Consumers are not just consumers

Consumers are humans who live in a socioeconomic and geopolitical environment as much as they do in the market. All the “big issues” in the news will affect them too.

Consumers do not compartmentalise their world into buying world, social world, economic world, etc. Although some may claim to be neutral and live an apolitical life, no one can be free from the impacts of politics even if they do not actively participate in political activities.

So why do MarComm* professionals isolate consumers to only view them from a market context perspective?

Some time ago, I helped a client understand (mainland) Chinese consumers through an academic-research lens. By studying how their identities are formed, how they view their relationships with foreigners (especially the western democratic powers), and how they act/react to news and issues, I developed a framework not only to help my client understand consumers, but also to be used as a tool to develop effective strategies for risk management.

My approach was heavily criticised by “traditional” market researchers as sacrilege. I got the same feedback from another “traditional” market researcher who was in charge of consumer and brand experience intelligence in the gambling industry. Before I could finish, he cut me off and told me this was “too professional” and irrelevant to consumer insights. Yet, my client liked it and found it useful.

Taking full advantage of my proprietary space here, I am going to illustrate, with a few examples, why and how situating consumers in the larger “big-issue” contexts of social, socio-psychology, economics, geopolitics, and even philosophy, can help us uncover “killer insights” — as the MarComm industry likes to call it.

Gambling and Gen XYZ

Let me start with the gambling example above. I shall call the company PKCJ. Besides gambling, PKCJ is also an elite clubhouse. You will need references from existing members of a certain rank to join and the waiting list is long. Being super rich is not a ticket to membership.

I have spoken with a small group of young professionals who are potential members and will likely be PKCJ’s key targets in their membership drive as the older generations are dying out (hey everyone will die one day). But I found that most of them have a disdain towards PKCJ.

A common criticism is that PKCJ ruins families by cultivating gambling addiction. To fight against criticisms, PKCJ donate some of their profits to charities. Yet, news has broken out that there is a huge discrepancy between what has been pledged to be donated and the amount actually donated. Morevoer, PKCJ has been donating to charities connected to PKCJ itself!

Nope. The group of professionals whom I interviewed do not live like a priest. They do shop for luxury goods, eat at fine-dining restaurants, and generally enjoy lives. But they will not give money to companies they consider unethical.

Because they live with a purpose. There are studies supporting this phenomenon:

Market researchers tend to look down on academic research, and instead rely on consumers’ responses from surveys and interviews alone to find insights without setting the responses against a framework for analysis. In other words, the analysis is entirely based on the answers alone.

But the reality is that we all interpret our worlds based on, often unaware, mental models. Without expliciting picking and choosing a model or framework, the results can be messy and superficial. This is why so many people complain that market research is telling what “we already know”.

So if you were in charge of consumer insights and brand experience intelligence, how would you interpret your target audience’s (potential club members) attitude towards your brand? Basing only on the answers given above will not get you very far and deep in your analyses.

Underneath the contempt is a moral decision of rights and wrongs, and howI” will live a principled life by making morally right decisions. A moral framework of how different segments of the population learn and internalise what is right or wrong, and how this has affected or will affect their behaviours is crucial for uncovering true, killer insights! It will help us go deep into the very root of what drives people’s attitudes and decision-making^.

The socio-psychology of communications

“We’re activists first and food producers second,” shares the co-founder. “‘Plant-based’ doesn’t cover how we feel or what we want to achieve as a company.”

“The word ‘vegan’ accurately reflects that promise we made to do all we can to rid the world of factory farms and spare the lives of birds,” says Glover.


Despite the booming global plant-based food market, there is still a significant part of the population who refuse to even talk about eating less meat.

“As soon as the conversation came to eating animals,” she says, “all of the progressive values that they espoused would just go right out the window.”

— Melanie Joy, Social Psychologist


A social psychology framework such as powerarchy may be the answer. Joy found in her PhD research that humans are conditioned by a belief system to see animals or a certain group of people (e.g., ethnic minorities or women) as “less worthy of moral consideration”. This belief system is then used to justify systems of carnism, racism or sexism. The “mental hoops” that are jumped through, skipping consideration of the well-being of the less-worthy, are similar among the various “-isms”.


Knowing the deep-rooted why is the first step to finding out how. But however much we read into survey data and interview responses, we will not arrive at a deep enough level of understanding if we do not have a framework that will give context to the findings. Active and purposive selection of framework(s) for interpretation will also help us expose and correct biases. Unawareness will hide them.

Credit: Unknown cartoonist

* By MarComm professionals, I am referring to the likes of market researchers, ad people and brand strategists.

^ When I probed further on how he, as someone in charge of consumer insights and brand experience intelligence for PKCJ, would respond to these concerns, his reply was, “We have a dedicated department for fighting addiction.” When I asked him whether PKCJ has considered leveraging AI and technology, which is how they are promoting themselves, to prevent addiction, his reply seemed evasive: “The methodology is not important. We have told our customers they should ‘bet responsibly’.”

My reflections on the market research industry:

  1. I do X. I don’t do research.
  2. The value of sacrilege!
  3. Why is market research so useless?
  4. Consumers are not just consumers
  5. Can we not bluff?
  6. Humans are the problem!
  7. Should Dominic Cummings be condemned or does he deserve the benefit of the doubt?
  8. Market research reports should be more like whiskey