The growing limitations of traditional brand research

Headquarters by Elsie esq., Flickr

You would be hard pressed to find a mid to senior marketer that isn’t an advocate of the customer-centric view of marketing.  It has after all been the dominant marketing paradigm of the past 30 plus years, ingrained in every marketing text and preached by industry leaders.

With the identification and fulfilment of category specific customer needs and wants as its cornerstone, it has made referral to the voice of the consumer in all aspects of the marketing-mix central to best practice marketing.  As a result a smorgasbord of market research methodologies has arisen ranging from anthropological techniques to rocket science-like statistical modelling.  All in search of breakthrough ‘consumer insights’ (to use the now preferred nomenclature for research findings).

“People don’t know what they want until you show it to them”

So it has been perturbing for many that Apple, one of the world’s most valuable and innovative brands, has seemingly eschewed research for intuition.  A position summarised by Steve Job’s observation “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups.  A lot of the times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them”.

It is relatively easy to put down the habit of not listening to customers to Apple’s narrow technology-led product categories and ground breaking creative capabilities.  As well as restricting the critique to product development. But Jobs hasn’t been alone in pointing out the limitations of research.

Adam Morgan, the originator of challenger brand thinking, has observed that customer-led strategies are of the most value in “Diseased” categories where there are fundamental problems still to be found in its products or customer experience (for instance banking or mobile phones).  Here traditional research can still be used to ask consumers for direction.

However most categories nowadays aren’t problematic.   Morgan calls these “Contemporary” categories where consumers are generally content with what they receive.  In these categories consumers don’t want to, nor are they able to, imagine the next jump in innovation.  Here research can’t ask consumers for direction, though it can be used to get consumer responses or answers to ideas that brands themselves generate.

Brand research – looking for answers from the usual suspects

The typical approach to brand strategy research implicitly assumes a “Diseased” category.  Some type of qualitative research (often focus groups) is used to listen to what consumers have to say about a brand, its competitors and the category overall.  Based on this it comes to a conclusion about how a brand should position itself.  Occasionally it involves taking a “Contemporary” view and incorporates brand generated positioning options for evaluation; though usually these are moderate step-outs rather than game changers.

Overall though, this research is based on the belief that the ‘answer’ lies within the current boundaries of consumer perceptions of a brand, its competitive set and product-defined category expectations.  And herein lies the reason traditional brand research is increasingly struggling to add value to the development of brand strategies.

As noted, most categories are “Contemporary”.  They are populated with more players than ever before with each offering similar products and quality.  The fundamental consumer drivers and motivators are well known and well catered for.  Quantitative cross-category research has found that in many categories consumers don’t see significant differences between competing brands.  So the standard approach to brand research tends to play back what is already known and leaves marketers no more enlightened as to where to take their brands.

Recognising these shortcomings some researchers are employing techniques that involve constructively challenging consumer perceptions.  Others are using principles of co-creation where consumers are invited to collaboratively build brand directions. While others are looking for new insights and opportunities in cultural shifts or developments in other (change-leading) categories, using such tools as semiotics and trend analysis.

The common denominator across these is the generation of ideas and options prior to research.  These ideas provide the fuel for conversations with consumers and become the building blocks for future strategy.

The reality is that a lot of brand research doesn’t employ this level of ‘hypothesis testing’.  It is simply easier to use the default approach of asking consumers about their current perceptions of brands and categories;  which tends to be comfortable for customer-centric schooled marketers but which often just produces ‘so what’ findings.

The challenge of value-driven branding

Going forward the latest thinking about brand strategy may further reduce the contribution that even the most progressive of the current research techniques can make to setting brand direction.

As a recent B&T article on the 2012 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity noted: “One of the key trends to emerge from both agencies and advertisers was the need to market with a social purpose and brands needing to add value to people’s lives rather than just engaging with them…Advertisers must now integrate themselves into consumer’s lives more than ever, and to do that they need to be advocates of more than just their own products”.

This requires brands to think in terms of “Movement not just a message”; about going beyond what they sell to being supporters about something that matters to people.

And to think in terms of “Action not advertising”, about what they do, not just what they say.  In short, “brands…must provide utility in people’s lives like they never have before”.

The implication of this is that brand owners and their agencies “must find a relevant truth for brands rather than traditional insights to add value…If you can’t find it, our job is to create it”.

These statements support the view that marketing is moving from a customer-centric paradigm to a value-driven paradigm, where brands need to go beyond their focus on customer satisfaction to how they can “make the world a better place”.

While this may sound grandiose, especially for ‘regular’ brands, this notion isn’t just about social or environmental good.  Rather it should be thought about in terms of how brands can add to people’s experiences.  About how they can make life a bit easier, more interesting, more fun and so on. (For examples of purpose and utility based strategies for brands of various sizes see the post The New Alternatives for Brand Strategy: Go Big or Go Small).

The future of brand strategy research?

As noted “traditional insights” offer little assistance to brands in identifying how they can add value in this new paradigm.   To have a valid role to play in the development of future brand strategies, brand research needs to evolve.  This may involve providing a broader understanding of the passions and motivations in life of a brand’s customers and their influencers.  Or methods of evaluating and building ideas with consumers where initial responses to them within a research environment may be uncertain because they challenge what is known and expected.

In the meantime brand custodians need to be more aware of the limitations of the commonly used approaches to brand research and more circumspect in relying on them to define their brands.

Image Credit: Elsie esq.

:Thinkshots | Thinkshot posts are observations and ideas relating to current issues and trends impacting the future of brands, marketing and marketing communications.

Our blog aims to provide thoughts and insights into brand strategy, brand management and brand building for navigating a changing world.

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