Toops Scoops: Dig deeper

Harvey Hartman zeros in on how consumers live, shop and buy.

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By Diane Toops, News & Trends Editor
dtoops@putman.net




“We talk a lot about market research, but it has changed dramatically over the years,” says Harvey Hartman, founder and CEO of the Hartman Group, a consulting and market research firm based in Belleview, Wash. “Consumers have changed dramatically too, but we haven't changed the fundamental way we try to understand them.”

Behavior is what it’s all about, says Hartman. “Historically, researchers tried to put people into boxes to find clarity in terms of ‘that target market,’ ” he explains. “That’s not how people actually live. They buy Big Macs. Part of their wellness regime includes indulgence because it makes them feel good. They buy natural products from Whole Foods because those are good for them and it gives them permission to have dessert. Our intent is to really understand behavior, because if you don't understand how consumers live, you are less likely to be able to influence them or to meet their aspirational needs.”

When discussing their shopping behavior, consumers are apt to say one thing and do another, according to Hartman. “It stems from our collective tendency to narrate our ideals or aspirations as our lived behavior, mainly to appear good in the eyes of outsiders and loved ones alike. While the untrained might mischaracterize this as lying, it really has much more to do with American cultural ideologies that implore us to cast ourselves in the image of self-improvement. Our narratives always focus on a life we believe we should be living, a self that’s worthy of recognition.”

This religion of self-improvement affects food industry researchers. “I try to eat healthily” is one of the most common consumer claims encountered during in-home interviews, says Hartman. “While this claim might indicate a ‘health-focused’ consumer to a novice, experienced researchers recognize such statements as mere cultural artifacts and dig deeper to ascertain truer health interests.”

Taking the pulse of the marketplace for the past 16 years, Hartman has found that a combination of clever questioning and pantry tours often prove most effective in countering culturally biased narratives. He shares his experiences in a free on-line newsletter HartBeat (www.hartman-group.com) and a series of editorial perspectives on how consumers live, shop and buy.

He says you must dig deep and avoid common blunders to determine consumer insights. It’s a blunder to take consumer comments literally.

“While more than a few consumers have regaled us over the years with stories of how they have quit purchasing ‘bad’ or unhealthy products, it’s surprising how quickly their stories dissolve when the pantry door opens to reveal a cornucopia of chips, candy, cookies and pop,” says Hartman.

“Consumers want you to think they are trying to do the right thing. We’re in a living room with someone talking about how interested they are in health and wellness. We listen, then look in their refrigerator and there’s yogurt, milk and OJ right next to carbonated soft drinks and other indulgences. ‘I don't know how that got there,’ they say. They are fundamentally thinking about feeling good about themselves and want others to think well of them.

“We are all pretty messy,” he continues. “There are people with high-intensity lifestyles who are consistent, but about 70 percent of consumers are contradictory. Companies define health and wellness as a physical thing, but consumers define it not only as physical, but emotional, mental and spiritual as well. It’s important to let the consumer define what health and wellness is.”

Are consumers eating more healthfully? “We know people are trying to change their lifestyles but they are doing it on their terms,” responds Hartman. “They are on an incremental journey, creating their own wellness regime. That includes MacDonald’s, as well as something natural. They are moving toward a higher quality of life for a longer period of time. Men and women want to look and feel better. They’re more concerned about their relationships. But we’re messy; we’re not consistent. We want to have fun too. Indulgence plays a role in mental and emotional well being as much as a healthy heart.”

Most diets don’t work because they don’t take into account how people live, according to Hartman. “Behavior on Monday is different than on the weekend, because you are living a different lifestyle,” he explains. “An individual lives in four or five different worlds. They enter and exit those worlds -- wellness, indulgence, etc. -- depending on their mood.

“It doesn't serve us well to just understand the individual; you must understand the occasion. If you watch women of all different ages and ethnicities on a treadmill, you'll find that at the end of their run, they all want the same kind of drink – one that's refreshing and reinvigorating. It’s the occasion. What we do is to try to understand not just the product, but the social rituals and markers of the occasion. The real influencers are the way we act with our friends, our families on the weekend, and how we relate to our peers. Taking those factors into account, we have a much better understanding of how consumers live, buy and shop.”

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