This scenario may be all too familiar for some of you.

You win a quant study. It is even one of those rare ones where the objectives are crystal clear and the metrics to be measured are well defined. Everyone is on the same page. You spend at least a week writing the questionnaire and then another week in field. You get the data back, you chart it, and present to the client. And then this question undoubtedly comes up: OK, so we were able to measure all these things, but how do we know if these numbers are good or bad?

Perfecting measurement tools is not the sole job of a researcher

I think that market researchers and their clients spend so much time perfecting the measurement tools to determine what something is (for example, what is the unaided awareness of our brand?), that they forget to pay attention to the question of what something ought to be (what should the unaided awareness of our brand be?). The latter is undoubtedly more difficult to answer and lends itself to more scrutiny, but it is ultimately what will drive real action.

Just because something is a certain way, it doesn’t mean that it ought to be

The Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) defined this as the “Is-Ought problem” in his Treatise of Human Nature: it is not obvious to infer what something ought to be from what it currently is. He actually urged caution against people who argued that there was a logical connection between the two. In other words, just because something is a certain way, it doesn’t mean that it ought to be that way. As a market researcher, I couldn’t agree more.

Remind clients they have the power to impact what they set out to measure

The ability to measure anything (awareness, consideration, opinion, satisfaction – anything at all) is merely the beginning. It should not be the ultimate goal of any research study. I like to bring up David Hume’s Is-Ought problem in conversations with clients to remind them that they can actually impact the metrics they are setting out to measure. They have the power to determine what ought to be, and should not get so stuck on what currently is.

It may be a difficult conversation, but it will lead to more meaning

Here is a simple way to start a similar conversation with your client: We know consumers have certain perceptions of your brand. But consumers don’t know everything and can even be flat-out wrong. According to your vision for the brand, what ought their perceptions be? And why? Your client may not know immediately, and in some instances it may be nearly impossible to pinpoint, but it’s a start. The first step towards having more meaningful, and eventually enjoyable, conversations about the data you put in front of your clients.

A recent case in snacking: don’t take “No, thank you” for an answer

We recently conducted a multi-phase positioning research for a new brand entering the snacks category. They were planning the launch of a new snack with an alternative source of protein – one that is more nutritious but that may not sound so palatable at first. The very first round of research resulted in extremely harsh feedback from consumers – a very discouraging is for our client, some of which were burying their face in their hands.

This forced the hard question: why on earth ought consumers think any differently? What reasons have we given them to buy into this product the way we believe they ought to? After a long pause, ideas started coming up. More inviting product positionings arose. The is was no longer the main focus; it was just a stepping stone in the journey towards a more precise and clearer brand vision that ultimately resonated more with consumers.

We have all the tools to measure the is. And the ability to do so will only get faster, cheaper, and more automated. Invite your clients to have the harder conversation. Challenge them to spend more time thinking about the more meaningful ought. Tell them David Hume sent you.

Tal Oren is Talk Shoppe’s Research Director and resident philosopher. He’s constantly thinking of big picture, world-bending theories that help take our research insights to the next level.