Market researchers often stress how sophisticated and marketing literate consumers have become. Yet, however much they may respect our intelligence, the profession often seems wary of engaging us in a frank discussion. Indeed, people who participate in a focus group are frequently surprised to find that what they are asked to do is construct a mood board, to role play or take part in a word association game, instead of stating their opinions in their own way.
Projective techniques of this kind are designed to tease out information on the way that consumers perceive and experience brands, by digging below the level of spontaneous recall and rationale response. But do these devices do what they claim or do they, as their detractors allege, simply introduce an extra layer of complexity that first has to be deconstructed by the researcher and then related to the brand?
Some of the more exotic techniques may seem like artifice, but in reality most of the tools employed in market research have a legitimate origin. Difficulties arise, however, when techniques that are useful for tackling relatively specific research problems end up being applied more widely – not because they are right for the job, but because they are fashionable.
Alan Hedges, an independent research consultant and spokesperson for the Association of Qualitative Research is critical of the tendency to become enslaved to the latest theory. He says: “It is better to construct a theory from what you do. If you take too academic an approach it can lead you down the wrong track. New approaches are intensively marketed. Then five years later no one has heard of them.”
The faddish side to market research is made worse by agencies that seize upon the latest tools in order to outdo their rivals in front of clients during the pitch process. In reality, of course, clients would be better served by agencies that are simply intent on crafting an approach that is appropriate to the task.
Used judiciously, projective tools can yield valuable insight by enabling people to express thoughts or emotions that they would otherwise struggle, or find awkward, to articulate. An example of this is where participants in a group are asked to fill in thought and speech bubbles for characters depicted in a cartoon.
Bill Pegram, chairman of international research and marketing consultancy Pegram Walters, says: “Projective tools enable you to get beyond the obvious by making it easier for people to be honest”
Projective approaches that are based on sound psychology sometimes fail to deliver useful results, nevertheless. More often than not this is because the researcher has failed to recognise that a tool is unsuitable for the target market. A classic example of this is techniques that call upon role playing skills that many people do not possess. Similarly, researchers studying the business-to-business market, or high-end consumer segments, need to ask themselves whether the participants will view the exercises as patronising.
Much of the skill in using projective tools depends on recognising when other approaches would produce a better outcome. The parameters for this decision vary depending on the target market, the nature of the product and the type of information that the researcher is seeking. As a rule of thumb, however, projective techniques are particularly helpful in enabling people to articulate how they perceive and feel about brands. However, when the objective is to understand better how people view the more tangible attributes of a product or service, asking direct questions may be more effective.
Not an easy option
Conducting group discussions without the aid of sophisticated research tools is not an easy option. Getting people to express their views candidly relies upon the skills and experience of the moderator, in contrast with the basic principles of projective techniques that can be learned comparatively readily.
Tamsin Addison, managing director of research and data mining company Decision Science, says: “It is important to recognise that some people are naturally vocal and will tend to dominate the discussion. You have to find a way of enabling the more reticent people to make their views known, but in a way that does not offend the vociferous ones.”
Successful interviewing critically depends on employing moderators who are good with people and quick-witted enough to adapt their approach to the individual group. One aspect of this is recognising when a simple approach is likely to elicit a better response than one that is complex. Addison admits to using techniques that are far from glamorous, but effective within the right context.
She says: “If Decision Science wants to know how a brand is perceived it might relate some ‘true stories’ and ask the group to match various brands to the right story.” In other contexts, she advocates employing an “I am stupid” approach, simply asking people to explain how the product works.
Careful selection procedures, combined with on-the-job training, will help to optimise the capabilities of research moderators. However, it is also important to address the context within which interviews are held. One of the more serious criticisms levelled at focus groups is that they produce outcomes that lack external validity. This complication arises because the techniques that are employed often encourage consumers to think deeply about products, or communications, which they may use without thinking in everyday life. So while the research may tell the client a great deal about how people see things in the artificial setting of the group, it is not necessarily an accurate indication of how people perceive brands, or behave towards them in the real world.
One way to overcome the distorting influence of the artificially contrived group is to combine discussion with observation. What this approach typically involves is researchers, sometimes accompanied by clients, experiencing the lifestyle of the target market through so-called participant observation. For instance, when one major sportswear manufacturer wanted to learn more about the context in which its brand is experienced it commissioned Informer Brand Development to spend time at skate-parks and hang out with urban teenagers. The same consultancy helped Dana UK to reposition the Insignia range of male fragrances. One element of the research involved filming young males getting ready for school or work, and prior to going out in the evening. This allowed them to better understand the way in which different grooming products are used at various times of the day.
Like any research tool, observational techniques present potential pitfalls. Making sense of people’s actions is an on-going challenge for companies that employ covert observation. Watching consumers requires no special knowledge. However, to correctly interpret the motivation and thought processes of another individual, and thus derive insight that has a commercial value, requires experience and knowledge of the basic principles of ethnography. Similarly, with overt techniques such as participant observation, researchers face an uphill battle to minimise the extent to which their presence affects how people behave.
What distinguishes observational research is its ability to generate insights that are drawn directly from consumers’ experiences, instead of being inferred by analogy. And it is this immediacy that appeals to marketers who are frustrated with the more cerebral techniques which have dominated market research of late. Simon Sholl, planning and development director of brand design agency SiebertHead, says:”Agencies have become too preoccupied with developing checks and balances to compensate for the fact that all research is artificial. What these sophisticated tools do is make the whole process more remote, not more reliable.”
Advocates of a more engaged approach to market research argue that clients should be involved in talking to consumers in the high street, working alongside the agency, instead of waiting passively for the debrief. Where companies are developing new products, a workshop approach can be used to allow the client to question consumers directly about their reactions to the product.
Sholl says: “Clients have to be prepared to get their hands dirty and become actively involved in the consumer’s experience. If you are developing a product such as a children’s microwavable-ready meal, you could trawl through scores of mood and concept boards. Alternatively you could bring the kids and their parents to a kitchen, so the kids can prepare and eat the meal, and the marketer can talk to the parents about the issues that concern them.”
The trend towards a less cerebral view of brands has re-awakened interest in a more naturalistic approach to market research. Whereas a decade ago brands were typically depicted as clusters of emotional attributes, marketers today are more inclined to focus on getting the consumer experience right. This shift in emphasis is helpful in so far as it redresses a tendency to overlook the value of simply watching and talking to consumers. However, it does not negate the value of taking a more oblique approach in situations in which consumers are unable, or unwilling, to express their views openly.
Projective techniques are important research aids that have had their reputation diminished through over-use and misapplication. That researchers need to keep abreast of the latest tools and techniques goes without saying. However, having the ability to assimilate new techniques is only part of the challenge. In addition to this, market research professionals must possess the critical maturity to evaluate each research project on its merits, and to select the approach, or combination of approaches, that is most appropriate for the task in hand – regardless of the prevailing fashion.