As markets and media fragment, market research is having to fragment too. Driven by the trend towards niche marketing, the increasingly competitive nature of many sectors, greater demands from clients for cost-effectiveness and higher client expectations, traditional research methodologies are now being complemented by a wide range of unconventional approaches.
Rory Morgan, research and development director for the Research International Group (RI), believes approaches to research are polarising. “There is a move from the centre to the extremes: to more qualitative research at one end and to hi-tech quantitative processes at the other.”
RI is developing a technique called dual-scaling which operates as a refinement of an established process called conjoint analysis. This aims to elicit what is important about a brand by asking consumers how they view its appearance, manufacture or performance.
Morgan says: “It is hard to ask people questions like this directly as they don’t tend to analyse their own motivations. Conjoint gets around this by asking simple questions like which of a pair of products or concepts they prefer or how much they like something on a scale of one to ten. The respondent makes a series of overall judgments but from the interviewers knowledge of the constituent parts of each product he can work out which values people attach to aspects of a product.
For instance in the car sector you might present people with a range of car attributes such as number of doors and country of origin. They may claim to prefer a Japanese hatchback to an American four-door saloon and the methodology, the scientific structuring of the questions, will enable the researcher to mathematically quantify the value attached to particular product attributes and discover whether it was being Japanese or a hatchback that was more important.”
Morgan and his RI colleagues are now introducing dual-scaling, by which researchers investigate two sorts of product attributes: the macro (concerning major elements like brand image, manufacturer and pricing) and the micro (looking at smaller scale issues such as colour of upholstery).
“These two sets of variables used to get muddled up, with the macro issues tending to be overlooked. Now we look at them separately, we get a more accurate picture and one that is often more in line with management experience.”
Dual-scaling can help in evaluating brand equity – by defining it in terms of its impact on consumers and working out exactly how much of a price premium it can sustain. The process has also been integrated successfully into work on customer satisfaction and is particularly appropriate in areas such as utilities, telecommunications and financial services.
Despite attempts to develop more hi-tech methods of conducting research, little work has been done on the implications of the Internet for market research. One man who has looked into the possibilities of researching along the World Wide Web is Peter Comley, a partner at Simon Godfrey Associates.
He says: “In the US everyone is talking about using the Internet for research, though not much is being done commercially. Over there only a very small percentage of research companies have access to it. At a recent Market Research Society meeting on the Internet in the UK it was clear no-one had any idea what it was, let alone what they could do with it.”
Research is unlikely to develop on the Internet until UK telecoms operators join their US counterparts in offering free local calls to customers. Applications are also likely to remain limited until more adults have PCs. At the moment Comley suggests the main areas will be in IT or business, where it will be a relatively simple matter to e-mail a random sample of particular job titles or IT users with questions on selected concepts or products. However, there could be some use in fast-moving consumer goods.
Comley says: “You could use the Internet by choosing a panel of housewives, setting them up with a PC at home and then sending them details of new products down the line.”
The advantages of such a procedure compared with interviewing a group in a research room, include speed of response and the ability to examine a product at leisure and at home. However, the disadvantages include the quality of the pictures that would appear on screen, the difficulty of monitoring the respondents’ approach to answering questions and the inappropriateness of discussing a product without being able to hold it.
Perhaps an approach which is more likely to take off is the new “rock face” method pioneered by design company Coley Porter Bell.
Managing director Amanda Connolly explains: “We started looking for a new research method after seeing some Henley Centre research which showed that up to 70 per cent of people make the decision about which brand to buy when they are actually in the supermarket. We felt we needed to be at the rock face, to be with consumers at point of decision, in order to really understand their response to branding.
“Too often research is carried out in a white room with four walls where people are likely to give very rational answers and may be influenced by the views of others in the group.”
The Coley Porter Bell research – through RI – took the form of a series of accompanied shops through stores, some of which were videoed. The findings showed that decisions are usually made in a split second on the basis of a trigger which pulls the customer in.
Connolly adds: “People could not always analyse why they liked something and as soon as you asked them questions they would immediately give rational answers that said little about the brand like ‘it looked interesting’ or ‘I liked the look of it’. However, observing them it was clear they were subconsciously looking for triggers – symbols, colours, shapes and then simple information on product advantages.”
A supermarket is not the only rock face at which research can be carried out. Anywhere where a product is chosen or used, from dinner parties to motorways, might well be an appropriate place to conduct this kind of qualitative research.
Research is not only getting more adventurous, clients are also more concerned to know that there is a solid scientific framework behind the methodology.
Tom O’Dwyer is director of market research at The Marketing Organisation and both sells and buys market research. He says: “Qualitative work is now used more widely because it is rich in information and therefore helps to target marketing efforts and because, as more people are committed to research than ever there is not enough money around to run quantitative surveys on every project. Until recently people did not really question qualitative research. Now researchers have to demonstrate a clear scientific basis for their methodology.”
Predictive research is one of the most exciting areas opening up to clients. The majority of budgets are spent on understanding current-day issues and clients traditionally have had little time to look around the corner.
Former planning director Crawford Hollingworth argues that although knowing about your brand and keeping it going is important, companies should also be looking ahead, even in seemingly slow-moving markets.
Hollingworth is developing a tool called Headlight Vision, jointly owned by the Simons Palmer Group and Hollingworth’s own company, Insight Track, which talks to those likely to influence markets rather than mainstream consumers.
He says: “It is not only the very young who are adventurous and prepared to experiment with new products. We’re trying to talk to people who are creating for markets – the visionaries – not simply those consumers who will adopt what has been created.”
These visionaries can exist in any market – analysts in financial services; fashion editors in the world of high street fashion; business school students studying the future; or entrepreneurs who decide on new bars and clubs and who determine the next leisure activities like snowboarding.
Hollingworth adds: “For each client we would build a unique panel of visionaries. They don’t all sit down together as then you get rivalry and people don’t tell the truth. They will be asked for their views and thoughts, ideally on an ongoing basis, with updates every few months.”
Hollingworth argues that most companies only try to predict trends in their own market instead of looking at the impact of other markets on theirs.
He stresses the opportunity Headlight Vision gives for the cross-fertilisation of values.
He says: “You can use the tool to develop an understanding of potential trends in other sectors which you can exploit within your own and also to understand how your company’s equities may be relevant in other markets.”
Hollingworth cites Virgin as a good example. “Virgin understood its brand equity of being trustworthy and ‘of the people’ and moved into the financial services sector where it recognised an insecurity among consumers.”
A similar observation of the current trend to contractual work might lead a retail site owner to build offices where people can hire desk space. Likewise an understanding of changing tastes might have helped brewers foresee the rise of alcoholic lemonade.
Predictive research may involve new and unconventional methodology but, at heart, it is a simple extension of the fundamental research need to know a market.
In the future, and for the future, marketers will also need to know where their market will be.