Research can’t predict the future, but it can illuminate the present

Well yes, that’s life: the unexpected happens, we get taken by surprise. Or sometimes we don’t, things don’t change half as much as we thought they would, although the status quo seems to have been in pretty short supply recently.

But questioning whether research in a time of Covid will have any validity for the future rather suggests that research is a predictive tool and sadly that has never been the case.

So if our lives are going to change (again) in the next 6 / 12 / 18 months how can marketers plan properly for the future? Researchers can’t gaze into a crystal ball but we can, as we always have done, still use research help our clients in three key ways

Firstly, research right now (and indeed at any other time) drives understanding

It is tempting to think that because everyone’s lives have been turned upside down that they have all been turned upside down in the same way (‘we’re all in this together’). We’re all facing a common enemy, but we are not all experiencing combat in the same way.

Empty nesters deprived of seeing the grandchildren and dipping a toe into the world of online grocery shopping are not having the same kind of lockdown as the frazzled mum with 2 x kids under 7 who needs to juggle her key worker job with home-schooling.

Any marketer needs to understand the needs and wants of their target whatever situation they’re in, and that’s as true of lockdown as it is of anything else.

What we learn about our target’s response to lockdown helps us build a fuller and more detailed picture of our audience full stop and that is always a good thing.

Secondly, we can explore how people feel.

We have almost limitless data on how people are behaving. We know they are buying more jigsaws, more yoga kits, more alcohol, more garden furniture, (trying!) to buy flour but do we know what lies behind those purchases? Are the jigsaws to keep the kids amused or the adults sane? Is the yoga kit for actual yoga or for Zoom chats about yoga?

We need to engage with people to understand the motivations behind their behaviour and to see through the aspirations that won’t end up being translated into action. Online data will only ever show us what people do, not how they are thinking or feeling or behaving.

We can of course ask our consumers about the future, we often do, but we know that people’s own predictions nearly always tell you more about how they are feeling in the present than offer any halfway accurate forecast (so should always be used as projective techniques, and never as forecasts).

In a recent project we explored how people felt about the environment in a post-Covid world – did they feel people would behave differently in the future? Some felt things had been changed irrevocably, that we would never want to go back to a world polluted with car fumes, others felt we would be gridlocked on the M62 in no time.

None of us can tell which is the truer picture of what will happen after lockdown, but I think it is significant that one vision of the future came from a man in his 30s and one from a woman in her 60s, one aspired towards a clean new future and the other was a sceptical prediction of a return to business as usual. We can’t pick out one of these as a truer or more likely outcome, but we can explore the reasons behind those contradictory visions and understand the drivers and barriers to change.

Thirdly we can explore ideas.

We don’t know if people will want to book a holiday in Spain in 6 months’ time, but we can certainly explore how they feel about ideas and concepts to encourage them to give it a go, give them a framework in which to think about a holiday, ‘when travel has opened up again’ and put a range of different ideas in front of them that tap into all the different impulses that shape holiday choices.

We know that some people will be fearful, others can’t wait to jump on a plane and get some sun.  

As human beings we are driven by some pretty powerful impulses, some positive, some less so and some quite contradictory: the desire to explore new places but also the desire to stay at home and be safe, the desire to show off in front of others and the desire to zone out in front of a big screen. We want to indulge, to connect with others, to impose order, to improve ourselves, to have fun, to learn, to laugh, to care (and even to snitch on the neighbours).

Lockdown has changed our circumstances, it’s changed the rules we live by but it has not changed human nature.

The challenge for marketers as they worry about the shelf life of that planned piece of research is the challenge they have always faced – research can illuminate the present, but never foretell the future.

Lucy Banister