business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Harvey Hartman, chairman/CEO of The Hartman Group

Blunder #1: Taking Consumer Comments Literally

We all know by now that consumers are apt to say one thing and do another. But this tendency takes a more insidious form in American society. It stems from our collective tendency to narrate our ideals or aspirations as our lived behavior, mainly to appear good in the eyes of outsiders and loved ones alike.

While the untrained might mischaracterize this tendency as lying, it really has much more to do with American cultural ideologies that implore us to cast ourselves in the image of self-improvement. Even though we rarely approach such perfection, let alone continuous improvement, our narratives always focus on a life we believe we should be living ("Oh yeah, I recycle all the time...") - a self worthy of recognition.

This religion of self-improvement especially affects anyone researching the food industry, where "I try to eat healthily" is one of the most common consumer claims we encounter during in-home interviews. While this claim might indicate a "health-focused consumer" to a novice researcher, those with experience recognize such statements as mere cultural artifacts and dig deeper to ascertain truer health interests.

Case in point, we have found that a combination of clever questioning and pantry tours often prove most effective at countering culturally biased narratives. While more than a few consumers have regaled us over the years with stories of how they have quit purchasing "bad" or unhealthful, products, it's surprising how quickly their stories dissolve when the pantry door opens to reveal a cornucopia of chips, candy, cookies and pop.

Blunder #2: Investigating Just Our Brand, Rather Than The Larger Worlds Of Activity

One of the most common refrains we hear in this business is "Just tell us about our brand!"

The problem with this seemingly innocent directive is that consumer behavior simply doesn't orient itself around brands. Nor, for that matter does consumer behavior really orient itself around industry categories like "quick service restaurant," "fast casual," or "snack food." Instead, consumers orient themselves to culturally meaningful worlds of activity and behavior, worlds that almost always cut across the boundaries of brands.

Even though we all call facial tissue "Kleenex," this does not mean that the way we use tissue has anything to do with the Kleenex brand - or, for that matter, its competitors' brands (e.g. Puffs). The use of tissue has to do with the cultural rules and behaviors associated with personal grooming and hygiene. We learn these rules and behaviors from our mothers, fathers and cultural peers, not from Kleenex. Thus, a successful tissue brand needs to learn how to create distinction by adapting itself to personal grooming and hygiene trends. This is very different than merely distinguishing the brand from competing brands in the marketplace. The bottom line is that true innovation is less the result of battling the competition and more about being the most culturally adaptive brand in the broader culture.

Blunder #3: Driving Methodologies Rather Than Findings

Often when our telephone rings, the client on the other end will simply say he or she needs a quantitative survey. Why is this a blunder? Seems innocent enough. The reason is because all too often we consider the methodology before we consider the question we want answered.

When approaching a research endeavor, rather than seeing it as an opportunity to ask as many questions as possible on your particular brand, consider this as an opportunity to fully understanding all the dynamics and nuances of your objective. The hardest part in the intensity of understanding what you want out of that piece of research is recognizing the further you push the breadth the more you dilute the depth of the results.

Clarity of your objective, first and foremost, will often lead to an integrated research approach, combining multiple, complementary methodologies that in the end drill deeper to answer your initial question with a multi-faceted result.

Blunder #4: Pre-Determining The Target Audience Of A Survey Tool That Is To Determine Target Audience (...huh?)

It's such an easy trap to fall into.

Marketer X wants to sell more of his brand's widgets so he convenes a group of frequent/loyal/heavy buyers to the granddaddy of all market research blunders, the misused focus group, and listens in to determine what it is that makes them tick (i.e. purchase his widgets). Unfortunately, such short-sightedness results in misleading generalizations about the wider population of the brand's widgets, stereotypes that often cause one to underestimate the potential audience for a given brand.

In most worlds of activity, we find a small subset of devout enthusiasts or "hardcore" participants. And while their enthusiasm is infectious, often flattering marketers and brand managers much in the same way of devout parishioners hanging out at a church, their characteristics and use patterns are rarely generalizable to the rest of us "ordinary" users. In short, why should the enthusiasts' view of products designed for users in the given world be generalized to the entire population? By surrounding yourself with true believers, such uniformity and homogeneity can forever distract you from the ultimate possibilities in the broader marketplace.

Blunder #5: Inflating The Sample To Increase Objectivity

We all do it.

Whether we're talking about quantitative or qualitative research, there is this odd obsession with large samples. As anyone who is acquainted with this business well knows, we are forever paranoid that the people we may be talking with or about are somehow not generalizable. Among other things, that's why we often preface our remarks with "Admittedly this is anecdotal, but..."

Look, a large sample provides one important benefit. Namely, it allows us to be more precise in our confidence that our findings are generalizable to our population of interest. A large sample does not, however, yield more robust findings, more accurate findings, more informative findings or less biased findings. Biased findings, however precise, are still biased, and simply collecting more data doesn't help if the manner in which they are collected is flawed. In short, effective research strategies need to balance the desire for precision in our generalizations against the need to reach those consumers who routinely avoid us and the need to interact with them (i.e., measurement) in a clear and precise manner. If it means ending up with a smaller overall sample size, that's the price of good research, because bigger is not always better.

Blunder # 6: Letting Those In Positions Of Authority Ask The Questions

One of the golden rules of research: "Never let those in positions of power have any control over the nature, direction or type of questions being asked."

It's not the case that folks like CEOs, brand managers or VPs are at all uninformed or biased as much as it is their very position often precludes them from pursuing numerous lines of questioning that typically yield the most innovative insights. How many brand managers, for example, would be willing to entertain the possibility that consumer involvement with their brand may have nothing to do with brand values, imagery or messaging and a whole lot more to do with accidental purchasing based on shelf locations?

Unfortunately, this cycle all too often causes those most vested in a company tend to ask questions whose answers will least threaten the status quo or least challenge the company's institutionalized view of the consumer. And often this tendency results in misleading findings.

Just as we pay a therapist top dollar to ask tough questions from an external vantage point, perhaps we need to accord the same latitude to research teams?

Blunder #7: Believing Consumers' Emotions Are Easily Measurable

Many, many companies interested in understanding the emotional component of their brand make the mistake of assuming consumers can express or communicate their emotions with language--be it written or verbal. What they fail to understand is that merely asking consumers questions, either in person, on the phone, or in the form of a written or electronic questionnaire, does not tap into true emotions, which are by nature ephemeral and not describable in the lexicon of rational thought.

The unfortunate reality is that there is no magic way to get inside the head of another human being and know how they feel. The alternative, which is much more comprehensive is to focus on understanding where and when in our cultural lives certain emotions get reliably triggered and then create brands that resonate with those shared emotional reactions. Rather than attempting, unsuccessfully, to "get inside the head of the consumer," astute researchers will try to "get inside the essence of the experience" - ideally by immersing themselves in the given moment/experience.

Think of all the crying that happens just as the bride and groom begin marching down the aisle at a church wedding. It isn't about individual feelings of sadness or happiness; it's about an ephemeral, collective expression of joy at the fulfillment of the romantic promise. This is the kind of shared, public emotion that resonates most strongly with contemporary consumer culture.

Blunder #8: Leaving Consumer Insights For The End

The most insightful consumer research requires a great deal more patience than many marketers and brand managers are willing or have time to give. Frequently we find many with short time horizons rely on research to confirm the utility of assertions of products already under development, to find which of their concepts is most likely to work or to back up gut instinct. The most insightful research, however, should begin the brand process, not end it and requires becoming very close to consumers - immersing ourselves with them long enough to understand the complex cultural context in which brands continuously struggle, adapt, perish and thrive.

Believe it or not, we've had clients propose international strategic brand planning research covering 10 countries within a 5-week timeframe! The reality of such timelines typically leads to highly formulaic research, research that clings too tightly to rigid methodologies that fail to open the researcher (or the client) up to the exciting possibility of completely unanticipated insights or results. In fact, such "left field" insights rarely emerge through rigorous methodologies or pre-fab research but, instead, come from understanding the broader cultural context and trends in which any brand adapts itself.

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