The Apprentice: From NBC and the BBC to ESOMAR Congress 2017!

By Rhiannon Price

Learn how you can use TV shows to re-imagine your qualitative methods.

“You’re fired!”. You may or may not be familiar with this catchphrase – but given The Apprentice is one of the most successful global reality TV franchises to hit our screens (aired in around 30 countries) it is likely that you are. But just in case you aren’t familiar with it, The Apprentice was first aired in the US in 2004 with the now US president Donald Trump at its helm. This was shortly followed by Lord Alan Sugar’s UK version which, at its peak, reached 6.4 million viewers.

The premise of the show is “The Ultimate Job Interview” whereby candidates compete to become hired by one of the country’s famous business magnates. The 10-week process is task-based and designed to test the candidate’s skills in notable areas – salesmanship,  negotiation, requisitioning, leadership, teamwork, and organisation – with each episode covering a single task.

But what, you might be wondering, has this got to do with research?

Well, look a little closer and you realise this isn’t just a highly entertaining TV show, it has the potential to be used as the basis for a brand new and innovative qualitative research methodology. Which is exactly what Northstar and Jaguar Land Rover did when together we completely re-imagined how to execute and disseminate target customer exploration. Key to this new methodology was the innovation of making the method for gathering insight also the medium for sharing it.

But why The Apprentice?

After investigating many potential TV shows, we decided it was the perfect format as it had the benefits of being reality TV which is great for character exploration. However, it is also a gameshow meaning we could take advantage of everything gamification has to offer market research. For example, higher engagement levels and accessing system 1 thinking. But more than this, it is also very familiar to our participants. This meant that the known and almost expected exaggerated personalities and dog-eat-dog environment would act as the ultimate projective technique, giving them license to be their true selves without fear of judgement. Also, its familiarity would benefit us in terms of insight communication – anyone who watches The Apprentice knows it is just as much about seeing how the characters unfold as it is about seeing who wins the tasks. Therefore, the default setting for our clients watching our episodes would be to try to learn about the characters, which is perfect for communicating target customer insight.

There was a lot involved in designing, executing and editing our three 15-minute episodes and, on many occasions, as researchers, we were out of our comfort zones. We wrote scripts, auditioned bi-lingual actors, developed characters and backstories, created theme tunes, sourced boardroom tables and hired illustrators to name just a few of our ‘non-research’ responsibilities. Once we were ready to go, with the help of The Moment – a creative engagement agency – we put 12 ‘candidates’ in the UK, US and Germany through their paces. To do this, we divided them into three teams whereby, over the course of two days, they completed three bespoke tasks designed to reveal their character traits and vehicle desires. At the end of these two days, one candidate in each market was crowned Jaguar Land Rover’s Ultimate Target Customer.

We faced many challenges along the way, not least ensuring that we were creating a fun experience for our participants and an entertaining TV show for our clients, but that at the same time we were never losing sight of the insight at the heart of it all. But, we are proud to say the end result was game-changing. Firstly, we have never before seen such levels of participant engagement – in each market we were repeatedly thanked for giving them the opportunity to take part in an amazing and unique experience – which is saying something given the 10 hour days! Secondly, it was a great success in engaging a wide audience and disseminating insight across Jaguar Land Rover. For example, our three 15 minute episodes have been viewed over 2,500 times within Jaguar Land Rover, which is around three times more than previous target customer documentaries.

But, the learnings for the industry are perhaps what we are most excited about and what we cannot wait to share at ESOMAR Congress in September. For a while now Northstar has felt passionate about the potential of tapping into pop culture to create more engaging and innovative methodologies and, with The Apprentice, we believe we have proven this to be the case. And, with 100s of TV formats out there, the possibilities are endless!

Interested to hear more?

Come and see us present our paper which we are proud to say has been nominated for Congress Best Overall Paper. We will be presenting alongside Jaguar Land Rover on Wednesday 13th September at 9.40am on the main stage (stage 1). We will see you there!

Rhiannon Price, Head of Qualitative, Northstar Research