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Saturday, 20 December 2014

Quality qual builds 'brands for life'

Our report last month on Unilever’s plan to implement an accreditation scheme for qualitative researchers caused quite a stir in the industry. Unilever spoke of growing internal concerns about the quality of qual work, but reactions were split. While some applauded Unilever for taking a stand against falling supplier standards, others said the real problem was that Unilever’s own researchers didn’t know what quality looked like.

Still others were concerned that agencies would have to shell out up to £2,000 to nominate a candidate to be vetted, yet accredited researchers might find themselves quickly poached by rivals leaving firms out of pocket and out of work.

The hue and cry reached such a pitch that senior members of the Unilever consumer and market insight team have agreed to discuss and answer quallies’ concerns at the Association of Qualitative Research’s upcoming – and fully booked – summer lunch.

Ahead of that, Research managed to secure an interview with one of the accreditation programme’s architects, Manish Makhijani, global consumer insights director (food).

Research: What led you to develop the idea for the accreditation programme?
Manish Makhijani:
This whole thing started with looking at Unilever’s mission to create ‘brands for life’ and with Unilever wanting to be the best marketing company with the best marketers in the world. We realised that you can’t really be a good marketer and have great brands unless you have a great amount of consumer intimacy and that you understand the consumer really well.

Qualitative research is an integral part of getting consumer insights and getting better consumer understanding. So unless we raise the bar on qual research, unless we raise the bar on the quality of insights we’re getting, we’re not going to be able to achieve our ambition.

So three things are happening: 1) accreditation – which looks to find the best qual researchers in the world; 2) to train the insight managers in Unilever on what good qual research is and how to spot it; and 3) training our marketers in how qualitative research can be used most effectively.

It works beautifully for Unilever but it also works well for agencies too because they get to have better conversations with us, and it works for researchers because there is a sense of acknowledgement and achievement that the best marketing company in the world will only work with you.


The accreditation process at a glance

  • Researchers will be accredited at two levels: ‘research leads’ and ‘moderators’.
  • Applicants are given 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 sent to meet the researcher to talk through the brief, watch the group to discuss afterwards how the researcher might analyse the findings and plan for the debrief.
  • The process should last approximately three hours.

The scheme is already in place in countries including China, India and South Africa, where there are already more than 50 accredited researchers. Some would argue there is a need for it in those markets, the newer research markets, where quality can still be an issue – but surely not in places like the UK and US?
MM:
We saw a growing concern within Unilever about the quality of qual research that we were using across the world.

What is the nature of those concerns?
MM:
One is the quality of insights and debriefs that we get. It’s not very consistent. Sometimes you would get a debrief full of ‘a-ha’ moments that would inspire people to take action, but sometimes you wouldn’t. There is this lack of consistency even when you are using the same agency or similar researchers over a period of time.

The second issue was that there was a whole lot of qualitative research that was being done to evaluate things like advertising or concepts, which we thought was a little odd. That’s not qualitative research, that’s quantitative research. Qual should be about building the concepts or the communication ideas rather than testing the communications ideas.

So, yes, there were concerns like that, and yes, they were bigger in the developing markets. But we realised over a period of time that unless the whole bar is raised, within Unilever and among the researchers we are working with, then things are not going to change dramatically. It had to be a systemic overhaul of qual research.

Are you frustrated to have to take this move? Were you disappointed the industry hadn’t tackled the issue itself with its own form of accreditation?
MM:
When we started thinking about it we were surprised to realise that there wasn’t an industry-standard system or process that you could look at. We also realised that a lot of times we – and other companies in fact – look at qual research in a very quantitative manner. In quant, we have alignments with agencies for forecasting, ad pretesting, product testing etc., because of the database they have or the experience they have. But we can’t do that with qual research. Those are not the factors that give you a consistently great output. What matters in qual more than anything else is the quality of thinking that you put on the table. Therefore, unless you identify researchers that are capable of thinking in the way you want them to think then you can’t make any changes.

What’s the success rate in terms of numbers applying versus number of accreditations?
MM:
In the markets we have been to so far we have been able to get the number of accredited researchers that we wanted, and a little more in certain cases. So we’re happy with the success rate in that sense.

There’s not a shortage of quality out there, then - it’s just a case of finding it?
MM:
It’s finding it and knowing exactly what to look for in order to get good quality.

The accreditation system uses a panel of practising researchers to assess those applying for accreditation. Do you see a risk there for agencies that they are putting their best people forward who might then get poached by any competitors sitting on the panel?
MM:
If you want to judge a craft you have to use a skilled professional who is a craftsmen himself.

And I think agencies would fully understand that. But how do you stop them just cherry-picking the best Unilever-accredited researchers to go and work for them?
MM:
The situation is very similar to researchers working on a brand and helping us work out a strategy for that brand. How do we stop them going to the competition and telling them what we are doing? There are agreements in place and ethic codes in place to prevent that happening. It’s a similar situation here as well.


Staying ahead of the curve

Keith Weed (pictured), Unilever’s chief marketing officer, has thrown his support behind the accreditation programme. “It’s absolutely fundamental to the success of our sustainable growth agenda that we have a deep understanding of consumers wherever they buy our products,” he says. “Whether it’s in our developing, emerging or mature markets, consumer behaviour is changing so rapidly that if you dare to blink, you’ll miss the latest trend.

“To stay ahead of the curve we need the very best researchers who have the skills and experience to generate the real-time consumer insights we need to create great marketing campaigns for our portfolio of household brands. This accreditation scheme is a really exciting opportunity to help Unilever on its way to becoming the best marketing organisation around the world.”

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Readers' comments (7)

  • What a waste of time and resource. Wake up Unilever, and just use those people or agencies that deliver to a high quality!

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  • While I understand the principle behind this scheme, it is flawed on so many levels. What client would dream of commissioning a study based on a single one hour focus group? Yet somehow, the moderators putting themselves forward for such accreditation are expected to demonstrate their expertise and superior thinking / analytical skills via this flimsy methodology. In this time, Unilever’s independent assessors are somehow able to establish whether a moderator is 'gold standard' or not.

    The entire process, taking less than 3 hours, could not be further removed from any ‘typical’ qualitative research study. I challenge how these independent assessors are trained to judge or assess moderator competency (far less expertise) from viewing a single one hour focus group.

    At the route of this scheme is the serious concern that Unilever has been subjected to some very dire standards of qualitative research in some of the markets in which they operate. We are extremely fortunate that much of our recent growth has been a result of client referrals – I would suggest that speaking to other large clients and finding out first hand who they use and would recommend could prove to be a far more reliable means of finding truly excellent, gifted qual researchers who can deliver the standards they are seeking.

    Presumably Unilever (and their procurement department) will only sanction the commissioning of qualitative research if the proposed moderator has achieved such accreditation.

    This is my final concern for them - will the truly gifted and brilliant ‘craftsmen’ in our industry step up and participate in the scheme? If they don’t, the future of Unilever’s qualitative research is doomed to mediocrity rather than excellence. Time will tell.

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  • I am not sure what the hue and cry is all about. Surely a large research spender like Unilever has the right to demand quality and to put measures in place that ensure it. Just like the individual or research agency has the right to decline and stay away from the process. Very clearly, everyone wants a piece of the Unilever action but without any scrutiny of skills or quality! It is very unfair to say that quality is an issue only in certain parts of the world. As a researcher with over 25 years of qual experience, I can safely say that quality issues exist everywhere, as much in the evolved markets as in the developing ones. Better packaging skills does not necessarily mean great quality insights!

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  • Anyone can join the AQR in the UK, so I can see how Unilever feels it needs to ensure standards are high, but there are a couple of issues that worry me about this initiative (and I understand that Unilever are not alone in implementing it).

    1, I know of one agency being certified that is using a freelance qualitative researcher (albeit one that they use a great deal) to represent the company as a 'research lead'. I know that most agencies lean on freelancers these days, but surely full time employees are only viable for the accreditation?

    2, There is no accreditation of online qualitative techniques and practices. Agencies are being measured on a very traditional method - and traditional qualitative researchers are often inexperienced in applying and executing online qualitative techniques in research.

    Unilever comes across as short sighted and out of touch with the way the modern qualitative industry has evolved over recent years. My guess is that in time Unilever itself will feel constrained by its own initiative.

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  • As an Asian researcher who has gone through the process successfully all I can say is that the quality of researcher has to be matched by the quality of the client.

    Despite being accredited - I've been told a number of times but you cost more than x agency. Surely if quality is what Unilever is seeking then they need to start with ensuring their teams can compare apples against oranges and not continue to judge always on cost.

    The whole procedure is expensive for an individual around $3K per person put forward before you consider day rates for time to write the proposal, discussion guide, oversee recruitment and attend the session.

    The constraints mentioned above are already impacting asia -availability for those that pass is now difficult to find - it's nearly impossible for anyone working on regional projects to now book an accredited moderator in China that fits your timings and client budgets.

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  • I feel t is a very good step towards rationalizing the standards in Market Research, at the same breath i would like to state the fact that those already on the accredited list are from the panelists owned agencies, hence i think their should not be a monopolistic methodology to this whole thing.

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  • i am doing a school project n I choose to do it on unilever I would just like to find out the research methods that the company use I read all of this and still didn't get my answer if their is some one from the company reading this please reply I look forward to your rapid response

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