Edmund Husserl is a German philosopher that established a line of thinking called Phenomenology. He once staked the claim that "We would be in a nasty position indeed if empirical science were the only kind of science possible." Does this thought process contradict what we do everyday as marketing researchers. I don't believe it does. Here's why.
Recently, I've been spending a lot of time thinking, conducting research on, and writing about the area of meaning and the philosophy of phenomenology as they pertain to market research. If you don't know what I'm referring to, Stanford defines phenomenology as "The study of structures of experience, or consciousness. Literally, phenomenology is the study of “phenomena,” (the) appearances of things, or things as they appear in our experience, or the ways we experience things, thus the meanings things have in our experience..." It refers to the notion that any object, brand, product, company, purchasable item, etc. has two meanings, the denotative meaning (or the verbal word that refers to the object, for instance boy refers to young male and girl refers to young female) and the connotative meaning (or the actual experience of what it means to be a boy or a girl). Phenomenology and the study of meaning evaluate the connotative value of objects that make the object what it is. It is about studying the meaning of the object that defines the brand or product, the experience of the brand or product, and not simply how it is defined denotatively.
As market researchers, we've long operated on the thesis that people (consumers) make decisions based on empirical logic and reason. We attempt to outline, define, and measure this specific decision making process in a way that can be controlled and that leads to very specific outcomes (purchases). It's been our theory that if we measure and understand the logical categories of purchase, then we can control the categorical elements that lead to the purchase itself. This is a very true statement and we do it all the time, however, I'd assert that there's more to it than that. To improve our market research, we must understand the phenomena of the product or the experience of the brand itself. Here's a brief example:
I recently bought a used Mac computer. Simple logic would suggest that I SHOULD have purchased a PC that ran a different operating system, had better specs, was brand new, and cost the same to purchase. It's important to note that my purchase was NOT logic based, but emotion based, and I'm very happy with my purchase. Since the purchase, however, I've often found myself couching the purchase as a logical decision. When I've been asked "why" I purchased a used Mac instead of a more rational brand-new PC, I've developed logical constructs to explain my rational decision making process, each of which was developed after the initial point of purchase.
I believe that there's an increased need to study the phenomena of the purchase, brand, or customer experience and cross that information by our traditional metrics, rather than simply measure the quantitative stepping points that lead to the experience. What does it mean to be a Mac user and is that different than my post purchase logical explanation? What were the key emotional, phenomenological, and meaningful characteristics that lead to my purchase and can those social constructs be replicated in a way that increase more predictable outcomes?
Phenomenology studies the meaning and characteristics that drive an experience or "the experience"...which is more than just a single behavior (purchase). You've heard the saying, "You are what you eat." I believe that "you eat what you are." As a consumer, you surround yourself with products, brands, and experiences that explain or define "who" you are as a seeing, feeling, experiential "person" rather than vice/versa. If market research can get closer to the phenomenological understanding of emotion, brand, product, company, etc. consumers will value products more, have products that suit their needs better, which will all lead to increased brand success.