Marlise Huijzer, Pernille Kok-Jensen and Daniella Sceats
Research methods do not always fit with how people interact with brands nowadays. And consumers can’t give all the answers to the questions that will determine the future of your brand. As people consume online, offline and online, travel the world and experiment as entrepreneurs on the side, they demand more authentic brands. In effect marketing and communication questions need to be approached in a more comprehensive and outward focused way.
Yes, markets today are indeed conversations. Brands are dusting off and getting ready to engage prospects in meaningful two-way conversations before attempting to send their own message, let alone sell to them. New balances, the rise of unconventional business models, and a mega status-shift in which sharing and giving are replacing the consumption of material goods have caused a fundamental change in the relationship between brands and consumers. For market research, this entails coming up with new methods to facilitate authentic dialogues and bridge the gap between consumers and brands. More and more, we find ourselves looking sideways to a more interdisciplinary and co-creative approach in which we join forces with trend professionals, über-experts and style leaders from a broad range of disciplines. In effect, we have moved beyond asking questions into a realm where connecting the dots between insights, trends and brands is a 360° approach.
Cutting through the bullshi
The Irish Food Board, Bord Bia, needed insights into the Dutch beef category in order to come up with a future-proof plan for a communication strategy to promote Irish Beef in the Dutch market (part of an overall mission for Ireland to become a world leader in sustainably produced food and drink). Specifically, they wanted to know how Dutch consumers perceive animal welfare issues and what the role of certifications is. The main challenge was to cut through the hype and intensified animal welfare debate as well as the obvious, civilized answers people tend to come up with.
Taking an approach that combines consumer insights with trend research and expert interviews offers a way to dig deeper into the understanding of market developments, brands and products. This is to say, we wanted to look ahead, while keeping the voice of the consumer close.
Unlocking true feelings
The first phase of this project consisted of focus groups with beef consumers, both mainstream and more green/conscious types. A major challenge was to keep the target group thinking and talking on a real and honest level, filtering out the socially expected or desired. Therefore, we included lots of role-play, projective techniques and individual exercises designed to unlock deeper-rooted insights and feelings. This proved to be an effective way to keep an open conversation and balance between the material and the real role of animal welfare in people’s lives.
The second phase of the project delivered a second layer of understanding by combining trends with expert opinions.
Collaborating closely with our in-house trend department, we took a closer look at some overall meta trends that ultimately turned out to be an important driving force in the strategic decisions taken on the basis of this project. A documentary filmmaker was briefed to produce a short film. In it, two experts in the field of sustainability and agriculture gave in-depth interviews sharing their vision of where the meat industry is heading.
‘Flawsomeness’, a key 2012 trend (coined by trendwatching.com), is all about brands daring to be vulnerable, human, transparent and genuinely connected with their target groups. We tried to take it to the next level in this project. (Interestingly, this attitude is pretty much perpendicular to the current meat industry, which tends to stay closed, secretive and defensive.)
When we placed this trend in the context of expert opinion, it all started to make sense. The desire for a more fair and healthy food system may not be surprising in this day and age. But when looking at the number of (often small scale) initiatives that are already causing a stir in the world of food and drink, it is only a matter of time before the meat industry will have to follow.
We then carefully weighed fieldwork, trends, expert opinion and qualitative research. Here the focus groups merge with the trend-based theoretical framework, combining both forms of raw data into a vision that is aspirational for the future as well as tangible now. In this we benefit from a team of differentiated researchers: a trend researcher to focus on trends alone and a field researcher to keep the voice of the consumer close.
Our research showed that the issue of animal welfare can expect a shift to an entirely new level, one on which people not only care in the abstract, but really want to know everything possible about what they are buying, eating and feeding their children. More importantly, thanks to creative farmers and entrepreneurs, we’ve reached a point at which consumers can finally act on this increased conscientiousness. Bord Bia can spread a meaningful message in this sense, having a rather natural system and high-quality product on offer.
The emotional hooks here are in the area of health and sustainability as well as branding. And nothing whets the appetite like the image of beautiful Irish farmland and happy steers grazing on green grass.
The creative process around product innovation sometimes needs fresher and more forward-oriented thinking. One of our clients, a Dutch consumer association, wanted to launch a printed lifestyle magazine for women. An American concept was already on the market, but they wanted direction in terms of a Dutch product that fitted the needs of Dutch women and the Dutch market. In this case, offering generic meta trends lacked the focus needed to fine-tune a magazine format to match the high expectations of Dutch women, not to mention hold its own in the challenges of the printed publishing market. We chose, therefore, to work with a broad spectrum of disciplines.
Although women are able to evaluate current magazines as well as their needs in the field of magazines and consumer choices, they are not familiar with formats and are unable to give feedback on a more strategic level. For this reason, we felt that in-depth expert opinion was needed from different vantage points: the current new-media landscape, publishing for women, current trends and relevant themes. For this particular project we used a SparkSpeakeasy session: four experts spent fifteen minutes presenting their views to the client, the research team and each other. In this case, we invited one of the leading authorities on women’s marketing; a trend watcher; the editor-in-chief of the most popular Dutch female lifestyle magazine; and a multimedia platform publisher. Following the presentation, we dove into a co-creative Speakeasy, a casual yet in-depth and highly strategic discussion in which our client could tap into their own existing knowledge and the vast experience of our experts. Bringing these two worlds together delivered unexpected and inspiring insights which sparked new ideas. A researcher moderated this discussion and ultimately delivered clear consumer- and expert-based advice regarding the feasibility of successfully launching a Dutch version of the magazine and the tweaks that would be necessary to fit the grounded Dutch mindset.
Stretching the boundaries
As qualitative researchers, we find ourselves looking sideways to a more interdisciplinary and co-creative methodology in which we join forces with clients, experts and target groups. We believe that traditional market research needs a new approach, and that incorporating trends and expert insights is an important part of it. This is not to say that traditional research had become obsolete. The actual transition from raw data to tangible insights that are ready to be used for marketing and communications is something for which the skills of qualitative researchers are very important. Keeping track of your target group, understanding them, surprising them, moving them and being invited to truly engage in their conversation remains an ongoing challenge, both execution-wise and strategically.
Marlise Huijzer is Research Director, Pernille Kok-Jensen is Connectivity Director and Daniella Sceats is Managing Partner at Mare Research in the Netherlands.