OPINION18 June 2010

Families are changing. Why isn't research?


Families are changing, and the 2.4 children stereotype is long gone. Qual researcher Debbie Newbould looks at how the research industry is responding to these changes

Picture the scene. The brief lands on your desk outlining the details of the research project, and the section about sample specifics says the core sample is families, with two or three children in the household and mum as chief shopper. Sound familiar?

In reality there is no such thing as a ‘model’ family nowadays and yet research design doesn’t always reflect this. I believe now is the time to challenge our assumptions about what constitutes the family of today (and tomorrow) and by implication what we as researchers do to reflect the family unit.

There are two things that strike me when I think about the way families are changing and what this means for research. There are ramifications, first, for who we typically recruit to group discussions and secondly for how we handle the concept of family life within our research.

Today’s British family does not always have the dad as the chief wage earner, or indeed a father living at home at all. The role of mother is often to be a key contributor to the household income as well as the homemaker. Not so long ago dads were not part of the research equation for family matters – they were working and it was the mums who looked after the home. According to the Family and Parenting Institute, between 1974 and 2000 there has been a 200% increase in the time that fathers spend engaging with children (up to 25 minutes a day from only eight minutes). And fathers are taking a far more active role in the products bought for their homes and families.

Despite the changes to what constitutes a typical family, a large proportion of focus groups are still conducted among women because the assumption remains that they run the household, doing the lion’s share of the shopping, cooking and general decision-making. But if mums’ and dads’ roles and responsibilities are changing, then so should our approach to who we speak to in group discussions. Typically our respondents are women (mums) based on the assumption that they do the bulk of the supermarket shopping and make the key shopping decisions, especially relating to food. I believe we should start including dads as chief shoppers more often. Even more exciting for us as researchers is that dads may actually enjoy shopping more than mums. Our experience supports this – we recently heard a dad in a research group conducted for a soup brand said: “My missus just buys the same stuff all the time. When I go shopping, which isn’t very often, I spend ages going round and browsing. I just shop with my credit card, and go home with all sorts of stuff. The missus goes mad at how much I have spent.”

This means researchers need to be rigorous about reflecting what is really happening with families, not what conventions tell us it should be like. Recent projects in the confectionery and board games market where we have recruited against convention have confirmed this belief. We unearthed insights by conducting work in-home among families talking about playing board games and eating confectionery. Dads, for example, are far more involved in purchases of sweets than mums. The decision to purchase is more active, more considered and there is genuine engagement. What should I buy for the children? What would they like? What can we share? Women’s purchases, by contrast, tend to be more habitual. When we heard a research participant say excitedly that a particular brand were “the best tasting Cola sweets, maybe even nicer than Cola Bottles,” it was a dad, not his son. Similarly with board games, mum’s role is more perfunctory while dad is considering situations and opportunities for fun.

We also have to consider how we handle the concept of family life in research. Household harmony might be the ideal but, particularly for women, family life can be a disillusioning experience. Families operate like passing ships in the night and yet there is an underlying desire for togetherness that goes beyond just being in the house at the same time. Maybe this is why John Lewis’ current ‘She’s always a woman’ ad, which shows a woman at various stages throughout her life, has touched an emotional nerve in so many people (sales at JohnLewis.com saw a 40% rise after the ad appeared). It works because it depicts what we aspire to have: happiness in the context of conventional family life, based on security, commitment and continuity. If life were really like this, we could continue to recruit to family stereotypes and treat family life as if it were all a bed of roses. In the real world, it isn’t like this for many of us. A poll conducted by OnePoll for this year’s National Family Week suggests that modern families spend approximately 49 minutes together every day.

We might aspire to be part of the John Lewis genre of families, but the key insight for researchers is to understand the difference between the reality and the dream. So should we just continue to pitch this aspirational dream to women, or do we offer goods and services which allow them to achieve it?

We need to encourage families to feel good about themselves – give dad the opportunity to talk about his role in family life and the decisions he makes for his family, and give mum the opportunity to be appreciated rather than feeling like her job is messy and fraught. So the next time a brief lands on the desk that includes families as part of the core target, let’s make sure we design the research based on the new family reality, not the old stereotypical one, as well as being sensitive to how families really feel about themselves.

Debbie Newbould is managing director of qualitative research agency One-MS, which works with brands including Premier Foods, Molson Coors, Müller and Weetabix


14 years ago

I wholeheartedly agree with Debbie’s sentiment. Also worth mentioning how different pre-families are these days. I recently conducted a focus group of pre-families assuming the splits would be within the younger age range. To my surprise we had respondents from aged 20-45! I guess this just goes to show that women are having children later on in life and therefore this life stage recruitment spec is changing. Also interesting to look at the dynamics within this group as although they display the correct demographic qualities of a ‘pre-family’ there is clearly attitudinal differences of the 20yr old and the 45yr old. Maybe the whole life stage definitions needs a review? Regards, Rachel Simmons Senior Client Consultant Nunwood

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14 years ago

Great article! As a male in a household where we both work full-time, the 'traditional' family model doesn't apply! I do the majority of our shopping, as well as our cooking. Great to see others beginning to 'think outside the box' in terms of the traditional family construct! Jack Bergersen Senior Business Data Analyst Communispace

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14 years ago

Great article Debbie. Two other issues to consider are (a) the way family routines are flexible these days, i.e. the mum may be the MGB this week, but next week it could be the dad. And, (b) when cooking duties are shared due to the respective routines. I.e. when the shopping is done by the designated cook, the brands that men vs. women buy can (and often will) differ. So the inclusion of a single brand loyalty component when preparing a brief is also questionable, as competing brands often exist within the same household. Mike Beder, Managing Director, Qualitative Recruitment Australia

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