Does VIPer study offer added bite?

In creating a new research panel that investigates ABs, the consortium behind VIPer believes it has a winner. Others are unconvinced.

Like the elusive youth market, upmarket and affluent consumers are often viewed as the holy grail for marketers.

It is a belief that has not been lost on a consortium consisting of Channel 4, Classic FM, the More Group, Condé Nast and Mediapolis, which has launched a study to examine the brand and media habits of people in the AB social group.

There are 10 million such people, accounting for a fifth of the UK population, according to the Target Group Index’s (TGI) 1999 figures. This represents a rise of seven per cent on 1994.

The first wave of research from an ongoing project called VIPer (meaning Very Important People exclusive research) has received a mixed reception.

A panel of 1,018 ABs, aged 25 to 54, have been recruited for study – to be carried out three times a year. Qualitative and quantitative research has been used to split the panel into seven cluster types, such as “successful with a conscience” and “money motivated”.

MediaVest managing director Robert Ray believes the research offers media planners no greater insight into the habits of ABs than Target Group Index (TGI) Premier, which also examines this social group. “I would like to have heard when are they most receptive to being talked to,” he says. “It did not address the issue of where best to place ads to get an effect. It didn’t get under the skin of the best methods to communicate.”

But Mediapolis research director Peter Bowman claims the second wave of research – looking at how ABs spend their day – will attempt to address this issue. “The point of availability and receptiveness at various times of the day will be addressed. So will the role that media plays at certain stages of decision-making when it comes to leisure activities,” he says.

Distinguishing VIPer from other available research, he adds: “It’s not the job of TGI, or the Broadcaster’s Audience Research Board (BARB), to get behind motivation.”

Richard Asquith, UK commercial director at BMRB Media Service, which compiles TGI, says: “VIPer is a completely different project to TGI Premier, which is available to everyone. Premier offers broad coverage for as many clients as possible.”

Only consortium members will have direct access to the VIPer data. Agencies and clients will have to request information through consortium members. But they will be able to commission bespoke questions for a fee, and this element will be confidential.

Ray says clients and agencies are already able to ask TGI to address specific issues in its research.

Yet Stuart Corke, strategic planning manager at Times Newspapers, says: “We can tackle subjects that are a bit more radical, such as soft drugs.”

Consortium members claim VIPer is designed as a planning tool rather than a basis of trading for agencies. But that does not prevent consortium members’ salesforces from using the data.

Referring to custom-made solutions for advertisers, Corke says: “If it is relevant, we will hand some of the VIPer data to salespeople.”

Sean Kelleher, commercial marketing manager at C4, admits clients or their agencies will be approached where information relevant to their market is revealed. “Our own sales team will have the data.”

C4 is also a member of the consortium behind Right of Admissions Research (ROAR) – the joint study into the attitudes and habits of 1,469 15- to 24-year-olds across the UK.

Kelleher says: “The success of ROAR has led us to do something with the ABs market – hence our involvement with VIPer.”

He claims ROAR, which is carried out four times a year, has helped its members to quickly spot changing trends among the youth market, such as a rapid increase in the popularity of Adidas and a shift away from Levi’s.

Although VIPer has restricted the age of the ABs – it focuses on those who are economically active and therefore more established in their attitudes – Kelleher believes there will be opportunities to spot trends.

One trend which industry insiders will be watching is the take-up of digital TV. The first wave of research, conducted in July, revealed that ten per cent of the VIPer panel had digital TV, and a further 43 per cent thought they would be signing up for it in the near future.

The increasing use of the Internet will also come under scrutiny, as will its knock-on affect on the consumption of other media. Some 65 per cent of the VIPer panel use the Net regularly, with 42 per cent able to access it at home.

Although ABs are time-pressured, according to VIPer, they still manage to watch an average of three hours TV a day – for an average six days a week.

Some industry observers have questioned the size of the VIPer panel, pointing to TGI Premier, which uses 5,500 ABs.

One press buyer comments: “When split down to seven clusters, you could effectively end up with very small groups.”

However, Bowman points out that media agencies trade on BARB data, which incorporates the viewing habits of ABs – based on a pool of 1,740 AB adults.

Despite the vagaries of a social classification system devised in the Forties and based on professional status, Bowman feels the ABC1C2DE scale is better than the income-based system used in the US. He claims that income is not the sole influence on what people buy. “The Market Research Society regularly tries to find alternatives to the social grouping system, but can’t.”

One press buyer says: “I don’t think the system is outdated as it takes account of peoples’ aspirations.”

But, as with all research, the value of VIPer will only become apparent once a bank of reliable – and comparable – data is built up over a period of time.

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