Twenty families in the UK, and a further 20 in Italy are being
hand-picked to reflect the social strata. Everything they do over a
period of days will be captured on video.
Shot unsteadily in grainy black and white, and projected onto multiple
screens in a tiny, dim-lit room, this could be an entry for the Turner
Prize. Or it might be a proposal for the next Channel 4 reality TV
It is, however, a major research test project, recently commissioned by
Procter & Gamble in the name of consumer insight - a major preoccupation
with many marketers.
A P&G spokesperson is at pains to point out that this will not replace
other forms of research. The families will see edited versions of the
films, and will have full editorial contol over what is eventually shown
to the marketing team.
"The privacy of all the family members is of prime concern," she
"The project is an extension of what we have done before. But there is
no substitute for seeing what people actually do."
Merry Baskin, the founder of the planning consultancy Baskin Shark, and
a former head of planning at J. Walter Thompson, says that everyone has
latched on to "consumer insight" now that USPs (unique selling
propositions) have become "as rare as hen's teeth".
The hunt for such insight is being driven by a number of factors. They
include: the need to differentiate brands from look-alike competitors;
the pressure from shareholders to keep growing in saturated markets; and
companies' desire to become more customer-centric.
There's a realisation that quantitative research - what proportion of
the population believes this or that - and tracking studies, while very
important, are hardly exclusive. Competitors, it can be assumed, will
have access to the same data.
And there's some disillusionment with focus groups, the bread-and-butter
ingredient of qualitative research, which attempts to tease relevant
comments out of small numbers of consumers.
"Focus groups have been abused, and consumers sanitised," Wendy Gordon,
a leading light in the qualitative world and now a director of strategic
consultancy The Fourth Room, declares.
"Clients," she adds, "keep getting the same feedback about the brand and
the advertising from their focus groups, and then say they're not
learning anything from research any more. Well, if you do what you've
always done, you'll get what you always got."
All of this is having some profound effects on the market research
industry. In current marketspeak, insight means more than market
"There is no doubt that proximity to the consumer is the best way to
obtain genuine insights, those revelations that can be translated into
powerful marketing strategies," Paul Eden, a journalist turned planner,
notes. "But what does proximity mean? For us, it means ads that get as
close as possible to consumers, ads that get under their skins."
Eden heads the London end of the FBI, which here stands for Field Brand
Investigations, a specialist film research unit within Ogilvy &
Assignments have included brand audits, quests for new brand
positionings, and investigations into social trends such as school
truancy or teenage pregnancies.
Within client companies, one manifestation of the current focus is the
way in which in-house market research departments are being rebranded as
"insight" departments, or similar. At Unilever Bestfoods, it is consumer
insight, at Boots, it is customer and marketing insight, and at Guinness
UDV, research and planning.
These changes can mean rewriting job descriptions too. The in-house
researchers are expected to become more proactive, and to work more
closely with the marketers on strategy development. In a growing number
of cases, they're being told to develop programmes to expose marketers
and other staff to live consumers, without the protection of a viewing
Marketers are not usually typical consumers of the products they
They are likely to be much better paid, but face different stresses in
their lives. And it is very easy to become arrogant about the public at
At Van den Bergh (recently merged to form Unilever Bestfoods), everyone
in the company meets consumers - accompanying them to the supermarket or
watching them cook in their own kitchens.
"Once a year or once every six months is the norm for people outside
marketing," Stephen Donaldson, the group insight manager for culinary
products, says. "But for people in marketing, and especially new product
development, it could be as frequent as once a week.
Wednesday afternoons are 'curiosity afternoons' when people should be
out making some form of consumer contact.
"When this programme was set up, it was to increase personal
understanding. But we recognise there is value in that information and
there are now formal and informal ways of capturing it.
"It is a small part of my market research budget, but one of the most
cost-effective things we do."
These changes in emphasis have resulted in clients looking for longer
relationships with favoured suppliers, whether or not the partnership is
blessed with a formal contract. The research agencies are expected to
develop more in-depth knowledge of the brands and to be more willing to
contribute to the strategic debate.
And there's a much greater willingness on the part of clients to try
different research approaches to unearth the nuggets. This doesn't
necessarily mean anything radical. Established qualitative research
techniques are evolving, however, to answer newer and more searching
problems (see panel).
Relatively uncommon academic methods are being dusted down and given an
Current buzzwords include ethnography (observing behaviour) and
semiotics (the analysis of cultural trends). Both are useful where
consumers may have difficulty articulating, or even realising, what they
But they are not new. The specialist agency Semiotic Solutions, for
instance, was involved in the development of BT's highly effective
campaign, "It's good to talk". The key insight was that, traditionally,
male householders tended to put a brake on families' use of the
Other techniques being used increasingly include workshops, with
consumers and marketers working together on problems, and immersion
days, where marketers try to grapple with the culture of their target
"Bread-and-butter focus groups still go on, but there is more use of
mixed methodologies, and greater determination to get closer to that
consumer moment of decision," Janet Kiddle, the managing director of The
Research Business International (TRBI), says.
"We're even doing sessions of up to five hours now, and we might take
the participants to three venues instead of one. So we are pushing the
consumers further than we have ever done before."
Her colleague, Mick Williamson, has just been appointed the agency's
first creative director, with a brief to promote innovation. "Marketing
organisations are making a deliberate and conscious attempt to raise the
importance and recognition of the consumer, which we on the supply side
have to address," he says.
"But there is a need to remove the fear on the clients' part of where we
are taking them with new methodologies and thinking."
Sue Robson, the managing director of The Qualitative Consultancy, thinks
the growing use of a wider range of techniques is partly because
marketing problems have become more complex, but also because consumers
"At one time, focus groups were more like coffee mornings," she
"You couldn't use a word like 'image'. Now, they are so much more aware,
you can work with them like colleagues, and they'll buy into that."
There are, however, some reservations. It is not so much a matter of
questioning the benefits of consumer insights, as the problem of clients
climbing on fashionable bandwagons, and jumping to simplistic
A widespread view in research circles is that clients still somehow
expect qualitative research involving small numbers of consumers to have
the statistical validity of major quantitative studies.
"Briefs can be very results-driven, and often pose very particular
questions to be answered," Geoff Bayley, a director of RDSi, says. "What
qualitative will give you is the framework in which people operate, and
reveal their attitudes and tendencies."
The Fourth Room's Wendy Gordon argues that companies need to connect
with people's lives but often fail to do so. Consumers engage with
brands only briefly in their lives, and a wide tapestry of techniques
may be necessary to understand the relationship.
"Much of this quest for more creative methods to get under the skin of
consumers comes from really good motives, because it is necessary for
things to change," Gordon declares. "But a lot of it is driven by the
naivety of clients saying, 'for God's sake, give me the answer'.
"It becomes a fashion thing, like the current interest in consumer
observation. People now expect observation to provide the answer, and of
course it won't. What clients haven't understood is that there isn't one
truth out there, waiting to be found."
- Added Value took Ford's global board of directors to a beach in Miami
to talk cars with ordinary, working class people from ethnic minorities.
"Taking them to some parts of society they would not otherwise encounter
dramatically increases their sensitivity to consumer issues," the
agency's deputy managing director, Paul McGowan, notes.
- E-mail focus groups (in reality, more like in-depth interviews) were
conducted by e-Mori for British Airways to discover why some travellers
were reluctant to buy tickets from the BA web site. The findings closely
matched those from parallel conventional groups - consumers,
understandably, expected discounts.
- Baffled by UK decorating tastes, IKEA and its agency St Luke's
commissioned a major survey. But as well as asking questions, Mori
researchers recorded their own visual impressions. Selected homes
typifying particular approaches - from "Not Really Interested" to "My
Home is My Castle" - were revisited for further grilling, and to be
- Liam Daley, a director of the youth research specialist Informer, took
clients clubbing with a senior journalist from Mixmag magazine to
explain the importance of the club culture. But Daley then turned the
tables on the clients, handing them a microphone and saying: "You do the
interviewing, I'll do the videoing".
- Men often stoop, reaching for their wallets in the back pockets of
their jeans. Observational research (ethnography) by Added Value worked
out that the pockets are traditionally positioned too high. Levi's new
Engineered Jeans have them lower.
- The Leapfrog research agency favours "roll over quants", which may
involve one group of consumers observing another, or groups of up to a
dozen drawn from different life stages. "We want consumers - and clients
- to confront the differences between them, because the differences are
what are interesting," joint managing director Andrea Berlowitz
- Persuading non-users of a brand to try it for a period, and keep a
diary of the experience, is a familiar research approach. But it can be
revealing to test the reverse of this, Merry Baskin, of Baskin Shark,
argues. Get heavy users of, say, breakfast cereal to abstain, to test
how strong their commitment is.
- Geoff Bayley, a director at RDSi, increasingly uses a technique drawn
from clinical psychology. Consumers are asked to write a script about
their relationship with a product or brand, from the perspective of a
third person. "They often start to appreciate things about themselves
they hadn't quite realised," he says. "Fifty or so of these can give you
a very good idea about how a segment of the population feels about a
A NEW KIND OF FOCUS GROUP
Ads randomly mixed with entertaining film clips are being beamed by
satellite to plasma screens in clubs, bars and pubs used by 18- to
24-year-olds by Translucis, an independent media company backed by
The system was tested in about 30 outlets last summer, and is now being
rolled out nationally.
To keep its finger on the pulse of the market, and provide information
to advertising clients, Translucis has teamed up with youth specialist
agency, 2cv:research. In London, Manchester and Newcastle, two rotating
panels - one for 18- to 20- year-olds, the other for 21- to 24-year-olds
- have been set up, each headed by a "style leader".
"We keep it fresh," Darren Hanley, 2cv's research director, says.
"People serve on the panels for an average of two months. We meet them
regularly, but are also in constant touch by e-mail. They are encouraged
to tell us what they have heard that is new, what they got up to at the
"This being a generation that loves technology, they're very keen to
help with instant opinion polls, using text messaging, or to keep a
diary of what they drink through the evening on a pocket dictating
"The aim has been to keep the research actionable. The panels give us
continuous insight into salient brands and personal media consumption.
And it's not all about drinks and trainers - they relate very well to
brands they have grown up with, such as Kellogg's and Heinz."