In Your Head.

– Are psychographics the new demographics? –

In the social sciences, no question is more divisive than – ‘why’?

Many researchers are sceptical of ‘why’ questions because there are as many answers to any particular ‘why’ as there are researchers and research subjects.

When proponents of ‘psychographics’ claim to go beyond traditional descriptive demographics to explore customers’ psychology, and even morals – I become a bit incredulous.

Psychographics tries to look at things like hobbies and interests, even values, all with the objective of looking into the consumer’s head. As such, its practitioners claim that whilst demographics help you understand who buys your product or service, psychographics helps you understand why they buy.

It’s a bold claim, but one I don’t totally buy.

Why does a 30-something woman in Oxford buy organic? Because she wants to be healthy? Because she is conscious of prestige trends? Because it’s convenient? What if she claims to buy organic because she is an environmentalist, but she doesn’t recycle, save water, or vote Green?

If psychographics practitioners uncover disagreement between the answers people give for why they do this or that, and their actual behaviors – do they challenge their research subjects? Do they say, “my informants say X, but really it’s Y”? In that case, whose version of the story do we act on?

In as much as any single person is comprised of various identities, each and every action is a composite of conscious and unconscious choice, material and ideological desires, social pressure and individual perception. ‘Why’ someone does something is very rarely a simple question, and any method that claims to get at it should not claim to be simple, either. And yet this is what psychographics often promise us.

It’s hard to distinguish, really, where what many firms now call psychographics actually differs from good brand work. Now, it is certainly true that many marketing firms and internal departments produce demographic snap shots that don’t offer much texture. However, most brand and marketing research has been trying to get at not just ‘who’, but also, ‘what’ (they do, like, want). More importantly, most good brand and market research already asks ‘why’.

Psychographics, then, differentiates not at the level of objective, but at the level of method. It appropriates the tools of psychology as a means of trying to better access the ‘why’.

This would be a compelling offer if most brands had unlimited research budgets. Experimental, academic, or behavioral psychologists will tell you that designing, implementing, and analysing research of this sort requires an investment of significant time and money.

Moreover, in order for psychological research to be considered rigorous or significant – i.e., high enough quality to assume results and findings can be attributed to broader populations than those studied – it must be very, very carefully designed to control for a multitude of conflating factors. This is a process that takes months and even years. It takes pilots, failures, adaptation, and countless trials.

Call me a sceptic, but I don’t think most of the outfits offering psychographics are set up to truly take advantage of what psychology could bring to marketing and brand work if it were done right. And simply put – it usually isn’t. But even when it is, psychological research is not a silver bullet. In fact, a recent study found that fewer than 50% of psychological studies could even be replicated.

‘Why’, it turns out, is a damned near impossible question to answer, regardless of what you throw at it.

Are psychographics the new demographics? Probably not. It may be one piece of a research arsenal, but it’s an expensive piece that over sells its actual capabilities – so at the very least, be realistic about what it can do for you, and more importantly, what it is you really need. If you are looking for the next big thing – this may be one to pass on.

Melyn McKay is a partner with advisory firm, Monticello LLP.