Tom Wilms

Researchers are proving agile at applying new methodologies to old problems, but are still failing to tackle the ‘so what’ question. Royal Grolsch’s Tom Wilms tells Jo Bowman the industry needs more raconteurs

Much is made of the impact of new technology on market research, but the biggest challenges and opportunities – both for researchers and their business clients – have a very human dimension to them, says Tom Wilms, manager, strategy, media & insights marketing with Royal Grolsch in the Netherlands.

Increasingly complex markets mean researchers have to move beyond counting to recounting – storytelling that describes not only what’s happening and why, but also why it matters.

The backdrop to this is a beer market that is growing globally, with average annual per capita consumption increasing from about 22 litres a decade ago to 27 litres last year. Much of this growth is being fuelled by China, where average consumption has almost doubled in the last 10 years, and other emerging markets in Asia and Latin America. In the US and in Western Europe, though, it’s a different picture. Consumers here drink more beer more often, but the market is saturated and in fact contracted slightly last year. In the Netherlands, sales in bars have been hit by the smoking ban. People are going out for drinks and meals less often, and sales for consumption at home have risen at the expense of the bar trade.

Retailers have responded by running discounts, which are so extensive in some European markets that just about every supermarket chain has one beer brand or another on special offer all the time. This results in little switching between brands, but subsidises loyal users who stock up when their preferred brand is discounted. Boosting sales under these conditions requires new insights, Wilms says.

“What’s important is that we move from just measuring attitude to measuring actual behaviour, and that means shopper research,” he says. “What’s a shopper doing from the moment he’s going to buy beer, walks into a store, goes into the beer aisle (or not), chooses something etc. What does that look like? Insight into this area, using several techniques, is gaining in importance.”

To this end, Grolsch is using observational techniques, following shoppers, either physically or with cameras, to see how they make their decisions. Eye tracking is also being employed to give insight into areas like packaging, shelf arrangement and pricing. The preference now is for objective techniques like neuroscience, though some exit interviews are used to complement this work. “We’re moving more into an area of asking without asking, because we’re not always sure whether people are able to provide us with the right answers.”

Social media research is proving a useful counterweight to traditional studies. Balancing relevance and representation means not choosing either new or old techniques, but using each as appropriate. “We attach a lot of value to representative research, but sometimes it’s more valuable to get relevant stuff back,” Wilms says. “They go together.” Grolsch is also working on improving the experience of research for participants, using simple games to make responding less of a chore.

Play to your strengths
As the borders of market research blur, new research skills must be developed, Wilms says. With talent becoming increasingly specialised, researchers with new skills, like storytelling and journalistic abilities, are being recruited. Wilms’ own team of researchers has completed a storytelling course, which has helped them “to be able to create a story with just a couple of graphs. You end up with a far better discussion at the end of it, and the real value lies there. It means we make better decisions.”

“I think professional agencies, big and small, are quite well equipped to provide new techniques. On the other hand, getting the message across, getting the voice of the consumer into the boardroom, that’s something that’s lacking across the industry,” he says.“Too often I see agencies have spent 80% of their time getting the project done and 20% getting the message across. It should be the other way around. We don’t want suppliers coming in and telling a story in 120 slides, but it still happens. We need to go from ‘what’ to ‘so what?’.” Presentations that are big on stories and short on slides make for a better discussion of the “so what?” and “what do we do now?” questions, but that clearly isn’t everyone’s forte.

“People who are analytically or methodologically well-equipped are not necessarily the best people to communicate outcomes to clients,” Wilms says. Assigning tasks to play to individuals’ strengths would help paint a more compelling picture overall. Resistance to change in many mainstream research agencies – and the fact that a single agency can’t deliver every source of research that a client is likely to want to draw on – is one reason why many companies are hiring people with new skills for their in-house teams.

“The people dimension is the real problem here,” Wilms says.“We’re very good at addressing what happened, and sometimes why it happened, but with a question like ‘so what?’ and ‘what now?’ we start to feel slightly uncomfortable – that’s just not us. We’re just counting. And that’s a step as an industry that we have to take. We’ve always been number counters and now we need to be business partners, and a lot of knowledge and expertise is necessary to build the trust we need if we’re to be partners.”

Getting the right information from consumers and getting a clear message to the boardroom are big issues, and both rely on having talented people with the right skills. As Wilms says, “It’s all to do with people.”

Tom Wilms is Manager Strategy, Media & Insights Marketing with Royal Grolsch in the Netherlands.