Big Brother keeps an eye on buying habits

P&G has put Big Brother-style cameras in homes to carry out consumer research, but will it ever replace traditional methods?

The antics of Nasty Nick and his housemates did more than grip the nation’s TV viewers. The Big Brother phenomenon of last summer also seems to have inspired the latest research methods used by consumer giant Procter & Gamble.

Not content with gaining access to people’s homes through their shopping bags, P&G is now knocking on the consumer’s door, with camera crews poised to record their every move.

Last week, the company rolled out a video-marketing research programme called Everyday Lives, sending cameras into households to capture consumers’ daily routines. The programme has been launched in the homes of 20 paid volunteer families in the UK and another 20 in Italy. There are plans to introduce the scheme in China next month (MW May 24).

The idea is that by studying the people who buy P&G goods, such as Max Factor cosmetics, Ariel washing powder and Pampers nappies, the company can gain invaluable insight into people’s consumer habits.

The findings are likely to influence P&G’s approach to product design, packaging and advertising.

Siamack Salari, co-founder and director of research company Everyday Lives, which will carry out the research on behalf of P&G, says: “The advantage of this method of research is that it picks up inconsistencies between what people say they do and actually do.”

Companies such as Mars have already used Everyday Lives to bring TV cameras into the homes of consumers, although Salari won’t reveal any details about these projects.

Salari, who claims to be the pioneer of the Big Brother research technique in the UK, was formerly head of BMP DDB’s behavioural research arm, Culture Lab, which tested the method in 1998. He left the agency last year and Culture Lab is now part of Everyday Lives.

Salari claims that while observational research will never completely replace focus groups, traditional methods “cannot get the insight that living with a family for several days and capturing their every move on video does.”

Critics of the approach say that the Big Brother method raises ethical questions of privacy and sensitivity.

Salari admits the research programme is intrusive, but insists his company aims to “preserve the dignity of the households,” by not filming them in “compromising situations.”

The Market Research Society’s (MRS) code of conduct states: “Qualitative primary data is difficult to apply anonymity to because an individual’s identity rests in their appearance, their voice and, in some cases, their turn of phrase.”

But observational research is not just carried out by market researchers. Ad agencies, direct marketing agencies, design agencies and companies such as P&G all purport to using the technique, making it difficult to impose one code of conduct to suit all.

Last month, FutureBrand, a branding consultancy and part of the Interpublic Group, invited eight people to spend 24 hours in a specially created FutureBrandHouse to study how they interacted with various consumer brands.

FutureBrand managing director Christopher Nurko says several companies, including retailers and financial services companies, are interested in using the house for their own product research.

FutureBrand plans to introduce a mobile FutureBrandHouse, which will record people’s shopping behaviour and provide clients with valuable insight into how consumers choose a certain brand.

Although most researchers agree that video-recordings of consumers’ everyday behaviour could be the only way of truly getting under the skin of the consumer, this kind of observational research has its pitfalls.

One researcher says consumers, whose everyday actions are recorded, will inevitably indulge in some “play-acting” for the benefit of the camera.

But Nurko insists it is not very easy to act for 24 hours. He says: “There is a basic difference between reality TV shows like Big Brother and the research methodology – the TV show was a competition, whereas research does not create competition between respondents.”

Vijay Solanki, marketing director of IPC Ignite, which publishes Loaded magazine, says: “People change and modify their behaviour whenever they have a camera placed on them. There will be an element of artificiality.”

But he insists that observational research is a “way forward” when combined with traditional techniques. Solanki recently embarked on a consumer insight programme, which involves the marketing team at IPC Ignite going into nightclubs to research what its target market wears, drinks and dances to (MW March 22). It is understood the research will be used to plan the launch of a youth lifestyle title.

Paul Walton, managing director of branding consultancy The Value Engineers, says that observational research “gives a fresher view of life, since the best brands should be like mirrors of society and must show the way we are all living today”.

With research companies charging up to £2,000 per day for ad-hoc observational studies, it is an expensive way to gain an insight into the mundaneness of everyday life.

But with an increasing number of brands being launched, the process by which consumers arrive at their choice is becoming more complicated.

Being there when people buy and use their product or services is one way for companies to tap into the consumers’ decision-making process.

Judging by the growing number of companies queuing up to become flies-on-the-wall in their customers’ homes, this kind of research is a small price to pay if it gives them the edge over their competitors.

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Tom Fishburne is founder of Marketoon Studios. Follow his work at marketoonist.com or on Twitter @tomfishburne See more of the Marketoonist here

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