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How to Crack Informal Economies with Consumer Neuroscience

South African Spaza Shop Vector Art

The South African informal economy is a part of our economy that is largely untapped and misunderstood. According to the Economist (2015): The informal trade economy sometimes called the 'greyeconomy' or just informal economy is that part of a country's economy that is neither taxed, nor monitored by any form of government.

Some think of South African townships and informal settlements (T&IS) as economic dead zones. This could not be further from the truth. The informal trade environment has become an important economic sector in the developing world and has been largely overlooked by market research and consumer neuroscience specifically.

According to the World Bank Study on South African Townships, half of South Africa's urban population live in townships and informal settlements. They have over R300 billion worth of spending power and, according to AMPS, the estimated amount spent at informal shops and spazas every year is R50-billion.

So why have so few big brands had success in this market?

Big brands inability to be successful largely stems from the fact that most data about this market tends not to be recorded, so they therefore lack the information needed to understand these consumers.

Consumers living in T&IS, exhibit different consumer behaviour from the 'norm', mostly due to the way they have adapted to living with a monthly household income of less than R6000 ($415.5). These consumers are known as the Survivors.

One way in which their consumer behaviour differs from the textbook definition is in their brand loyalty behaviour. This market are exceedingly brand loyal, but according to the standard definition of a brand loyal customer, they are not.

A brand loyal customer will typically buy a product of the same brand repeatedly. However with Survivors, they will purchase the brand they are loyal to at the beginning of the month (for instance White Star maize meal), when they have enough income, and default to a cheaper brand in the middle of the month. This is not to say they aren't loyal - they are fiercely loyal and brand conscious customers - they just don't always have the means.

Where does consumer neuroscience fit in?

Consumer neuroscience is at current largely concentrated in developed first world countries, where cultural and economic challenges differ considerably from the informal trade economies.

Consumer neuroscience offers a massive advantage in exploring the cross cultural melting pot of the informal trade economies. Language barriers and cultural normative differences are big challenges to traditional survey research, whereas consumer neuroscience offers a more direct means of assessing consumer behaviours, emotions and cognitive processes.

Infrastructure challenges also pose a significant problem in extracting ethnographic and experiential information from consumers within these spaces. Mobile biometrics and eye-tracking offers a quantitative solution with more objective ethnographic data. In addition, these methodologies allow for faster turnaround, reduced sample sizes and scalable research solutions. It bypass the resource barriers needed to perform complex interpretations of ethnographic data which usually emerges from these kinds of informal trade environments.

It would at first appear that applying biometric technologies (eye tracking glasses and biometric wearables) in these environments would pose problems to naturalistic behaviours. This is often not the case; where careful benchmarking and baselining contribute to effective and reliable data outputs.

The informal trade economies are still poorly understood and consumer neuroscience provides an optimal solution (with mobile eye-tracking and biometrics) for marketing executives to better understand the consumer experience and develop communication strategies that work to drive ROI in these spaces.

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