MARKET RESEARCH: The Search for the Holy Grail - True consumer insight is what marketers need. Ken Gofton discovers the methods being used to get under customers' skins

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

have changed.

"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



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."