How to get access to consumers’ inner world: the phenomenological approach
The conscious mind and its capacity to perceive is intrinsically connected with the research in the humanities. As marketing researchers we inherit the tradition of the great philosophers in asking themselves how the mind perceives the world.
Indeed our focus of investigation is the world of products, not the totality of the human existence. The question though is essentially the same: how the (consumer) mind perceives the world (including brands and products).
I was reminded of this recently while listening to consumers rationalising their behavior.
Do consumers have the answers why they purchase one brand or another? In recent years behavioral economics postulates are taken to extremes, affirming that what drives behaviour is not accessible to conscious introspection at all. It is in fashion to talk about System 1 vs. System 2. From Systems 1’s perspective consumer behaviour depends on the context, emotions and senses dominate, memories change when recalled under different circumstances. Positivism and its underlying belief that consumers have the answers that explain their behavior is disputed.
As marketing researchers we look for answers – we observe and immerse in consumers lives, do ethnography, shop along, design introspective games and constantly look for new or forgotten methods.
In this respect it is refreshing to revisit one philosophical school that may hold the key to balance the approaches and to find that “deeper” place in the consumer everyone is seeking.
In the tradition of phenomenology of Husserl the researcher studies the things, phenomena, as they are directly perceived by consciousness and describes the sheer experience.
The method describes (vs. explains) subjective experiences (vs. behavior).
All existing ideas are put aside, they are bracketed, as the researcher tries to describe the essence of things.
Husserl’s slogan was: return to the directly perceived things themselves.
The phenomenological approach implies that conscious experience is accessible to investigation and the access is direct. Meanings arise as pure presentations to the mind.
To be able to describe subjective experiences the research needs one instrument – a trained mind. We need to train our minds to overcome the confusion of constantly changing surroundings, the surge of emotions, confinement of beliefs, to keep an attitude that is fresh and clean from previous experience.
The mind becomes a passionless observer and at the same time participant in a co-experience with the observed consumer, enters a state of direct knowledge.