Twitter Updates

Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.

Through a glass darkly – understanding customers through research

Here’s a link to a provocative piece by Jim Carroll, chair of BBH London about how difficult it is for us to reach customers in the moment. And how too often research relies on asking people to remember what they were doing. The answer I believe is that of contextual research. You either need to run an ethnogaphy study and follow people through as they buy and use products. Or you need to take people’s context ‘pulse’ so they record their emotional state at the time and some other basic information,. Spring Research where I work has a product exactly like this. But what brought this post on was not contextual research or mirrors but the idea of using preraphaelite painting (the Lady of Shalott) and the poem by Tennyson as a way of talking about it.  Research has got itself bogged down in the prose business. Earnestly using words to capture customer experience. I was intrigued that Jim Carroll to talk about it opted instead to use art and poetry.

The big news at the moment is Big Data which is going to come and eat us all alive or transform customer understanding (your perspective depends on whether you are a research professional or a buyer) . But there’s a lot more threat to research than big data. Companies buy art (usually to decorate their boardrooms) and they are increasingly investing in content strategies which attract their customers and help them learn more about them. Which might just be entertainment, but could as equally be education or partnership in environmental or social issues.  These are just as useful for understanding human feelings and behaviour as automated tracking of behaviour. I suggest that these are just as much rivals for market research. The received wiskdom is that  they can’t possibly match the ferocity of the researchers direct assault – will you please answer my question?  But like big data it reveals what moves people. What activates people.  Big data doesn’t cover all of that. So expect much more creative interpretation of best seller lists and film reviews. It is popular culture which can also tell us a lot about what people care about and where they choose to spend their time. Some enlightened agencies are starting to follow the culture trail.

In the interview with Stanley Pollitts daughters which I posted before Christmas it turned out that his father was a portrait painter trained by Holman Hunt and the Pollitt family still own a collection of Hunt’s drawings and sketches. Interesting to discover that a father of account planning was a polymath who included preraphaelite art as one of his passsions.

You can read the rest of the Tennyson poem here.

Unilever and sustainability: an HR strategy deployed in corporate comms

On Wednesday I was in Unilever’s Lancaster Place office listening to the CABE 2012 Hugh Kay lecture given by Doug Baillie Unilever’s head of HR. Called Doing well by doing good. Unilever want to double their turnover by 2020 but want to halve their environmental impact over the same period. Mathematicians among you will have worked out that leaves their environmental impact where it is now. Which could also be likened to having your cake and eating it because you’ve managed to eat twice as much for half the calories. Well if they achieve that they will have done very well. The issue is if they don’t achieve the target – will they have stuck to their sustainability target and hacked their environmental impact down to the possible detriment of their growth goals. Or will they reach their target with a breathless apology for creating more environmental carnage than they had anticipated but reducing it by 60% is better than not reducing it by anything at all. Having 2 related but different targets could look like sleight of hand unless there is a clear determination to prioritise one of those goals if a trade-off has to be made.

There were some very interesting questions and responses afterwards. Dr Richard Higginson of Ridley Hall gave a critique afterwards. One of his points was that doing good has to relate to all stakeholders (for which read suppliers) not just customers and the planet. Oh and shareholders.

It was the identity of our speaker which gave the game away. Paul Poulson the chief executive had been due to give the lecture but had been spirited away to the US. So it was for HR to cover for him.  This doing well by doing good approach is classic HR talk. Employees love it – it makes it easier to recruit good people with good intentions.  And it gives the organisation a sense of purpose. They’re not doing bad things to people to make a profit. Doing well by doing good looks as if there are only upsides and no downsides.  I mean how could any reasonable person possibly object to growing the business and educating and civilising all at the same time? There was an interesting point when Doug Baillie mentioned  the mission a century ago for white people to teach the rest of the world good hygiene standards.  Colonial and politically incorrect. But brands have just gone multicultural it is still the same agenda – the brand knows best and the multicultural team dispense wisdom, education, health and a glowing future.  The brand trades not on functional benefits but on deeper  meaning – it has entered religious territory. All faiths would want to endorse this. Actually not all. The Taliban for one and certain fundamentalist Christian groups.   The world is a deeply divided place and not for want of communication.  But because of differences in power and in values.  Governments have ways of dealing with this. Using diplomacy, propaganda and force. As do NGOs. By harnessing public opinion of those who are most powerful.  Corporates will struggle because they have to square the circle – give those who have more of the same and give more to those who have not. With no losers. You can try playing the consensus card but it but you won’t get everyone to agree with you. Not if there isn’t enough to go round and there has to be a rebalancing of power structures.

I applaud Unilever for taking a lead on this one.  But I don’t think its going to work because this is an internal culture exercise turned inside out and pointed at the masses. It sounds great until you have to make a tradeoff. Inside the company you can close divisions and fire people. Outside the company you can propagandise and say please. But you can’t coerce.  I have put this post on the brand safari blog because it seems to me that we have to offer customers something different from what we offer employees. There is a limit to the meanings we can give to products that have to be paid for. 65% of the sustainability impacts are attributable to the way customer use the products. And you can’t fire your customers.  You can only cajole them.

Category talk

Monomania  is a perpetual temptation for brand managers. The belief that people who buy and use my products are loyal to my brand and whose understanding of that product is not only coloured but dominated by their brand experience. It ain’t necessarily so.  And wishing won’t make it so.  Before you can sell a brand you have to have an established category otherwise people really can’t buy from you. People don’t buy brands in the first instance they buy products and the product needs a category. So one of your main challenges should be to look at how the category is performing and how your brand is positioned within it. Not as if it were the only one which is important but so that your product is at an advantage. To do that you need the help of other brands – as I was saying the rest of the category.  Elsewhere I have described this as a peleton – the way that cyclists race in groups competing against each other but bunched together in protection against wind and rain and traffic.  The winner isn’t usually the one in front all day. But the one who has protected their strength using the others as cover.

It also follows that if you want your brand to do well then the better the category is doing the better your brand is likely to perform all things being equal. The rising tide favours all boats.  If you only focus on your narrow advantage you are likely to miss out on this truth which can generate sales. And not at your competitors’ expense.  If you constantly use promotions to shift product volumes through the pipeline and if all your competitors are doing the same, then you will discover that your customers get used to buying on promotion and feel short changed when the product is full price.  So your promotional strategy needs to take into consideration what your competitors are doing as well as yourself. If you are all doing the same thing for tactical advantage it may be a zero sum game.  It is in your interest to build up the category.  Good practice all round makes for happier customers.

Talking last week with Kevin Maclean founder of the research agency Wardle Maclean about alternative forms of research that start with the customer agenda rather than the marketers agenda – one conclusion we came to is that people are usually more comfortable talking about what is new and changing in product categories rather than brands. So why not start with that  and let the conversation take its natural course instead of forcing it down to the brand on whose payroll you are. Perhaps you will learn something entirely different. That isn’t within the remit of your brand at the moment but ought to be.  We are in the process of setting up a research project to explore the area of customer led conversations. If you c ould help or even fund a piece of research to explore this area then do get in touch.

So top tip – make sure you cover off the category. Particularly when talking to customers.Its a natural starting point and it could take you somewhere new.


Use apps and tools used by your customers

Have you any idea how many apps there are in the Apple appstore not to mention the Android one? I’m not going to tell you because it will be out of date as soon as I do. It’s actually very easy to make an app. Which is why so many market research agencies are getting them made. And therein lies the problem. Because an app which is only used for a specialised purpose and not by many people will never be as good as one that people choose because they use it for their own purposes and they find it addictive.  The moral for marketers is that unless what you want to know can’t be found out with a common or garden app you should use what your customers use. Like what I heard you say? Well pinterest and tumblr are useful blogging platforms which have been made to work as apps on mobile forms. They’re great because they privilege pictures and links rather than writing which is perfect for mobile use. You will need to wait for your customers to get home before they pour out their hearts to you in purple prose.

The metaphor of the pinboard is actually the same as the good old fashioned mood board, the difference being that it is the customer who gets to populate the board and put their pinterest where others can see and borrow images.  But there are many others.

Notability allows forwarding and sharing which is why when I go to conferences I find myself taking notes on this at the expense of tweeting – a measure of how it has come to replace typing into a blog on a laptop or for that matter taking notes on a pad – and tweeting at the same time.

I am a fan of Siamack Salari’s Ethos the ethnographic app. And one reason I trust it is because he’s taken ages putting it together and he sells the app to people who have no interest in ethnography but like the ease of being able to share videos, photos, audio entries and text all with keyboards with a network of friends.

I don’t want to get stuck on apps though. Google Hangout effectively democratises the video conference and webinar format. The only catch is that you can’t stream the event to Youtube more than 10 minutes of video a time unless you are a video enthusiast like me and Google have lifted the 10 minute limit. So look for best selling apps for collecting data – and borrow them for talking to customers. And as alternative look at what you find useful and see if you can find customers who are using that.

I saw a great demo last week for an application which scrapes data from all sorts of sources. Very clever.  All £1290 pounds of it. And well worth it for a pro like me. The catch is that with a little effort I can probably find a 3rd party tool designed to monetise from customers and mass take up which will do the same job  for a few pounds. This levelling factor of the publically funded application is a major lurch in business to business markets towards the consumer space.  Increasing the risk taking for  B2B innovators massively.  If you want to make money – then monetise the public domain. You have been warned.

Tame research

If you want to find out what makes wild animals tick – its better to watch and understand wild animals in their habitat. This is an obvious point but the market research industry has for years used tame animals as a proxy – recruiting quantitative samples onto panels for immediate access. And even when qualitative recruitment is supposed to be random – much of the time those who arrive in the room regularly participate as respondents – not wild at all.

Until relatively recently the brain was considered to be a fixed entity – you had to make the most of the neurones you were born with. It is only in the last 10 years that neuroscientists have discovered that the brains of wild animals produce a modest and regular supply of neurones – brains are replenishing themselves.  One of the reasons it has taken so long to discover this is that scientists conducted their experiments with laboratory animals whose brains would not produce neurones.

Perhaps you think I am arguing from analogy – but if learn substantially less from captive animals – then I put it to you that you are limiting yourself if the only customers you research are in effect a captive audience – regularly researched.

There are two responses to the problem. One being to strike out and to disturb those we are researching as little as possible. That is one  tack and I would encourage you to consider using it more than you probably are at the moment.  Fresh respondents are usually more illuminating even if they may need a little more time to warm up.   The other option is to recognise how artificial so many research processes are and to accept and exploit their artificiality. Just because a play is set in the theatre doesn’t mean it isn’t relevant to real life. Well and over rehearsed respondents can teach us a lot about a market. But what they teach us is different from those being researched for the first time who have never had to put their own behaviour and attitudes under the spotlight. I am not against artificiality. But still prefer respondents to come from the wildside.

Starting with sustainability

I know I am going to sound like a tree hugger – but before you can think about marketing you have to look at the market and what conditions are like for everyone (especially your prospects and customers).  And then you can calculate what’s in it for you. Sales led companies don’t think this way. They dream of riches beyond the dreams of avarice – all we have to do is build a killer product and get everyone’s attention.  When the market starts to get crowded we need to make sure it’s our product everyone thinks of first.  And when all the products in the category start to resemble one another we need to keep up our sales volume by discounting future sales – lockin and load.. The sales led approach is well documented. By behaving unilaterally what results is environmental degradation.  Its why fishing fleets can’t be trusted to fish without government supervision –because they’ll empty the sea before they admit that you can’t keep taking out without putting something back in.  And its no good pointing the finger at how badly all your competitors are behaving. First and foremost the purchase price for being able to sell is that the conditions under which we sell need to stay the same or improve. Not just for us but for everyone.  Even if that means that competitors are drawn in. A healthy habitat has competition for resources. It’s what makes us and our products good.

Managing the category – will you take responsibility?

Start with the category – what is the customers’ experience of buying and using products. Is the experience improving or deterioriating? This is where your marketing Ps come in.  Is the product improving or becoming commoditised? Is the customer getting smarter at using it – or can they use it without having to think about it?  Is it easier to buy – is the product more readily available – how hard do they have to look for it when they need it?  As for purchasing  does price add to their experience or detract ? If they have been trained to buy on promotion-d oes incentivised purchase make it a pleasure to buy or a chore?  Sometimes promotions make you buy more than you want – or so confuse you with what is the best offer that you lose sight of why you wanted the product in the first place.  If you are launching into the category for the first time you would have to do basic spadework like this. The danger for established products is that they forget to get back to basics.

How to make customers’ lives better – the sustainability argument

Then think more widely about the environment that your customers and channel partners are inhabiting. Is it a more or less certain place to live and work?  What do they worry about? What is brightening up their lives or making their lives more difficult.  Brands that pay attention at this level are transformative – those that try to sell you what they have always sold you start to sound like stuck records.

Looking after the environment isn’t the soft option. It’s the category leader and category drivers stance. And although many will disagree with me – just because none of your competitors are doing it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.

Welcome to Brand Safari


A blog about customers and marketers. And the curious tango they dance together. Which I have chosen to express in the language of the Safari. Marketers find customers endlessly interesting. But are quite nervous of them and tend to watch them at a distance through binoculars. Researchers such as myself often play the role of the askari or safari guide. We don’t stay in the Land Rovers. Nor in the fashionable safari lodges. Our role though is more than marketing assistants. Its our job to keep the whole park working. Its not just about monitoring large primates. But making sure the environment is positive for all concerned.

Basically I want to use this blog to explore what lies beyond the industrial model of research which increasingly looks more and more like battery farming. Even though we have moved to a free range business model.  The growth of online brand communities, mobile phone surveys means we can do research badly and contaminate the very thing which sustains the marketing enterprise. Or we can move to a model of estate management. That’s the idea. I hope you find it interesting.

And I promise no animals will be hurt or killed in the course of writing this blog.

Designed by Matthew Pattman