Understanding customers, cost or asset?

April 26, 2012

Ask a bunch of business people and they will all go on of the importance of consumer insight, of putting the customer at the heart of your organisation, of getting close to the customer or any other similarly clever sort of phrase. 

It is one of those things we accept as being rather important and the sort of thing that is just the way businesses have to be these days.  Or do we really?

I was reminded by a tweet earlier today that as people get promoted in organisations they usually get moved further away from their customers, and thus have a lower chance of understanding their customers at first-hand.

It has been said that marketing is too important to be left solely to the marketing department.  I’d suggest the same was true about insight or market research.  Not only that, but it is too important to be seen as it is in many organisations as a ‘nice to have’ or just a cost to the business. 

I once knew of a business where conducting some research to understand how your customers perceived your service was seen as a little vanity project for the marketing team.  But they weren’t doing it because they hoped to get a free lunch from the research agency; they were doing it to give some hard facts and figures to the business and to support a corporate tag line that was about being the best.  As soon as things got tough for that business they took a knife to the research budget and they had no empirical data to back up any claims.  The senior management team saw market research as a ‘nice to have’ and not as a ‘need to have’.  To them it was really a cost and not an asset.  Sound familiar?

They had not made the connection that by cutting back on research they were getting further away from understanding their customers despite the fact that they would still have chanted in unison in any strategic workshop session the mantra ‘we need to get closer to our customers’.

In the current climate it seems that saying it and actually doing it may be harder than ever. The research budget does appear to be back on the chopping block.  Ever the easy thing to remove, I’m sure many a conversation has been had along the lines of “why conduct research every year when every other year will probably do?” 

Ironically in these times when trends move ever faster and fashions change ever quicker is it not more important than ever to understand how your market, your sector, your competition or your consumers’ needs are changing?  Arguably the demand should be for more insight, not less, for increasing budgets not cutting them.

So next time you hear someone trotting out those phrases about understanding the customer, find out what they have actually done about it.  Have they really seen insight as an asset to their business or did they really just see it as a ‘nice to have’ that quite frankly they just don’t really see the value of.

The rise of do it yourself – a good thing?

April 4, 2012

There was a time when as a brand manager/ marketing manager etc you surrounded yourself with the right mix of skills. Often this involved paying other people who were experts in their particular field to do the stuff that you couldn’t do.  These people worked for companies who did things like design things, draw things or write things. (Clue: You knew it’s what they did because they tended to work for businesses with wacky names or ones with three or four surnames thrown together, and they all seemed to have been to better universities than you).

They in turn might hire other people to do things like storyboard, script and film stuff for a TV commercial.  (Clue: You recognised these other people because they seemed to wear clothes that you didn’t think were suitable for wearing during the week). Somehow it seemed to make sense.

But then things changed a bit. You didn’t need to spend money on people to do all of that sort of stuff. You could do some of it yourself.  There were computer programs that meant you could type your own brochures, why you could even use other programs to design things like maybe a logo, after all how hard can it be?

Then other people came along and invented other things that you could use to do your own research.

So what is the role of the brand manager /marketing manager in this day and age? And is all this do it yourself thinking really that smart?

Nowadays it seems (particularly to reduce costs) you can do a lot of things yourself. Of course you write your own annual brand plan, and you even type it yourself! You go out and observe some of your consumers in real life and also compare and contrast your competitors’ products or service offerings.  But you might also be tempted to do a bit of your own research using a cheap web application, after all how hard is it to write questionnaire, format it and then email it out to your own database?  The next bit gets a bit boring though. You have to analyse the responses, and then really you should compare the results somehow either to a previous study or make some other meaningful comparisons. Only you don’t, because that’s not what you do and it’s not what you should do.

I’d probably use the example of the orchestra and the conductor. It may not be the best example but let’s go with it all the same. You see in the orchestra my belief is that the conductor sort of keeps it all together.  He or she ‘orchestrates’ a group of other people with their own skill sets and as a result creates something wonderful.  But the conductor even if he/she is really good on the violin doesn’t take the solo spot. If he/she is rather brilliant on the trumpet doesn’t take over when the trumpet gets its solo spot and even if they are a wiz on the timpani doesn’t hog the limelight for the percussion solo.  They use other people to do the bits they are good at and the really smart conductor probably also recognises their own limitations.

Just because you have a camera built into your phone doesn’t mean that you should shoot your own brochure. Just because you have a camcorder in your phone doesn’t mean you should produce your own commercial. Just because you found a cheap app on the net doesn’t mean you should do your own research.

Remember, you are the conductor, so conduct.  Do not try to play every part as well.

Don’t just do it

July 30, 2010

I read with interest in Retail Week a piece on B&Q and how they had embraced the internet for their on line research.

Using their own social media application ‘B&Q Voice’ they had generated their own panel of 80,000 customers which had allowed them to generate 2-way dialogue with their shoppers in the form of both quant surveys and through focus groups.

It is encouraging to see the research aspects of on line communities being made use of in addition to the ‘one to many’ broadcasting which seems to be the norm from many retailers.

The Power of Facebook

December 21, 2009

Anybody who had any doubt of the power of marketing on Facebook has had an object lesson this week from a couple from Essex. Jon and Tracy Morter successfully campaigned using only a single medium, gathering nearly half a million fans on their Facebook page. Taking a song originally released 17 years ago and beating the 4-month long marketing campaign driven single from Joe McElderry shows the real power of reaching people. Taken in conjunction with the fact that this campaign was only one week long, and had no budget at all the results are truly remarkable.

This may now mark a true shift in UK businesses perceptions about online and social media. As we’ve already said in other blogs, more and more companies are using social media to reach and understand their customers. This is what research has always been designed to do, but the advantage of social media is that it enables the possibility of personalised two-way feedback between a brand and their customers. 2010 will be a year that using social media will become a mainstream business strategy, with more brands realising the huge potential that platforms such as Facebook and Twitter bring.

Focus Groups Briefing

July 29, 2009

The brief is the cornerstone of all research. It need not be a lengthy piece of work but there should be a written document to ensure that everyone is clear what they are expecting from the work. Whilst not comprehensive, the following ‘headlines’ should be considered, and like this post proves the brief really can be short and sweet!

1) Purpose of the research: Why is the research being considered in the first place? What hypothese do you have about your business? What questions are you hoping to get answered? Think here about who exactly will want to get access to the information provides and ultimate give consideration to just how the results are to be used in the organisation?

2) Objectives: Map out the specific topics that need to be covered, in short you need to be clear on just what it is you want to find out?

3) Target group profiles: Ideally as tightly defined as possible, with some thought to where these people might be found. One challenge we are sometimes faced with is that of wanting to find non-users. Non-users of a new or a niche brand may be very easy to find, and as such they may represent a potentially large segment to target. However we’re sometime asked by shopping centres to find non-users of their scheme. Bearing in mind that the centre itself may have existed for many years, and may potentially dominate the town centre the chance of finding non-users i.e. never users may be the equivalent of looking the needle in the haystack so perhaps you can focus on lapsed users – those that have been but have made a decision not to return – an incredible source of rich material on the areas your business may need to focus. Especially in these challenging times where sales are all important – every person in a focus group (no matter what they look or sound like) that has an opinion based on their experience has a valid and important insight into the performance of your brand and may be more helpful than you think.

4) Required feedback: How do you want or need the information, for instance this can be a ‘book of the film’ approach, more of a presentation format, an executive summary report, the full blow by blow transcript of the focus group or a video of the groups from start to end

5) Timing: Not forgetting of course to be clear just when feedback is actually needed!

So there it is. Not too hard after all.

Qualitative Research Venues

April 25, 2009

We are often asked “where is the best place to hold Focus Groups?”  This is actually quite straightforward.   Here are some tips.

  1. Brand image: As the identity of the client or business under study may be announced it is important that the location used is somewhere which reflects the status of the brand. 
  2. Easy access: This means that a location should be chosen with good public transport links and with nearby parking.
  3. The basics: The room should be big enough to accommodate your respondents and you sitting comfortably in a circle with some additional sits for observers ‘at the back’, have some natural light, be at a comfortable temperature for up to 15 people (not have a noisy air conditioning or heating unit to disrupt the voice recording) , be totally quiet and closed off from any people wandering in or past,  and tea/coffee/water (but not alcohol) should be available.  Having a separate area to meet and greet the respondents so they can gather until all our present is really helpful.
  4. Beware cheap alternatives: Be aware that the brand owner’s own premises may not be ideal, for instance with shopping centre research attendees are less likely to be critical of their experience if groups take place actually in the centre’s management suite.
  5. Rented rooms: Most branded hotel chains offer more than adequate facilities for the purposes of holding Focus Groups.  Again the savings to be made in ‘no cost’ alternatives are usually false savings if the facilities are inappropriate (see point 3) since the cost of the venue tends to be less than 10% of the total project cost.
  6. Filming: One final point, if clients wish the groups to be filmed they should ideally be held in bespoke studios which are available around the country. These locations are usually fitted with two-way mirrors and an observation room.  If a viewing facility is not available filming can be arranged through a freelance professional service.

Focus Group Respondents

April 25, 2009

Another question we get asked is how do you determine who to recruit for your Focus Groups? Essentially we will aim to recruit to a given specification which is likely to be defined by criteria such as age, gender, or life stage, but can also be determined by attitudes, values or behaviour.  Where a clear recruitment brief is available that is one thing, but I’ve also been faced with the comment “I want to appeal to everyone from 18 to 80.” It’s a nice concept but essentially flawed, as far as Focus Group research is concerned, unless you are able to stretch your budget to cover all these groups.  Our approach is that in qualitative research we are aiming to talk to a small group who between them may help us uncover those issues relevant to a particular demographic, in other words each group’s composition should be of ‘like-minded’ individuals to maintain relevance. 


So it is important that we recruit along certain lines.  A too tightly-defined group, for example ABC1 current users, aged 28, non-working mums and married with 3 children, might be feasible to recruit given enough time and money but is almost certainly one extreme.  At the other end of the scale a group spec of ‘Female shoppers aged 18 to 44 years’ is probably too wide, since the 18 years olds are more likely to be living at with their parents, or possibly students, and the forty-somethings may well have children if not grandchildren of their own.  This means that they will have quite different perspectives on most issues, including your brand or market.  Mixing genders is also something that we try to avoid.  For example, combining young male pub drinkers and young female pub goers in a group could be a complete waste of time and money as each potentially is oppressed by the others expression of their differing motivations and needs from a pub. Female shoppers also have particular views on shopping which males frequently do not begin to comprehend and mixing them is not at all advisable.


The key issues to consider when creating groups, therefore, are:-


  1. Gender: the ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’ cliché is true in most markets.
  2. Age/life-stage: Pre-family respondents probably don’t have any interest in nappies, and many retired have no need for a mortgage!
  3. Social class: Although this has fallen out of fashion it is still in vogue in the popular press and a number of brand owners still target using social grade or class.
  4. Income: students, unless they are independently wealthy, are probably not in the market for Ferraris and many of the better off are not likely to be motivated by a lot of promotional offers.
  5. Usage/behaviour: This is possibly the most important issue when?, how often? and have they ever used your brand? – if recruiting for ‘regular’ users what is your definition of ‘regular’? Lest not forget the all important lapsed user or the non user group where it is vital to ensure they fit your criteria of ‘non’ or ‘lapsed’ customers.
  6. Values, beliefs and motivations: These are the deep-seated drivers that influence behaviour, and that help to explain the reasons behind the behaviours that take place.