PAUL HOLMES: Consumer surveys are often not the truest indicators of how the buying public will act

There has to be a better way of predicting how people will behave than simply asking them.

There has to be a better way of predicting how people will behave than simply asking them.

That thought comes to mind after reading through a piece of research that was conducted by RoperASW, which purports to show that US brands are in trouble because of rising anti-Americanism. For the past five years, Roper has been producing a report for corporate clients based on hour-long interviews with 30,000 consumers in 30 major markets around the world. The interviews are designed to measure what Roper calls "brand power." This year's survey found that nine of the top 10 US brands saw their brand power decrease. The companies falling from favor, which included McDonald's, Disney, and even Microsoft - suffered a decline in brand power for the first time since the survey began. At the same time, the survey showed brand-power gains for the largest non-US brands. Several experts called to comment on the brand-power survey drew the obvious connection between overseas perceptions of US foreign policy - unilateralist, arrogant, imposing its will on the rest of the world through might rather than reason - and consumer perceptions of American brands. Unfortunately, halfway through a story in the UK newspaper The Independent, reality rears its ugly head. Nike suffered a decline in brand power across Europe, with 29% of German consumers telling the researchers that they regularly use Nike products, down from 49% the previous year. Yet, Nike reports that in reality its revenues from Europe were up 24% from March to May of this year. It seems some consumers are using the Roper survey as an opportunity to vent their frustration at the US without having to make any actual sacrifice - like giving up their Nikes or their Big Macs. There's nothing particularly surprising about this. We've all seen surveys showing that 75% of Americans would buy products that were environmentally friendlier than those currently on the market, or that 80% would buy products that donate a portion of their sales to charity. And we all know those survey numbers are exaggerated, as they reflect what people like to believe they would do, rather than the way they really behave. Of course, it's possible that the Roper survey is a leading indicator, and that people actually will begin to turn away from US products. It's also possible that the survey exaggerates a real trend, and that one or two percent of respondents will actually follow through on their threats. But if we expect these surveys to be taken seriously, we need to present their findings a little more skeptically, and find some way to predict behavior based on their stated intent.
  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 16 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of

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