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What drives consumer choices may not be what research measures…

Understanding irrationality keeps us busy at Innovation Atelier! Setting-up an R&D type of research focusing on tanning over the summer was probably an unconscious attempt to compensate our lack of sun-exposure. That said, the topic of tanning and sun-protection is indeed interesting, as it is a major health concern and we thought there would be at least some level of irrational behaviors (that was assumed, recalling of a few lobster-red northerners on vacation in Greece once).

We created a concept for our own revolutionary sun-block, a product that prevents 100% of skin cancer but that doesn’t allow to tan, and called it Pro-Sun+. Needless to say this concept is polarizing; and this is exactly what we wanted to investigate differences in the way consumers choose a sun-protection product in different contexts.

Consumer choice was measured via purchase simulation of a sun-block with a choice-set composed of the leading brands at their respective price, our new product (averagely priced), as well as the option to keep the money for something else.

To understand what impacts sun-block purchases, we asked questions on respondents’ attitudes to tanning, habits linked to tanning, mood of the day and of course key demographics. In addition, we split the sample into different contextual conditions. The study was conducted in Geneva, at the lake-shore and in a public park.

For this article, we will only refer to about half the total sample: 80 respondents, half of which were interviewed when the weather was sunny, and half on a cloudy or rainy day. With this sample design, we wanted to understand the impact of the weather as a contextual variable to see what impact it may have on different dimensions related to sun-bathing, tanning, and ultimately on sun-block purchase. The analysis is under way, but the first results are extremely interesting so we thought we should share them.

Our study confirms previous research on tanning on some aspects; for example, younger people tend to put more importance on tanning and have a riskier behavior when it comes to sun protection (i.e. they use of lower SPF sun-protection and are more likely to use no sun-protection at all).

Some other findings are more surprising. For instance, the importance of being tanned (general attitude measured on 5-points scale) did not have any impact on product choice in the purchase simulation. Whether they attach more importance to tanning or less, people will make the same choice. Our 0-risk / 0-tan product is not affected by people’s attitude to tanning. We would have expected to see an impact here, but were proven wrong.

The other thing we saw is the attitude to tanning is highly correlated with mood; the better the mood, the greater importance is put on tanning. Many marketing practitioners consider attitudes as being stable over-time. Our results show that such an assumption is not realistic, or at least not in the context of tanning. Mood as we capture it in our study is a short term state, so if attitude to tanning seems to vary together with mood, it must be a short term state as well (if this attitude were stable over longer time periods, there would be no correlation between the two variables).

Something even more surprising is that while attitude to tanning does not correlate with product choice, mood does: 22% of respondents in an average or bad mood choose Pro-Sun+ while only 7% of the respondents in a good mood buy the product.

It is known that mood has an impact on self-control, risk perception, impulse purchases and willingness to try new products. With great reduction, very bad mood would trigger compensation mechanisms inducing short term indulgence to lift up emotional state (i.e. chocolate or crisps), very good mood focuses on the “here and now”, distracting from self-control and long term self-protection.  What is thought-provoking here is not the fact that mood has an impact on choice, but that mood of the day has more impact on consumer choice than a category-related attitude. This is quite disturbing when we think about it; much consumer research aims at capturing consumer attitudes and making projections from them, and mood is hardly ever asked.

Now, the weather does also highly correlate with respondents’ mood. And as one’s mood is unlikely to have an impact on the weather, the correlation must be read the other way around. Sun makes people in a better mood, so when we analyze the results based on the mood, we may in fact just see the impact of the weather.

Splitting the sample by weather condition shows similar results as when it is split based on mood. The weather has a significant impact on consumer choice (21% purchase of our sun-block in bad weather condition vs. only 8% in good weather condition).

What seems to happen is that under covered/rainy weather, long-term thinking dominates; people think more rationally and focus more on the positive impact Pro-Sun+ could have on their health (self-preservation). This would typically be the case in a cold emotional state. However, in a “hot” state under the sun, hedonism seems to be the decisive variable in people’s choice, and they make a riskier product choice.

Sunbathing is an enjoyable activity and people are less keen to think about the possible negative consequences of their behavior in the long term.

It seems indulgence also wins against curiosity in this condition. Respondents are significantly more likely to “be the first to try new products” under good weather condition. This should have increased the share of purchase of our new product when the weather is good, but this effect is not seen.

Finally, the part we prefer. 53% of the respondents in the sunny condition declare they are “often exposed to the sun against their will” vs. 24% among respondents in the cloudy/rainy condition. It seems that people know that they are not making a safe choice in the sunny condition, and unconsciously need to reduce this cognitive dissonance.  None of the respondents was forced to be at the lake shore or at the park when interviews were conducted. This significant difference can be interpreted as a dissonance reduction choice; giving us a glimpse of human incredible capacity for post-rationalization!

Similar justifications have also been pointed out in a study on tanning from Sjöberg (2003); “[…] the risk they perceived was, in their view, less tied to their behavior than to their genetics. Hence, the risk was hard to mitigate, in their view. The responsibility for the risk was shifted outside their control, letting them indulge freely in risky behavior.”

When we got started on this study, we thought we’d just “give it a try” and “get some fun”, but it turns out we gathered quite a few cool insights on consumer choice-psychology. We are now obviously very happy with the significance of these first results given the low expectations and the relatively small base size. Thinking about what has worked with this research, there are several explanations.

Play with context in an experimental manner. Much quantitative research is “holistic”, so we test widely different stimuli, and cannot make clean comparisons to find the insights.

Include remote but related variables. Much research simply doesn’t look at the weather or other such factors. However, we see that these factors can have a big impact on consumer choices. The insight is worth considering beyond the special case; monitoring the most important contextual variables may help interpret the data, if not just clean it.

Ask the right questions. If attitudes show such little impact, looking at them to shed light on consumer behaviors is likely to produce only few insights. Variables like mood, risk perception and other existing insights from cognitive psychology and behavioral economics may be much more powerful in explaining consumer behaviors.

The study confirms our beliefs; we need to continue thinking more deeply and systematically about context, metrics, and design research experimentally.

It also gives us practical new insights: next time we go on vacation we’ll be sure to buy our sun-block on a rainy day…

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