One of the puzzles of brand development is the question of where exactly this development starts, and how the starting point is defined. Even if they are modified or rejected at a later stage, how do you arrive at the first premises on which development will be based?
Those involved in the first stage of this process are likely to have the strongest chance of maintaining influence throughout – and will try to claim at least some of the glory for the end result. So there is understandably intense competition to colonise the ground at the very start of brand development: the mapping of consumer attitudes and behaviour.
There are a number of reasons why this area of early brand development research is now so hotly contested. First, fast-track brand development is at a premium, with clients looking for a combination of credibility and speed. Second, along with more intuitive interpretation, qualitative techniques which do not even attempt representative sampling have gained respectability, as long as the requisite checks and balances are introduced later in the process.
Finally, as in so many areas of marketing, clients are increasingly being assailed from all sides by suppliers – in this case, brand consultancies, market research companies and even PR companies – each offering overlapping services.
In these cross-disciplinary areas, the views of those who have moved from one side to the other are often illuminating. Phil Spires is one such migrant, having left brand consultancy the Value Engineers only a few months ago to join The Research Business International (TRBI) as brand development research manager. As he explains, it is more normal to see people heading in the opposite direction; but his move was influenced, he says, by a conviction that research companies could play a more central role in shaping brands.
Spires’ argument that brand consultants need to be protected from themselves by the “reality check” of out-of-house research is a familiar one – and one which is widely accepted. But he takes this argument further, advocating the allocation of market research account directors and managers as part of the brand development team, just as happens in other areas of marketing.
“The researcher’s job is to keep the consumer’s voice top of mind throughout the project,” says Spires. “Currently, clients aren’t bringing market research companies in early enough or for a long enough period. They use their services in a ‘dip-in, dip-out’ way.”
In his previous existence in consultancy, Spires saw both good and bad practice in the way research was used. “We brought in one company at the beginning of a project to do the initial research, and retained it through three stages of concept testing. The more research they carried out, the more useful the debrief became, and the more contextual understanding there was,” he recalls.
“But when we needed to have one piece of research carried out by a separate agency, the work had to be rerun,” says Spires. “Everything they said was correct, but there was no context.”
Work carried out by TRBI has included initial research for retail brands. Depth interviews and accompanied shopping trips have been used to build up a picture of the target consumer, with the same panels returned to throughout the project. For certain brands, the focus will be on early adopter categories such as “leading-edge youth” and “sophisticated housewives”.
There seems to be wide agreement about the value of involving the same market research team at different points on the development curve. If this is the case, then why not have them carry out exploratory work from the outset, as TRBI has done?
Brand consultancy Dragon believes that the risk is two-fold: it will limit the degree to which the consultancy’s own team is steeped in the particular market and consumer group they are focusing on; and, more seriously, externally commissioned research can simply misdirect the entire project.
“The first instinct for a lot of clients is to do a market research study, often before a brand consultancy has been brought in,” says director Dorothy MacKenzie. “This is often not the most helpful way of gathering initial information for the brand. Researchers are now moving into the realms of producing market mapping and interpretations which, if adopted, will dictate the limited number of hypotheses that can be explored. These sorts of tools should be used with caution.”
MacKenzie makes the point that it is frequently those who are untrained in research techniques who can elicit some of the most useful information when, for example, talking to children about brands. “Now we focus on getting as much direct experience of the consumer as early on as possible,” she explains. “This kind of work is often regarded as second-class research because it’s not carried out by outside specialists.” But so long as statistically reliable checking is brought in at a later stage, in Dragon’s experience, this approach tends to be the most productive in shaping first concepts.
This is not the view of TRBI. “The brand consultants certainly have to be fully immersed,” Spires agrees. “But all the biggest decisions are going to be based on market research, and it is the researchers who will provide the work that the team as a whole is immersed in.”
Even Dragon will, where appropriate, bring in outside researchers at the earliest stages. This was the case with the Oxygen line extension to Elida Gibbs’ Impulse brand. According to MacKenzie, the Egg research agency was brought into this project to provide authoritative and useful insights into the world of the target teenage audience.
Like Dragon, the FutureBrand consultancy takes each research requirement on its own merits. Some will be handled in-house, while in other cases – notably where a broad geographic reach is needed – those with the skills and structure to handle the project will be brought in. One firm belief, though, is that exploratory qualitative research should be handled by experienced moderators who are familiar with the brand. These would normally be from the in-house team, says the company.
FutureBrand singles out two pressures which strengthen the case for consultancy involvement in these earliest stages: the increasing need for brand owners to gauge their market and act quickly and, where it is a question of a brand extension, the requirement for a sense of what is onor off-brand to match the consumer’s own instincts.
Meanwhile, as the divide between different marketing disciplines continues to blur, interest in this first round of brand development is coming from some surprising quarters. Ketchum’s name may usually be associated with PR, but since it set up its so-called Epicentre (“Epi” standing for exploration, planning and intelligence), it has become involved in all aspects of branding.
Susannah Flynn, associate director of Ketchum Life, specialises in mapping social trends, many of them originating in the world of fashion and beauty. She describes her work at the Epicentre as “quite intuitive”. “Clients are usually keen to go with you, but like to see everything up on a chart. They like it to look scientific,” she explains. “They will ask awkward questions like, ‘How long is a trend, and where does it start?'”
Like many in market research, Flynn shares the view that consumer group discussions will rarely provide more than a snapshot of today. Like TRBI, Flynn believes that of all groups, early adopters, experts and influencers are most likely to tell you something about tomorrow. In Ketchum’s Influencer Immersion technique, designated groups from celebrities to journalists and experts are mobilised to establish sector influences and future trends.
There is plenty in all this to frighten your average market researcher to death. As professor of brand marketing at Birmingham University Business School, Leslie de Chernatony has watched researchers carve out an ever-larger niche for themselves in brand development. As a specialist in research himself, and regular host of Market Research Society brand marketing seminars, he is also aware of the risks where trained researchers are not involved.
“The validity of the data can be an issue,” warns de Chernatony. “The danger is that in the early stages of research you are, by definition, going to be in the qualitative/intuitive area. For that, you need a humanistic rather than a mechanistic approach to depth interviews, for example. It’s not what the respondents say, but the context they say it in which matters.”
Brand consultants should, in turn, perhaps, be frightened by the prospect of market researchers muscling in on their own hallowed hunting grounds. “Practitioners have moved from being ‘pure’ market researchers to being marketing consultants with a very strong bias on the research side,” says de Chernatony. “They are talking far more about the implications of the data, while sitting on an incredible repertoire of skills and techniques.”
It was at least four years ago that the professor ran a course at the Market Research Society entitled “From data purveyor to strategic adviser”. With brand launches and even brand extensions as risky a business as ever, it seems that clients are increasingly buying the advice along with the data -and at even the earliest stages of the development process.