November 5, 2019

The Illusion of Knowledge

Credit where credit’s due… I love @Insight Traction’sblogs!  They tell it how it is withrefreshing clarity… and, this week’s efforts struck a particular chord with me asI’d been brewing up for a mini article on a similar topic for some time.

In this week’s blog, The Illusion of Knowledge, the Insight Traction team quote Stephen Hawking: “the greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge”.  And, this is something that bothers me greatly, particularly  in an age when (sometimes ill-conceived) DIY research and budget cuts mean that there’s an increasing ‘something is better than nothing’ culture developing when it comes to insight generation.  In fact, I often contest that nothing is better than something… if all that the ‘something’ creates is the illusion of knowledge, that may in fact lead us down the wrong path completely.

Of course, a quick qual dip, a small piece of ethnography, a simple survey or whatever else might suit is sometimes all that’s needed to confirm or dispel a hypothesis, or to answer a fairly straight-forward question.  But there are times when short-cuts don’t work… and here’s a really simple example:

I’ve had it suggested to me several times that simply analysing shopping lists can tell us the degree to which shoppers have planned their shopping before visiting a grocery store; no need to talk to anyone in fact, just get them to send you photos of their shopping lists. The assumption being that if someone’s just written ‘bread’, for example – they haven’t decided how much, what type, which brand, or indeed anything else before arriving in the bakery section.  And, if most people just write ‘bread’ – then we can deduce that it’s all to play for at the POP, and all sorts of implications emerge.  Brand visibility and saliency in store becomes extremely important… huge sums of money can be spent on in store activations that anchor the decision to your brand before other brands get a look in;  challenger brands may decide to promote heavily to drive in store consideration, and so on.  

But, is it really a valid assumption to make? Can we really infer that something isn’t planned down to the nth  degree of detail just because it’s not been scribbled on the back of an envelope?  The answer is emphatically, no - we can’t!  And, here are some shopper comments that powerfully illustrate the illusion:

“I only ever write bread… but then again, we only ever buy Hovis Wholemeal… so what’s the point in writing all that down… when we say bread in our house, we mean Hovis”

No amount of challenger brand promotion or secondary siting will sway this shopper… and if most shoppers are indeed similarly brand loyal, all the challenger brand promotion will deliver is a reduction in margin gained from sales that would probably have occurred anyway.  And as for the ROI on the secondary sitings…

Another example… this time in a seasonal category:

“I always buy the same one, but I can never remember what it’s called – I just recognize it when I see it”

No chance of the brand appearing on the shopping list there… but the purchase plan is in fact meticulously formed.  And let’s imagine that most shoppers were to operate in a similar fashion, then the most important action in this category would be to protect distinctive brand assets on pack, and secure salient shelf position...  not just promote the hell out of your brand in the hope of influencing choice at POP.

As I said… a simple example to make a point:  a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing… the illusion of knowledge can be even more dangerous!

Of course, the harsh reality is that insight budgets are coming under increasing pressure, so it’s understandable that corners are sometimes cut in the quest for knowledge.  But I would contend that spending relatively small sums on research that isn’t fit for purpose is a waste of resource… nothing is gained if all that’s created is an illusion that could very well lead to costly mistakes.

Quite clearly, it’s incumbent on all of us in the insight profession to continue looking for leaner, more agile ways to access insights… but we must do this in a way that doesn’t challenge the integrity of those insights.  And, if insight budgets were more often considered in the context of the overall business objective – then perhaps it would be easier to justify spending a little more in order to avoid the trap of illusion:  a donkey has four legs and can gallop, but if you want to get rich by winning the Grand National, you’re better off spending more money up front on a horse!

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