Segmentation studies can offer vital insight, says Bryan Urbick - but only if they allow for the complexity of human nature

Human beings are not constant things - they change their mood, desires and feelings in response to a host of external factors.

This makes researching what consumers want a complex procedure, and one that is often oversimplified. For example, segmentation studies such a potentially wealthy source of powerful insights are regularly taken as a two-dimensional view of the consumer when they can (and should) offer three-dimensional thinking.

Segmentation studies seem to be all the rage these days. Many of our clients are conducting their own, which is all well and good. However, there is a real risk of forgetting the limitations this type of research has. We found out the hard way, but in so doing learned a valuable lesson.

During a particularly complex fmcg research project, we found our participants appeared to be changing their initial answers at the re-screening stage. In fact, we found that approximately one third of our participants had switched segments when re-questioned. And then it dawned on us each participant was being truthful, but they were also being 'in the moment'. In other words, they were being true to their attitude at the time of being questioned. For example, even the most staunchly health-conscious individual may buy a chocolate bar when in a 'treating mode'.

We humans have more than one 'mode' in which we operate and each of these modes is likely to change our attitudes to certain questions. Segmentations are only part of the story and if used out of context, are likely to strangle the truth rather than offer any true insight.

Brand managers need to understand that any time we question people, we are exploring a snapshot of a specific moment.

A consumer insight has to be able to stand in the context of consumer lives, which are more complex than a segmentation model permits. To presuppose that we are two-dimensional creatures is hugely problematic and misleading. Taking segmentation to the next, more insightful, level can unleash a powerful understanding that will benefit our projects and brands.

Bryan Urbick is CEO of the Consumer Knowledge Centre.