If everyone thinks "outside the box," then who is still focused on the important topics inside the box? PRS IN VIVO’s Christian Dössel questions a trend that also has an influence on market research in the article he authored for marktforschung.de.
Where did all this "outside the box” thinking actually start? Whether you attribute it to motivational speaker Mike Vance or the famous “nine-point problem,” it all comes down to the famous “box,” which is certainly worth re-examining. This concept goes hand in hand with the desperate search for new ideas, and above all, how to come up with them. When it comes to market research, this thinking can apply to a variety of aspects involved in methodology, execution, and results, depending on the definition of the “box.” At first, it sounds pretty straightforward; you immediately think you know what “outside the box” means.
One problem with thinking “outside the box” is the definition of the box itself, since what we think of as being “inside the box” strongly shapes what we perceive as "outside the box.” In other words, abandoning the limitations of one kind of thinking and questioning existing assumptions is not possible without first establishing the kind of thinking that you want to transcend. There are reasons why certain ideas were never present before. For example, if someone tells you not to think about a black cat, you can’t help but immediately think about one, even if you should think outside the “box,” which is, in this case, the “cat”... Thus, “outside the box thinking" is more of a visual guide/metaphor than a coachable and consultable practice.
The Rise of “Outside the Box” Leads to the Renaissance of “Inside the Box”
The main problem with "outside the box thinking” is that the further outside the “box” you think, the bigger the “box” becomes. Let's assume that the first “outside the box thinking” regarding a particular topic produced disruptive ideas with game-changing character. If you revisit that topic one or two years later in hope of generating new ideas, those ideas are automatically included in the definition of the “box.” Accordingly, you have to think “further out,” This inevitably causes the characteristics “inside the box” to become convoluted- their complexity and breadth is no longer manageable.
At a certain point, if you try to think so far “outside the box” that you no longer recall or perceive much of what was originally “inside the box,” then the forgotten inevitably becomes the outside of the box, and the "inside" becomes the new "outside.”
What does this have to do with market research?
Good question! A whole lot, actually…
In categories and markets where demand is declining, suppliers must work on new ideas in order to remain relevant, and this concept certainly applies to market research as well. Those in the market research field have tried to use "outside the box” thinking when it comes to strategies and methodology to uncover consumer insights, and it’s clear how the definition of the “box” controlled thinking here:
- Does standardization and automatization help us to make everything faster? Yes, we know this.
- Do we want to search for study results and survey data at a fingertip, in a time efficient and user-friendly manner? Check.
- Are we trying to merge third party data with survey data? Sure, we have seen a bit of this.
Interestingly, one thing becomes clear after looking at these examples. None of these "outside the box" approaches have gone beyond “survey esearch” . However, the next wave of “outside the box” thinking includes these questions in and takes a different approach…
Why not, for example, use historical databases with test results, artificial intelligence and human expertise to develop a predictive model for the prospects of success of a packaging design? Without any additional survey research? This works, too.
We already have instant data, but instant insights will never exist
As natural and necessary as the pursuit of “outside the box” ideas is in the field of market research, it is still critical to revisit and establish a definition of the “box” as a frame of reference. But what if the “box” to think about is not the one most people would think of first, comprised of traditional research strategies and what has already been done before? What if “inside the box” means “in-context”?
In the difficult quest for better research techniques, the "inside" has become the new "outside" (related to the box of course). One issue is the lack of tools and strategies to incorporate context. Perhaps it used to be the case that the consideration of context, in which we observe a certain experience or behavior, was part of the definition of the first “box” for market research, but was omitted some time ago in order to research faster and more flexibly - "outside the box," so to speak. This certainly could have been the case with the invention of online research, in which context was decoupled from the survey situation.
We see this in the next stage of the market research standardization and automation wave as well, where context is completely ignored and technology-fixed efficiency gains come first.
When we eventually talk about "outside the box" for market research again, I wouldn't be surprised if the context of decision making and behavior should be taken into account in order to really get “out of the box.”
All ethnographers, qualitaitve experts, and behavioral scientists are probably smiling right now because they know that no real, reliable insights can be gained without context, and that one critical concept that behavioral science has taught us is that consumer choices are not made in a vacuum. As world-renowned behavioral economist, Dan Ariely, famously stated, “Most people don’t know what they want unless they see it in context.” People are guided by different factors and make decisions based on emotion and unconscious associations, all influenced by the context in which they encounter them. Therefore, any research methodology needs to give consumers context in which to consider products, concepts, and brand communication.
It's all about generating consumer insight to point the way to better business success, not using technology just for the sake of technology to appear more innovative. When evaluating and selecting technology, it’s important to first consider its ability to map context, which plays such a significant role (VR’s capabilities in this area are still being explored and validated).
I think we need to continue to monitor, document, and merge behavior with proven technology to capture and measure behavioral drivers, and none of this can be done without context. The next time we hear a simple, "go, think outside the box," from our bosses and clients, let’s take a breath, and remember the most important cornerstone of the market research “box”: that reliable, valuable consumer insights cannot be achieved without providing context that creates authentic experiences.
Christian Dössel works as Senior Research Director for PRS IN VIVO in Hamburg, Germany. In his 20 years of market research experience, he has come into contact with organizations of all sizes, business orientations and cultures. He co-organizes the Research Plus event in Hamburg and co-founded mafolution.de, an online offering that aims to promote digital professional exchange within the industry, and is a frequent contributor to the German marketing and research press.