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Getting It Wrong: How Imaginary Trends Can Shape Consumer Behavior and Impact ESG Campaigns

New research from Yale SOM Professor Jason Dana illuminates the importance of measuring not only actual trends, but believed trends. 

Among many marketers, there’s an oft-repeated axiom: you are not your customer and your customer is not you.

It’s a guard against the tempting trap of believing that we inherently embody or understand our customers’ attitudes. That, in a pinch, our judgment alone will do.

But new research from Yale SOM Professor Jason Dana and Professor Adam M. Mastroianni of Columbia Business School suggests that it isn’t just marketers who fall prey to this fallacy. Consumers themselves are prone to misjudge the attitudes of the people around them. According to the research, published in March in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, these misperceptions are pervasive. When Dana and Mastroianni asked a nationally-representative sample of people to estimate how 51 different attitudes had changed over time and compared their estimates to actual polling data, people over-estimated the amount of change 57% of the time, underestimated change 20% of the time, and estimated change in the wrong direction 20% of the time. In fact, people estimated the amount of change correctly just 3% of the time. 

What makes this data particularly interesting for marketers is not only that people are bad at estimating the attitudes of others, but that people are bad at judging the amount of change that society is making on a given issue.

Consider how this might impact advertising and communications. The emergence of stakeholder capitalism has put new pressure on CMOs to not only take a stand on key issues but also to connect with consumers to communicate how they are making progress on these issues. But misreading your consumer base can lead to controversy and potentially lost sales. According to Dana and Mastroianni, it can be “easy to miss bandwagons that do exist and invent ones that do not. Imaginary trends could thus spuriously shape people’s real beliefs and behaviors.”  

[It] can be easy to miss bandwagons that do exist and invent ones that do not. Imaginary trends could thus spuriously shape people's real beliefs and behaviors.

For example, when Procter and Gamble’s Gillette brand launched the “The best men can be” campaign, it was based on the idea that some progress had been made in the #metoo movement to address toxic masculinity and that this progress needed to continue. “Something finally changed,” said the voiceover in the ad, “and there will be no going back.”  While lauded by some, the ad became highly controversial, with some saying that Gillette was “virtue signaling” and not doing enough while others believed they had gone too far, emasculating men or jumping on a “men are horrible” bandwagon.  

So many of the decisions today’s business leaders make – from product innovation to sustainable sourcing to campaigns and even business decisions that respond to social and political issues – are inspired by consumer insights based on data about how people’s thoughts, feelings, and actions have changed over time. It is this delta that often motivates not only what firms decide but also, in many cases, when.

But what if consumers perceive a different trajectory from what marketing and insights leaders see happening in the marketplace? This study has important implications for how leaders should think about gathering these insights. Measuring beliefs or perceptions of progress vs. looking at actual shifts is one potential way that firms can address this. “The change or trajectory people think we are on really matters to them,” says Dana. By measuring not only actual trends, but believed trends, marketers can be better positioned to anticipate how consumers might respond to firms' actions around a particular topic.