In search of the real why

This is the week that most shops re-opened in the UK. Have you rushed back to the shops yet? If so, why? If not, why not?

Most junior schools are also now open. If you're a parent who has had the choice, have you sent your kids back to school? If so, why? If not, why not?


All our governments are desperate to get our economies working again. If your daily routine has been different over the last three months, are you looking forward to returning to your normal work pattern? If so, why? If not, why not?


Understanding the real why

The question 'why?' has been on my mind constantly over the last few days. On Friday I joined several thousand others who logged on to Nudgestock, the world's largest behavioural economics conference. 


The driving force behind Nudgestock, Ogilvy's Vice Chairman Rory Sutherland, made insightful contributions at various times throughout the 14-hour marathon, and he kept returning to a favourite theme: the critical need for us to understand what they call at Ogilvy 'the real why'. 


Many of you will have read books on behavioural economics so you will already be familiar with this concept. As consumers, we frequently make choices that are not rational, but ‘predictably irrational’. It’s all about the context in which we make the decision and the behavioural biases that influence us.


So often we make our choices based on how those choices make us feel, not because of a rational weighing of the potential outcomes. Or maybe we delay making a choice at all because the rational, long-term benefits don’t seem to justify the short-term, emotional pain of getting to a decision.


Understanding our lockdown choices

Have you noticed that your choices have been different over the last few weeks? How have you behaved during the lockdown? 


Have you made decisions that you could have made at any previous time, but you had previously put them off because the context for the decision wasn’t conducive to making it? Did the short-term reward or penalty for not acting suddenly feel different?


Who has sorted out their house? Who decided not to make an appointment to see the doctor about a condition that they would have asked about in other circumstances? 


Who has saved money by not shopping, and then queried why you were really ever spending so much money on those items before?


One of my biggest delights during the lockdown has been to read books that I had intended to read for some time. One of them, Rory Sutherland's own book, Alchemy, is currently keeping me smiling, with its fascinating take on seemingly obvious questions. Questions like why we really make appointments to see the doctor, or eat in fish restaurants, use e-cigarettes, or ignore our GPS. 


Why have I made time to read it this week and not before?


I've also written a book of my own during the lockdown, a summary of the 42 secrets of successful corporate Insight teams. I could have written it at any time during the last three years - it was on my to do list for all that time - but during the lockdown it ceased to be something to always put off. In fact the choice to write it each morning became a welcome daily discipline.


Understanding what consumers will do next

Those of us who have been working throughout the lockdown will already be aware of the massive uptick in demand for consumer insights in our companies. If you have been furloughed and are shortly due to return to work, be prepared! Never before has there been such interest in what consumers are going to do over the next few months.


But before we return to our favourite tracker, market research study, or routine piece of analysis, let’s stop and think about how well we really understood why consumers in our market became valuable customers of our organisation in the past.


If we don’t understand the real why, we’ll never be able to predict what they are going to do next.


If you decide to explore these ideas further…

The IMA has published two Insight leader guides on the topic of behavioural economics, and you can read them now if your organisation is an IMA member and you have an online account with us. Please remember that you will need to log in to gain access to our member-only content.

IMP305: Behavioural economics for Insight teams

IMP306: How to nudge decision-makers

If you are not sure if your employer has an IMA membership yet or if you can access these guides, please contact us and we'll be happy to help you.


James Wycherley

Chief Executive, IMA