Big Claims, Little Evidence

I read something last week that made the claim that people don’t buy brands for what they make anymore, they buy them for what they stand for. Another asserted that consumers can spot corporate greed ‘intuitively’ and that consumers will punish companies who are too greedy. And both then went on to say these claims are increasingly / more the case among ‘Millennials’ (no surprises there).

They are just a couple of examples of a steady stream of articles on today’s consumers that all seem to end up in the same place. Basically, that effective marketing (especially to ‘Millennials’) in this day and age is ‘all about’ Corporate Social Responsibility, or ‘transparency’, that consumers ‘expect more’ from their brands, it’s not the product that’s important, but the brand’s values, or the even grander notion of its ‘purpose’.

Now I think if you make big claims about what makes consumers tick, and then give advice on how to market to them, then you’d want to base them on compelling evidence.

But when you start trying to find out what evidence is provided to back these claims, you often find it’s simply asserted, and no evidence is given at all. Or the claims link to another writer, who links it to another writer in a never-ending cycle of attribution, and the original source of the data can’t be found. I assume the belief here is that if you repeat something often enough it simply must be true. And that’s a danger, the assertion becomes ‘received wisdom’, and guides marketers’ decisions whether it’s supported by evidence or not.

Perhaps even worse, when there is evidence cited, what starts out as a specific piece of data ends up being the basis for big claims. For example, ‘66% of consumers, and 72% of Millennials, say they are willing to pay extra for products and services that come from companies who are committed to positive social and environmental impact’ from Nielsen’s 2015 Global Sustainability Report becomes the basis for sweeping claims like ‘Millennials put social responsibility above all else’ (including, presumably, a product that meets their needs) or that ‘Millennials drive brands to practice socially responsible marketing’ [my emphasis].

It’s a bit of a stretch.

But what’s more troubling is that the data is invariably based on questions about claimed not actual behaviour.  More often than not the question asked is a hypothetical, future focused ‘would you….’ question or a retrospective ‘why did you…’ question. Basically, people are asked to speculate, out of any context, about what they think they might do in future, or to rationalise what they did in the past. Neither of which is likely to reflect actual behaviour or the drivers of it.

And when we do look at actual data, a different picture can emerge. A couple of examples: The VW emissions scandal in late 2015? Arguably one of the worst examples of CSR (or lack of it) in recent times. They apparently deliberately misled authorities and the public. Not a problem. VW took over Toyota as world’s biggest car manufacturer in 2016 and is still there. Another example? Nestle (amongst others) are still being accused of aggressive tactics in marketing powdered milk in developing economies but Nestle is still the biggest FMCG company in the world.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that CSR is unimportant, or that consumers don’t identify with certain brands’ values and image (of course they do). My point is simple, if you’re going to make grand statements about consumers and the future of marketing, base it on solid evidence. And if you need to ask people questions to gather that evidence, make sure you ask the right ones.