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Consumer intention versus action

Polls are tricky things, as the unpredicted swathe of referendum and election results seen in the UK over the last five years has shown. The process contains an inherent glitch in that people do not always do what they say they will do – especially if they perceive that that their opinion is likely to be unpopular. Hence the ‘shock results’ for both winners and losers in UK politics over this decade.

Which is not to say, of course, that a section of the population is composed of compulsive liars. Often they are voicing genuine intentions, founded on arguments they believe and can justify to themselves. But there are many factors residing in the gulf what people say and that they do, making the prediction game a chancy one.

The gap between intention and action doesn’t just cause problems for political pollsters. Those in the business of reputation analysis also rely on trend data based on what people say they will, or do, do. So it is incumbent on those purporting to give an accurate representation of how an organisation’s reputation is faring to factor in the rogue element. In effect, normalising the likelihood that some people will say one thing and do another.

And it appears to be a growing phenomenon, most obviously among consumers; perhaps because consumers have access to more information about the companies they buy from, greater awareness of marketing ploys covering corporate actions, and – maybe – better understanding of what makes the ‘right’ choice. Research shows that millennials in particular cite purpose and company ethics as the main reason they choose to do business with a company or buy its products. But with so much information telling people how to behave well, creating an impossible number of worthy intentions, that failure in some areas is inevitable.

The Amazon Antitrust Paradox is a stark example: while they may flinch at the idea of allowing one company so much information about their habits, finance and purchasing preferences; might deride its poor employment practices; and be theoretically outraged at the decimation of competition, they can’t resist a good deal, delivered to the location of their choosing, within hours. Amazon’s willingness to forgo profits to secure customer loyalty, and data, has carved out an almost unassailable position in consumers’ lives, making it near-impossible for even the most conscientious shopper to shun.

Environmental concern is another area where the intention-action conflict is apparent. Consumers may insist that their behaviours are affected by certain factors, sustainability, waste reduction, animal welfare, but when it comes to actually putting up the money, cost and convenience – as well as inertia caused by feeling that it is too late to make a difference – tend to win out. Known as the value-action gap in environmental geography, studies have reported the failure of environmental engagement to keep pace with rising global environmental concern.

Those who fall short in their intentions shouldn’t be judged too harshly, however: ability is a stepping-stone in the rift between intention and action. Consumers may wish to live plastic-free lives, dine on organic, vegan produce, and steer clear of any company with questionable ethics, but they are not always in a position to do so. Intentions held now may not be realised until they are matched by ability – or until the effects of not acting upon them become apparent.

Viewed across the intention-action gap, informed reputational analysis becomes even more valuable. When organisations can’t believe what all the people say all of the time, analysis of trend data which shows how often people fail in their intentions is essential. Factoring in the falsehoods gives far more accurate results than taking the research as read. Just ask the pollsters.

Alastair Pickering, Co-founder and Chief Strategy Officer at alva

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