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Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Unilever chasing improved qual quality with accreditation programme

UK— Unilever is asking qualitative researchers to take part in a new accreditation programme, amid “growing concern” within the company about the quality of qual work being delivered.

The Qualitative Researchers Accreditation Programme was piloted in April but is now being rolled out to all agencies in the UK and elsewhere. Under the leadership of global consumer insights director (food) Manish Makhijani, similar accreditations will be required of researchers working in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Turkey, India, South Africa, Russia, China and Latin America.

Ulrike Hillmer, a consumer market insight manager for Unilever Deutschland and one of the UK programme leads, said the company “is embarking on a ambitious journey to significantly raise the quality of qualitative research in the business in order to help deliver superior consumer insight”.

In a slide deck obtained by Research, Unilever describes the aim of the programme as twofold: to train and issue qual guidelines to its own customer market insight (CMI) teams, and “to identify the best researchers in the industry to work with Unilever”.

It defines the “gold standard” qual researcher as someone “who has the ability to go beyond the findings and provide strategic advice in terms of implications for the brand or category”.

“This researcher needs to be conscientious; a strategic thinker; to have empathy with the Unilever context; able to provide fresh ideas and thoughts and have the ability to link up brand/category issues with consumer understanding; and be challenging and pro-active,” says Unilever. “These qualities need to be consistently evident over and above excellent qualitative skills in moderating.”

Researchers will be accredited at two levels: as ‘research leads’ and ‘moderators’. The assessment process involves issuing applicants with a mock brief for which they have to write a proposal and a discussion guide and to recruit one live group of six respondents for an hour-long discussion.

Independent assessors are then sent to meet the researcher to talk through the brief, conduct the group and to discuss afterwards how the researcher might analyse the findings and plan for the debrief. Unilever says the process should last approximately three hours. Researchers who wish to be accredited as both research leads and moderators complete all stages of the assessment. In the case of research leads only, they do not conduct the group, instead leaving that to those seeking only moderator accreditation.

Research leads can be awarded either full-accreditation or temporary – the latter is for those showing “potential”, who are given a set of development areas to work on and who are then reassessed after one year.

Unilever says that it will only work with accredited research leads and moderators. It has written to agencies asking them to nominate candidates for the accreditation programme.

At this stage it is unclear how many have applied to take part, though it seems likely many will. As Unilever itself says: “Getting accreditation from one of the top spenders on qualitative research in the world is aspirational to qual researchers.”

Some, though, are concerned about the costs associated with the accreditation process. One researcher, who contacted Research anonymously, reckoned agencies or independent qual researchers would have to stump up somewhere in the region of £1,000–£2,000 in order hire a viewing studio, a moderator and six respondents.

But the same researcher also expressed concern that Unilever felt it had to take such a step unilaterally: “How damning is it that the industry hasn’t formed its own recognised accreditation and that a client feels it has to set up its own formal system to monitor quallie quality?”

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Readers' comments (11)

  • Great. Shame they'll then insist on using a global agency, under some preferred supplier agreement. Guess this is going to cost a lot for one of the big boys.

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  • I am convinced that Unilever researchers are perfectly capable of selecting good qualies and dont need a bureaucratic instrument from their HQ. Moreover quali-quality talent diversity
    is too big to settle for an one-size -fits-all approach.
    I assume that Unilever will pay more for certified qualies

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  • Another well-intentioned initiative like protocolising pre-testing and tracking programs. (But the repercussions of that move have affected other market research buyers too!)

    I am only afraid of the incestuous relationship this will produce - how are you going to ensure quality quallies make it and not just your friends. Personal comfort levels need to be highest for working with quallies - you are practically on the road with them for weeks in a row, sometimes!

    And the previous time this announcement had been made, one interesting comment I had read requested Unilever to first accredit its research team.... well, no comments, except charity and quality begin at home first!!!

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  • Three hours in which to display elicitation excellence followed by strategic soundness and original thinking.It's like asking the actor to write the critique of the play the moment the curtain falls. In my experience the high adrenalin engagement of running the group inhibits the more detached understanding of its deeper meanings and a single group is a very thin resource to mine. Qualitative research would be n much easier if its hoops were so easily navigable. It takes time

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  • Well said Tricia! need to get their own house in order first. I'm sure that half of their problems are caused by the ever shifting and shorter and shorter timelines that companies like this KNOW they can impose.. and it has to be "Researcher X and not Y" and then wonder why suppliers standards inevitably drop.

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  • How can one interpret this in anything other than an indictment of the skill levels of Unilever's research/insight managers. The issue here is not sun-standard researchers - there are sub-standard providers in most markets - but the inability of the commissioner to recognise what quality looks like. You don't need an accreditation scheme like this; you simply don't work again with someone who doesn't deliver the standards that any properly trained research/insight manager would require - and their ability to do so should be a pre-requisite for their continued employment.

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  • it makes you wonder why Unilever aren't already working with researchers who 'have the ability to go beyond the findings and provide strategic advice in terms of implications for the brand or category'....

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  • We are just starting an Advanced Practitioner's Certificate with accreditation by the MRS for qualitative researchers. Will be interesting to see how many Unilever researchers show up. None so far among the 120 quallies who have attended the pilots! Who will police the police?

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  • Unilever refers to 'the researcher' and intends to award accreditation to an agency based on the qualities displayed by an individual researcher. So what happens when that individual leaves the agency?

    Qual agencies (and individual researchers) usually have selective areas of expertise, eg ad development, branding, customer motivation, segmentation, kids research, etc. Some agencies/researchers are good at everything, but an agency/researcher who did a blinding bit of work on one subject may not be the best for another.

    So will the accreditation process have a whole range of mock briefs tailored to different specialisms, or will every agency be assessed on the same mock brief, regardless of whether that's their area of expertise?

    Apart from the fact that not every piece of research leads to stunning insights, and aside from the fact that a key part of the analysis of group data is the consistency across/differences between groups, no conscientious researcher with any integrity is going to offer strategic recommendations based on only one group. The only sensible thing the candidate can say about analysis is 'you need more groups'.

    I'm not a qualitative researcher, so I have no axe to grind here. But I'm a very experienced buyer. If there's a problem with the quality of work being commissioned, it either points to a lack of training among the buyers or a lack of good suppliers in the region. How is an accreditation procedure going to address either of those problems?

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  • It reads as if research "leads" do a grander task than those who dirty their hands as me "moderators". But the best quallies bring acute strategic awareness to their moderating skills, and are almost mystically alert to significant material as it arises and is then encouraged in the group. Obviously impractical on multinational projects, but principle stands

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