science.

    – I don’t have a business that offers prototyping or conducts live testing for companies.

    I do believe that the problems with the market research industry are wonderfully encapsulated in one paragraph of the review you posted the link to (just after mentioning one of the “really powerful” tools that your business offers):
    “It’s not rocket science, it’s not even an -ology, but it works. You can take our word on that.”

    Yes, of course, customers (in this case businesses) should take the salesman’s word that his particular flavour of snake oil works. If you have a reliable market research technique that is demonstrably valid then that’s wonderful; you’ll make a lot of money. But I happen to believe the benchmark should be a little higher than “taking someone’s word”.

    P.S. I wouldn’t claim to know very much about beer; but I provided some facts to counter some generalisations in the preceding post. If you don’t like that approach you probably wouldn’t enjoy Consumer.ology.

  4. Greg Wiseman

    @Kevin McLean
    Dude, I can’t believe you reviewed an interview not the book. Funny how your accusations of self-interest in your blog are in the same blog that’s selling your great market research tool – you Brits are supposed to get irony!

  5. Kevin McLean

    “…I’m starting to hear back from people who have heard about it, read it or read or heard an article or interview about it.”
    I took this to mean Philip might be interested in a blog post about an interview about his book. Although my post was critical, it was based on what I read, including the rather arrogant, snide tone, which I responded to in kind, rightly or wrongly. We’re all trying to earn a living here. So it’s probably better not to go around slagging people off, whether they are researchers, consumers or authors. If I offended Philip of Greg or made mistakes in my article, I’m happy to retract.

    1. Philip Graves

      Ah, the perils of the written word (I mean mine); the tone of my original post that you took as arrogant and snide was intended to be ironic (I have, after all, just been quite public about people’s limitations in understanding themselves) – alas the irony was lost (I recall someone in the US inventing a new piece of punctuation for these kinds of comments – sadly it’s not included in the default set on my PC).

      If you mean that the original interview with Research-live was arrogant and snide then I’m not well-placed to comment; it was someone else’s questions and someone else’s write-up of a much longer conversation. There’s also the issue that, from the range of responses to that article and to the book in general, some people react emotionally to one or two of the points made rather than on the balance of the argument; unsurprisingly, given the subject of the book, I understand why and how this is the case, and I also recognise that I can’t expect to challenge such strongly-held beliefs.

      The reason that I’ve made the case so directly about the problems with market research is that the industry (and the business as a whole) is adept at ignoring the relatively gentle pokes of behavioural economics and individual psychological papers; I wanted to look at two things in Consumer.ology; how people really behave as consumers and how the market research process doesn’t simply ignore this but creates a ‘pull’ (in terms of influence) all of its own. From there I sought to offer potential solutions and illustrate where companies were succeeding with a different approach.

      Candidly, I don’t think the argument that “we’re all trying to earn a living”, whilst emotive, is the issue; were you a fake medium convincing the bereaved that you were in direct contact with their dead relative, I would reserve the right to challenge the validity of what you do, irrespective of your conviction in its merit or the fact that your livelihood was linked to it. Any market research company is in a position to voice its defence of its techniques and demonstrate their validity. For me, clients will be better served when they are equipped with the knowledge and framework to evaluate the likely reliability of any so-called “consumer insight” and to challenge suppliers to substantiate the efficacy of their techniques (because they appreciate how badly wrong market research can be, and why that’s the case).

      The book hasn’t been written as one of those “buy my consultancy services” exercises. It’s an honest challenge to an industry that I’ve been associated with for two decades and that has spent most of that time attempting to reinvent itself and wondering why it doesn’t have greater respect from its customers (whilst brushing its failures under the carpet, rather than learning from them).

      I hope you’ll read Consumer.ology; not because I’m trying to sell books, but because I think anyone who is interested in or earns their livelihood from understanding consumers should at least be in a position to say why it’s wrong.

      And I’m genuinely grateful that you stopped by. I’m not slagging people off; I don’t dislike them for having a different point of view; I don’t think they’re idiots for doing things in a different way from me; but I do think we can discuss this stuff and move the world on a little bit.

  6. Jay Wright

    Phil, I worked for a prestigeous researh firm in NYC since Jan, 1990. Although we did numerous morale surveys, attitude surveys, 260 degree feedback on leadership & team performance issues, the majority of our work was done with market research & customer service assessments. I can’t even estimate the man-hours of time & effort (regardless of what our billable or project hours were) that went into instrument development, interviewing, analyzing the information collected, and then the whole process of preparing & presenting the findings & recommendations. We ALWAYS uncovered the needs that were suspected and found CLEAR EVIDENCE of situations needing improvement. I’d never say that what we found was baseless; but I will say that you are much closer to the TRUTH about consumer behavior & the value of standard research processes. Actually, your references to beer are related to something I do believe after a second career in this field: most of the money spent on morale, leadership, & team improvements would have been better spent on more organizational beer busts & less surveys which merely proved the obvious & led to fixes that didn’t last long. As far as the value of the consumer information collected: low and frequently off base because those responding to the interviews or surveys did not typically provide useful information or were incapable or unwilling to sort out the complex from the simple and merely responded as though it were ALL simple to grasp and there were simple solutions. An analogy that comes to mind is the average adult who can readily provide a quick, simple analysis of an international issue and even more readily provide a quick, simple fix for it….. without any regard for the economic, political, social, world peace, etc impacts. I’m not saying that all or even most of the information obtained is unreliable; I’m merely saying that data containing any amount of unreliaable data is unreliable. I’m saying that I came to suspect all data more and to trust conclusions and recommendations less. I came to believe that many of the actual improvements obtained were the result of the fact that issues were being addressed rather than that the actual problems had been isolated and correct fixes had been implemented.

    After 48 years in the workforce, I’m still quite amazed that very intelligent, educated [even “expert”] individuals can focus on the very same situation and draw diametrically opposed conclusions. I’m not saying good research practices are worthless; I’m just saying dont take the results to the bank.

    We all have a strong, strong need to be right. I’m not saying Kevin is totally wrong; I’m just saying based on all my life experiences, you, Phil, are much closer to the TRUTH. I hope the “ology” that we’re dealing with here is inclusive enough for each of our opinions, limited as they are.

    Now, about that beer…….

  7. Philip Graves

    @Jay Wright
    You make a great point (well several, but one in particular that I’d like to focus on): unless you know which bit is right (and if you are in a position to know what part that is why ask the rest), you’re left with a big problem and no reliable way to navigate it. I hope that the AFECT criteria in Consumer.ology will help businesses here; but they’re an aid, not a guarantee.

    Thanks for posting.

  8. Rodge Bucao

    I admit I’m a bit at a loss with the example. Isn’t it already foolhardy to base corporate decisions based *only* on what went on in an focus group? By nature, this market research tool is not to be used for these types of marketing conclusions. (Of course, I’m not privy to the results so this is is just off the cuff.) What this means is that Busch was right, he doesn’t have to rely on the results of the focus group anyway. So why is this a good example of “market research gone wrong”?

    1. Philip Graves

      I would have to question what the purpose of the focus groups was if they were going to be ignored? They spent many thousands of pounds on them and then entirely disregarded them (correctly, as it turned out). Of course – and it’s a common defence – relying ‘only’ on focus groups isn’t wise, but why reference them at all if they can be so demonstrably wrong. How is a client supposed to determine which focus group results to believe and which ones to ignore?

      As I explain in Consumer.ology, focus groups are profoundly flawed in psychological terms; the influence of the group creates a consensus, rather than it being a reflection of what actually drives consumers choices or attitudes.

      The Bud example is, in my view, a good one, because it shows that consumers can confidently state opinions in focus groups such that a clear perspective is reported back (in this case that Budweiser will not be liked in the UK) and, because one executive decided to ignore them, this result is proven to be entirely spurious. And I think it’s vital to understand why these discrepancies occur between what consumers say in research and what they do in reality.

      The reality is that the findings from focus groups are not usually ignored. They are an important reference point in decision-making. When you consider the psychology of group influence, impact of context and distortions from conscious analysis of unconscious behaviours, the clear conclusion is that taking a consensus read from focus groups (as opposed to looking for one or two idea or comments that resonate and trigger thoughts in the mind of the problem-owner) is a big mistake.

      Thanks for commenting here at my blog. I hope you’ll return and join in again.

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