Getting behind the wheel of consumer behaviour

Consumer behaviour. We like to predict it, and attempt to control it. Both, however, are notoriously difficult to do.
Getting behind the wheel of consumer behaviourTraditional theory propagates four types of consumers: Those who buy out of habit; those who like variety; the finicky shoppers who require considerable wooing; and the dissonance crowd who perceive little or no brand comparison in their purchase decisions. All this, of course, is overlaid with that rather nebulous method of segmentation: beliefs and attitudes.

We tend to believe that if we are to understand things a little more clearly, we must segment. By compartmentalising, we feel more in control. Things make sense inside a safe haven of apportioned logic. Yet the more we divide, the less we rule. Our pigeonhole fixation detaches us from the very objects we seek to understand and influence: human beings, and that elusive thing we so emphatically call a target market.

Hit the road

If you want to really know and understand your market, an accurate map may tell you where it is – but not who it is and what it’s up to. For real insight into what the brand drivers are, best hit the road… and go play in the traffic.

Traffic flows. But often times, it doesn’t. Yet whatever the rate or volume of passing traffic, what is most interesting to observe is the behaviour of our fellow, vehicular consumers. There are all manner of target markets navigating Cape Town’s aptly named Hospital Bend, or Johannesburg’s infamous M1 at peak hours. Drive time, we like to call it. And it presents the perfect opportunity for a thirty-second spot. So let’s take a drive and see what we can find out.

Drive time

You’re approaching a city centre intersection. The traffic lights are down. It’s five in the afternoon and everyone wants to be somewhere else.

Without so much as a by-your-leave, a sleek BMW M3 coupĂ© inches into the hairline gap between your front bumper and the next car’s tail lights. The windows are fully tinted, so you can’t see who the driver is. There is no acknowledgement or thanks for being let in, which you may privately berate and shrug off, or publicly decry by punching your hooter down and expecting some kind of resolution before you ever let go. You automatically classify the driver: a male, high-income, high-flying egomaniac, with no sense of community. A divorce lawyer, maybe.

A few minutes go by and you soon forget him. Now you have the other extreme before you, an irritating highway Samaritan, casually letting fellow motorists push in, hop through and pull across. Must be a preacher. Or worse, a churchwarden. Has he absolutely no sense of priority? He’s asking for a surprise bash up the backside. Or perhaps you just take a deep breath and let things take their course. Because you catch an eye in his rear view mirror and realise that, actually, it is the churchwarden in front of you! You thank heavens for small mercies and gladly pay the penance of driving the rest of the way in second gear.

Until you get to a traffic circle. Traffic circles sprang up like a new market marvel that grew too quickly for us road consumers to adopt properly. We’re still trying to understand them. Are they four-way yield-stops? Why go around when you can just drive right over the silly middle bump? Who goes first? It’s a case of who dares goes.

Within an inch of catastrophe, a plumber’s van and a middle-management, Mercedes C-class – hopefully on her way to a C directorship – halt the entire proceedings. Quite out of character, she bursts like a Jill-in-the-box from her window and screams the most objectionable, personal insults, clanging with expletives. It demands an equally undesirable riposte from the tradesman. And, of course, there’s a typically South African hangover to this. The woman has to be black, and the man has to be white.

Random behaviour

Mercifully, you find your way home. You have time to do a quick once-over of that market research you’ve been working on tirelessly over the past three months. You do a final recon of those pigeonholes, so you’re able to present your team with a statistically rational target market for your next campaign. But while the numbers tally, they don’t make sense. Not on their own. Why? Because segmentation merely helps us understand what we can never know, let alone pretend to control. Real insight is gleaned from random behaviour – which we have to be present to observe.

Ultimately, we get far more insight into human behaviour in one rush-hour’s traffic than a month of Excel spreadsheets. Because in traffic, we are closer to the human being. We’re right behind the wheel of consumer behaviour, with all its attendant market conditions of potholes, eTolls, trolls and taxis.