FEATURE1 November 2009

Things I know (and don't know) about brand research

Nigel Hollis, chief global analyst at Millward Brown, shares his beliefs and airs his doubts about the future of brand research

?I know that the need for consumer insight will continue to grow

Marketers are already grappling with a raft of challenges: new technologies, growing retailer power, the accelerating pace of innovation and the increasing fragmentation of media. These challenges won’t go away, and increasingly brands must respond to them on a global scale. Consumer research must take a lead role in addressing these issues. Marketers can no longer rely on intuition alone to build strong brands; rather they must use consumer insights to guide and channel their creative instincts in profitable directions.

I don’t know how the role that brands play in people’s lives will continue to evolve, or what that will mean for research

While brand names once were used to differentiate basic commodity products and provide a promise of consistent formulation and quality, now they confer a whole range of other benefits, including status, emotional well-being and a sense of belonging. As that evolution continues we can expect the focus of insight research to evolve. In addition to traditional product and positioning research, we will need to identify relevant and motivating emotional and service benefits, and may be called upon to test sustainability initiatives, engage in direct conversations with consumers, and discover the most significant ways in which brands can benefit society.

I know that observational data sources will never completely replace the need to talk to consumers directly

For instance, though neuroscience can tell us when and how strongly someone responds to an immediate stimulus, it does not tell us how people might feel about brands over the long term. In order to go beyond passive understanding, we must be able to engage and interact with people, to propose ideas and gather feedback. The form of that interaction may be very different from traditional survey research, but we will still need to talk to people. Today we use blogs, online ideation sessions, and one-on-one video interviews. Tomorrow we will use new methods. I don’t know exactly what they will look like, but I am willing to bet that question and answer will remain a core component.

I don’t know if digital data sources like blogs, social networks, and consumer rating sites will prove beneficial or disastrous for brands

Just as scanned sales data led to an increased reliance on price discounting to drive sales at the expense of margins, I worry that ‘listening’ will lead to a naive focus on meeting consumers’ stated needs while ignoring their unspoken ones. It is our job as brand marketers to anticipate consumers’ real motivations. These are seldom immediately obvious. Often they are only uncovered by the diligent examination of multiple information sources in the light of personal understanding and intuition.

I know that marketers can’t rely on short-term measures of sales performance to guide strategy

Econometric modelling and similar techniques are great tools for identifying the short-term impact of marketing activity. The only problem is that, on that basis, most marketing spend fails to turn a profit. Relying on these short-term measures will only increase the focus on direct response and price discounting tactics at the expense of long-term brand building. Instead we must continue to develop metrics that incorporate brand health with financial measures, and then use those metrics to explain a brand’s current position and predict its trajectory. Today’s brand strength leads to stronger returns on current marketing spend, lower price elasticity and a positive trend in underlying base sales tomorrow. Future success can be anticipated using metrics that link current attitudinal measures to the probability of future growth – providing evidence that strong brands do increase current returns and protect future revenues. Without such evidence, marketing and market research will remain two of the most vulnerable items on the balance sheet.

I don’t know if attempts to formally link disparate data sets will deliver the promised insights

Too many kludges will be required to make it all fit together. Instead we should focus on a qualitative integration of information – one that relies on a conceptual, brand-specific understanding of how consumer experience interacts with brand and consumer-generated communications to influence consumer demand. I say conceptual because I do not believe that we can link every data set to form one coherent whole. We can, however, create a framework that allows us to quickly and easily relate insights from qualitative and quantitative, attitudinal and behavioural methodologies. This will significantly improve our ability to synthesise disparate results and provide more timely and relevant insights.

I know that the current emphasis on higher speed and lower cost will continue to increase the risk of drawing the wrong conclusions from research

For years now, research practitioners have sacrificed methodological quality in favour of lower costs and faster turnaround. Not only is quality affected in terms of the scope and reliability of the information generated, but the risk of erroneous interpretation leading to invalid recommendations increases when an undue emphasis is placed on speed. Moore’s Law, by which computing power doubles every couple of years, does not apply to the human mind, and computers are still unable to duplicate the mind’s ability to integrate and synthesise data from unrelated sources. People need time to digest information and figure out what it really means. Therefore we need to re-engineer research processes from the ground up, with a focus on minimising the time and cost invested in data collection while maximising the relevance of research findings and the time to interpret them.

I don’t know if real-time brand research will ever become a reality

If it doesn’t, then one-to-one and real-time marketing will never come to fruition. In order to respond appropriately to individual people, research systems must be able to interpret their behaviour and sentiment on the fly. Such research systems will need to be flexible and intelligent enough to deal with the inherent variability of consumer feedback. This implies a degree of sophistication that goes far beyond the blunt, pre-canned systems of today.

I know that valuable insights will come not only from highlighting differences, but also from identifying commonalities

Researchers are traditionally taught to look for differences – across demographic groups, across countries, across time – and to apply statistical tests to confirm and describe those differences. But when tasked with conducting research on a global stage we must look for common motivations across countries and cultures that provide a relevant and compelling basis for a brand’s positioning. Where differences do exist across cultures, the question to ask is not ‘Are these differences statistically significant?’ but rather, ‘Are these differences important?’ To successfully answer that question researchers will be challenged to draw on their understanding of both product categories and cultures to unravel a tangled web of social and cultural connections that defy national borders. Local knowledge will be critical to ensuring a proper understanding of context and relevance.

I don’t know what impact consumer privacy concerns and legislative action will hold for consumer research

The more we extend our data collection to include monitoring digital communications, tracking online behaviour, and integration of customer databases, the more risk there is that a consumer backlash will severely limit our access to those data sources. We must act responsibly in order to avoid such an outcome and ensure people’s privacy is respected.


15 years ago

"I know that marketers can’t rely on short-term measures of sales performance to guide strategy" - Very very true. Trouble is it's frequently just too tempting to look at short term localized data and use that as your basis for extrapolating into the future. Frequently the highs and lows in data are due to some constraint outside of your control and measures. Good post. Would like to know how to do strategy better though :-)

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15 years ago

All those comments are valid and very relevant to consumer research.However,the research methodology on consumer insight obviously gets decided on how the product postioning is to be planned especially when you are talking about a brand and its target audience.This is a huge subject but this is what I have to say about this in brief,

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15 years ago

I agree marketing research should evolve just like advertising and marketing activities had. We don’t talk about ‘campaign bursts’ anymore since the marketing activities are now spreading and being sustained strategically throughout the year. There is a need to reinvent the research process so that it is able to tap into and collect consumer feedback from the multiple channels and interpret it holistically. I have question over the notion of identifying commonalities over highlighting differences when it comes to international brands, there is a danger of falling into the trap of finding the lowest common denominator. Therefore I think identifying differences could well be equally, if not more, important – that is where a truly powerful platform could be built upon. However, the qualitative aspect of the research is, I agree, much more important, not to mention gut instincts too!

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