Why would a market researcher tell you not to commission market research?


We all know Lord Leverhulme’s pronouncement that ‘Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted, and the problem is I do not know which half’.  You might expect me to suggest that the good Lord would have known ‘which half’ if he’d commissioned more market research.  However, not only do I think that unlikely, I think he could have gone on to say ‘and the problem with market research is that more than half of all the money I spend  is wasted.’

There are many good reasons for not doing market research and it quite literally pays to be aware of them.  However, in this post I’m not even going to touch on some of the bigger reasons (such as the fact that most quantitative pre-testing is measuring the wrong things in the wrong way).  Instead, I’ll just pick three that I have encountered in the last 12 months of my work was a qualitative researcher.

In each case, my clients could have spent a pot of money commissioning original research, but instead they applied some good thinking to get the answers they needed at a fraction of the cost. So, here are 3 good reasons not to commission research.

REASON 1:  You already know the answer… 

… it’s just that you don’t know you know.  As Donald Rumsfeld nearly said, this is about the ‘unknown knowns’.  In a marketing and communications world where the average time executives spend working for any one company is less than three years, it is unsurprising that few have any idea about most of the ad hoc market research that has been commissioned by their organisation.  I suspect that the vast majority of research debriefs, particularly qualitative ones, enjoy just a few days in the sun before they are put out to grass in the backwaters of an insight manager’s hard drive.

Yet many of the questions about which brand teams commission research will already have been answered in previous projects.  Most businesses conduct brand equity or market studies periodically and, in most markets, not much will have changed in the space of 3 or 4 years.

But it’s not just such ‘state of the nation’ pieces from a few years back that still have value.  Strategic development projects looking at new positioning concepts provide contextual learnings about consumer attitudes, behaviour and motivations that transcend the specific study to remain highly relevant in the years that follow.

Even creative development projects, which one might think are only of value in relation to the specific ideas researched, almost invariably contain insights and observations that go beyond the creative work and are applicable more broadly to brands, consumers and communications.

In most organisations, all this valuable learning just sits there, forgotten and neglected.  It is remarkable how few businesses have have an efficiently searchable database of ‘historic’ (ie: anything from last week backwards) research that can be mined for insights of value today.  It’s also notable that few have any form of protocol to ensure that a search of the findings from previous projects is the default first step before anyone is allowed to write a research brief.

There is, however, one person who often does have a long-standing relationship with the brand and its research, and who has remained a constant presence as brand and insight managers have come and gone: the researcher.

I have a couple of clients with whom I have worked for 15 years, starting at a time when not one of the present brand or insight team, marketing director included, was a twinkle in the company’s eye.  A researcher with that amount of experience of working on a brand not only knows of previous projects containing learning that could be useful in the present situation, they also have a very good feel for how brands and consumers operate in the market in general – sometimes better than anyone in marketing or insight.

It’s a resource that is rarely tapped.  However, a couple of my long-standing clients have leapt at my suggestion that we put together a document consolidating all the learning from their projects and drawing together some overarching strategic conclusions and recommendations.  In one case, where we consolidated the learning from 19 Movement projects over 6 years, the Head of Insight told me 5 years later that they still referred to the document when debating strategy.  A couple of years ago, I created another bespoke consolidation document for a client to use as a key part of the briefing for their advertising pitch, and I have just heard that this was used last week as a key briefing document for the new marketing director.

And there’s something else.  Not only will your friendly neighbourhood quallie probably know more about some of his clients’ brands than some of his clients, he’ll definitely know a whole lot more about many markets than someone who’s new to them.  A researcher with over over 25 years’ experience of talking to consumers about brands, advertising, packaging, websites and so on will have handled easily over 750 projects in almost every market and with all demographics.  I’ve talked to teenagers about condoms, students about phone packages, mums about diet foods and small business owners about apprenticeships.

Having spent intense periods exploring and thinking about consumer behaviour in specific markets, in real depth, many times, experienced researchers become an extraordinary repository of knowledge and insights just waiting to be tapped.  They won’t give away any trade secrets, of course, but their unusual depth and breadth of knowledge can, for example, give a planner pitching for new business a massive head start in developing a winning strategy. So: plunder your archives before you write a research brief and tap the knowledge resource that is your researcher.

REASON 2:  Your answer is better than the consumer’s 

I’ve written before about the need for more judgment in marketing.  Not prejudice, negativity, or blind optimism, but the intelligent application of experience, knowledge, collateral evidence and anticipation in order to inform decisions, without the need for consumer input.

I had an example of this last year, with a client torn about which sound track to use for their new, finished TV commercial.  The agency had put forward two alternatives and was lobbying hard for one of them, but the client favoured the other.  One track was on-trend, upbeat and hummable; the alternative was more wordy, less polished and slightly left-field. The client decided to resolve the argument by putting the two options into research, to let the consumer decide.  I was uneasy with this, since I don’t see it as the consumer’s role to decide something that, in my view, is a matter of executional judgment.  However, we designed and ran a small online quant test, showing two matched samples the same film but with different soundtracks, in order to establish not just preference but also the different mood and values the two tracks evoked.

Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending on your point of view – the jury was hung.  There were no consistent or significant differences between the consumer response to the two tracks.  So we were back to square one. How could we make a choice?  This brand was attempting to build its contemporary relevance and sense of conviviality.  Surely, the more upbeat, hummable song would therefore be the better choice?

But that somehow didn’t feel right to me.  So, I did some homework, and found out that the artist in question, still in his teens, had a great back story, was releasing his first single the next month and was booked into several of the summer’s best festivals.  So, did the brand want to be ‘where it’s at’, or where it’s going? When I put the issue to my client in those terms, he finally felt able to back his judgment and go with his preference rather than the agency’s recommendation.

So, the ad ran with the less hummable, more quirky track. It performed beyond expectations and within months the brand looked super smart in foreseeing the potential of a young new artist who was now on everyone’s lips.

So… if your judgement is based on asking yourself the right questions, you may not need research.

REASON 3: You don’t yet know the question 

Twice in the last year I’ve been to the briefing meeting for a project and found myself advising my client against proceeding with the research.

In one case, it became clear that answering the objectives would only brush the surface of the much more profound issue that the brand faced.  The research could not provide the guidance sought by the client until some much deeper strategic thought had been applied to the fundamental issue and some concepts created that genuinely addressed the real challenge the brand faced.

In the briefing for the other project, the discussion with the agency and client revealed that they were not even aligned on the key strategic objectives for the new campaign – whether it was to drive loyalty or encourage trial.  Basic strategic questions had not been answered and, as a consequence, nobody was even sure whether the creative I was supposed to be researching had been written to the right brief.  There was lot more work to be done before we could even consider talking to our target consumers – whoever they might turn out to be!

These were not easy conversations to have: the implication that people hadn’t been thinking hard enough about what they were trying to achieve hung heavy in the air.  But nobody would have thanked me for going ahead with the research and delivering findings that failed to move the business forward.  However awkward, I really had no choice, even if it meant sacrificing a commission.

It turns out that I needn’t have worried.  Not only have these clients commissioned other projects since, the relationship has in fact strengthened, as a consequence of the trust that was built through recommending against research.  In the case of one of the aborted projects, I even got paid for the time I had spent debating the issues around the project.

So there we have it.  Before commissioning any ad hoc research, it’s worth considering:

  • Do we already have research that could give us the answer, or perhaps a long-term research partner who could point us in the right direction?
  • Is this really a question the consumer should be answering, or could we find the answer by asking ourselves the right questions?
  • Have we identified the issues clearly enough to be sure we are asking the right questions of the research?

Does advocating that these questions be asked make me a turkey voting for Christmas?  Will the phone stop ringing and the briefs stop arriving? Well, if it means that all the projects I handle are asking the right questions to address the right issues, I’m fine with that.  And if it means that insight managers, planners and brand teams begin to tap into the enormous reserve of strategic knowledge and experience possessed by their research partners, it will be to everyone’s benefit.

This entry was posted in Advertising, Brand positioning, Brand strategy, Business management, Communications, Consumer insight, Market research, Marketing, Qualitative research and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Why would a market researcher tell you not to commission market research?

  1. Pingback: Marketers are people too | movementmuse

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