Measuring the boring stuff.

For years it has seemed to me that market researchers (and our clients) have been a bit too obsessed with the “glamorous” kinds of research: TVC testing, ad campaign tracking, measuring the “emotive” and lifestyle aspects of marketing. All useful stuff of course, but it felt like MR and ad budgets were biased against researching more mundane aspects of how people routinely interact with products and services, or evaluating unexplored opportunities for different marketing approaches.

Part of this feeling comes from work I’ve done on consumer-decision making around the world. This seems to indicate that, across many societies, quite trivial behaviours and influences are often key to driving brand and category choice. Pack design, for instance, can count for more than topline advertising in building some brands. Lately, of course, the rise of retailer power and the impact of the recession has led clients to get more interested in issues of understanding in-store behaviour and consumer “touch-points” generally.

Yet I think a lot is still be done. Marketing tools are becoming more diverse and while online and “interactive” mechanisms are expanding, there is also a growth in grass-roots and niched forms of direct marketing and advertising. Stuff you can touch and smell: here’s a good example, the rise of tissue paper advertising in Japan: (Interestingly, by the way, Japanese researchers and clients, are the big exception to my generalisation about researchers spending too much time on the “high-end” stuff — they have always been massively focussed on the seemingly trivial details of their consumers’ lives. Yet it is this very attention to detail that often results in a lot of highly competitive product offerings).

Measuring things like tissue paper ads is a challenge not just for the obvious reasons of recall, but because there are dozens of these types of campaigns and the below-the-line and other influences hardly ever work independently from those of more mainstream media. Their influence is subtle and cumulative.

But this isn’t just a measurement issue, it’s actually more of an analysis issue. It’s possible to design research programmes that  record multiple consumer influences. It’s even possible to do this at a reasonable price point if the client is open to innovative techniques and willing to forgo some traditional (but now less relevant) tracking measures. What’s harder is translating this data into understanding and recommendations. Ideally it requires bright researchers to be given access to multiple data sources (e.g. panel, survey, qualitative, retail measurement – even nuero-science) and to use both brainpower and statistical techniques to bring these together into a framework that shows where the “trivial” influences on consumer decision-making actually matter. My experience is that this sort of holistic focus around digging into and synthesising lots of detail is time consuming, but offers huge ROI in terms of creating genuinely new marketing insights.

It sounds paradoxical but I’d argue that, to serve our clients better, we need to spend more time and brainpower studying the trivial, mundane and boring aspects of consumer behaviour in-depth and from multiple angles. This also suggests that research agencies need more of those old-fashioned “back-room” research analysts who may not be slick salespeople or presenters, but who enjoy getting “down and dirty” with FGD transcripts, or plumbing the depths of retail sales data. The current danger is, with pressure on budgets, that these are precisely the kinds of people that are being “let go”  in many companies!


3 Responses to Measuring the boring stuff.

  1. Alistair Watts says:

    A related issue is the common urge to cast the net too widely. Value for money for some means asking everyone about everything rather than being much more specific in the definition of who to ask, whether defined by age, lifestyle, occupation or whatever and what to ask i.e. covering a smaller range of subjects in much greater detail. The more general approach, akin to dragging a net across the bottom of the ocean, captures many species of fish and types of detritus but too few of any one type to be useful. Research similarly often presents a “key demographic” covering age cohorts of say 10 year intervals e.g. 16-25 year olds within which the extremes at each end of the range have little in common and the average therefore means nothing, often with subject matter so broad that detailed analysis defies even the best attempts.

  2. Alastair Gordon says:

    Absolutely agree — research dollars are often “saved” by use of wide samples, broad analytics and generalised questioning. The result is not “wider” coverage but blander outputs. Better to understand 30% of your market at a depth that yields competitive insights, than to find out the obvious about 100%!

  3. Gary Martin says:

    A well known example but worth repeating from AG Lafley – “When I was working on the Tide brand in the laundry detergent category in the 1980s, every year we would get back the consumer research survey, and it would say women would rate our Tide package excellent on a five-point scale. But when you accompanied them down in their basement where they did laundry, eight out of ten women were taking out a screwdriver, or some other tool, and punching out the perforation on the side of the Tide box because maybe they had a manicure and they were not going to risk breaking a nail opening that Tide package-even though they rated the package excellent! As a result, we changed the package to make it easy to open just by pushing it with the soft side of your thumb and finger.” Apparently Lafley was in the basement at the time. I like that. Just as I like that Brandweek’s Grand Marketer of the Year ’09, Joel Ewanick, VP Marketing at Hyundai America (previously a Planner) was moderating the focus group that led to the so successful Hyundai Assurance Plan. There’s more good stuff on Lafley on
    A question – is “trivial behaviour” that’s key to driving brand and category choice, trivial? Of course not. And what about spending time and brainpower studying it? Invest in it, and make it worth investing in.

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