FEATURE1 August 2004

Proof positive

Opinion: is research based on concept boards a futile exercise? Sally Marsden and Iain Carruthers share a moment of clarity.

Researching brand propositions is like giving birth: some sort of chemistry kicks in to mask the memory of the pain of it all and at some point later on you innocently start doing it all over again. Such, at least, was the train of thought followed by two experienced qualitative researchers as, post-group, we chewed over the five reasonably well-expressed, well-presented brand territories we had just moderated. The experience led us to a few reflections on what we should be using as research material and why.

Caught in limbo
There are broadly two points in the development cycle when research participants are terribly useful. One is early on, when they can help you reflect on your market and build your ideas. The other is fairly late on, when they can react to different examples of what you want to bring to market.

But in between is a limbo where businesses get nervous and want to describe what could be. They then ask people what they feel about these descriptions. If you think about it, this is bizarre behaviour. After all, in the unlikely event of Jimmy Choo, say, looking for market research on the new autumn range, would they read out a set of concept boards? No. What would they do? They’d show people the bloody shoes!

Truth hurt?
Ah, we hear the cries from concept factories up and down the land. “We don’t know the product execution/creative idea/service design yet. We’re trying to establish the most powerful territory for this brand.” And that’s fine. But our point is this. Do you advance this purpose by creating 50-word, committee–written essays, adding the flourish of a few royalty-free graphics and parading them in front of people? Six at a time?

We’re not saying that this process doesn’t sometimes work. But it’s all unnecessarily painful and mysterious. And it happens because of a collective lack of confidence within marketing and brand development teams.

Our proposition, meanwhile, is this. When dealing with a set of brand, advertising or design concepts, take them to the point that they are recognisably something people could buy. For a brand proposition, this might be a poster, newspaper headline or pack mock-up. For graphic design, it is executions and examples of your strategy. For advertising it is, well, advertising. But it is only by having the courage to develop your ideas that you are likely to locate those moments of truth, that resonance in your head and in the room when you know you’ve hit on something good.

Some territories are more difficult to execute and take into examplesWell, that probably means they’re not very good avenues to go down. Better to find out now.
We haven’t got time to develop these furtherAre you sure? You haven’t got a week for a smart designer/writer/visualiser to get this into something resembling a real idea?
We want response to the idea, not the execution of the idea.Customers don’t buy ideas. They buy enactments of ideas. Even if the enactment or example is slightly off, their levels of interest or enthusiasm will be more evident than by torturing them with the results of your concept development workshop.

Sally Marsden and Iain Carruthers are directors at Leapfrog Research and Planning

August | 2004