The heart of the matter

Brands seek to build lasting relationships with consumers, but to do so effectively they need to establish what their products actually mean to people. This is where market research has an innovative and vital role to play, says Alicia Clegg

Market research is a curious business, something like an arms race in which advertisers use ever more ingenious techniques to win hearts and minds.

In the days when Persil washed whiter than other soap powders, and eight out of ten owners knew which food their cats preferred, marketing was about functional benefits. Then, most brand owners got the hang of producing goods that worked and decided they were in the business of selling dreams. The only problem was that many of them chased the same dreams – so still no differentiation.

In the future, say the pundits, the emphasis will be on presenting brands as “shamans” that help us to grow and negotiate the tricky transitions in life, from adolescent insecurity through to old age and infirmity. So will this new approach finally deliver what marketers desire most of all: the power to differentiate brands in ways that matter to consumers?

One practitioner with confidence in the ability of market research to build successful brands is Richard Woods, director of market research consultancy New Solutions. In a paper to the Market Research Society’s annual conference, Woods argued that while most advertisers appreciate that emotions sell brands, few know how to fine-tune an emotional appeal so it becomes a source of lasting competitive advantage. The upshot is that: “All cleaning products play upon the idea of being good carers, while telecoms brands talk about connecting or empowering people.”

Soul searching

To stake out their individuality, says Woods, advertisers need to delve deeper into the “broad emotional territories” in which they operate and ask themselves: “What kind of maturity, sociability or caring does the brand represent?” Given the vast sums of money spent on market research, one might be forgiven for thinking that was already happening. Not so, it seems.

At the heart of the problem is the fact that fine distinctions in meaning are, by their very nature, difficult to research in a discussion group. To overcome this hurdle, researchers use various methods to help participants to think laterally and refine their responses, distinguishing between, for the sake of argument, a pleasurable indulgence and outright hedonism. In practice, says Woods, respondents are often ill-served by the stimulus materials designed by the market research industry.

Not in the mood

“What typically happens is that the consumer is shown a collection of images (mood boards) evoking a lifestyle, need-state or mood and some written text (concept statements) explaining the particular benefit or proposition behind the brand,” he says.

The real problem is that consumers find it hard to relate to such exercises, because the process seems artificial and far removed from the way in which they experience emotions, or indeed brands, in real life. Woods says: “People need stimulating materials they can work with creatively – something that allows them to draw on their everyday experiences and feelings.” So how can the research process be brought to life?

One possibility is to imitate the creative process used by advertisers in developing an ad campaign. Instead of viewing mood boards, research participants are asked to select from a whole gallery of images – so-called “brandcepts” – each exploring a different interpretation of an emotion, or mood, with which the brand might be associated.

As a tangible example of a brand that has benefited from this approach, Woods points to Diageo’s Archers, a popular schnapps targeted at young women. To identify a new direction for the brand, New Solutions showed groups of young women differing creative expressions around the theme of a “girls’ night out”.

Each highlighted a subtly different path that the brand might take – urban sophisticate, “ladette”, fun-loving girl. Woods says: “The important point was not the variety of creative expressions, but the ability they gave to consumers to articulate exactly what the brand should, and should not, become.”

Senses working overtime

These “brandcepts” are just one of the many techniques market researchers use to help consumers engage imaginatively with brand development. Another technique is to encourage research participants to work with the full spectrum of senses (sight, sound, touch, taste and smell).

Underlying this approach, which has its roots in neuro- linguistic programming, is the proposition that individuals use different sensory paths to access their emotions and memories, with some people favouring words, others sound and a third segment focusing on “kinaesthetic” sensation, or feelings.

Evo Research & Consulting associate director Louise Steele explains how the technique can help with brand extension work: “We might ask a group of consumers to describe two rooms, one representing the brand and the other a sub-brand. We ask them to talk about the furnishings they see, the scents they smell. Looking at how the two descriptions differ gives us a feel for whether the core idea behind the brand could extend from one product category to another.”

A variation on this approach is to work with different pieces of music, each evoking a slightly different expression of an emotion – a surge of joy, contentment, light-heartedness. But do such techniques genuinely strengthen a brand’s relationship with its target market?

On the quiet

Research International head of global research and development Rory Morgan believes they can – up to a point. He says: “You’re looking for sources of dissonance within a brand’s image. For instance, you might discover that men with young families quietly identify with the values expressed by brands such as Volvo (reliable, sensible, solid), but reject them publicly for fear of what their friends would say.”

“But,” he adds: “Emotional appeal is only a ‘tie-breaker’. If a brand is perceived to have functional problems, as Persil Power was when it was accused of destroying clothes, understanding its deep-seated emotional appeal becomes irrelevant.”

Using creative approaches to help consumers articulate their reactions to brands has other limitations too. Some people, however much they are stimulated and encouraged, will always struggle to express or even understand their emotional responses. To get round this problem, some research agencies use personality screening to select respondents who are both emotionally intelligent and able to communicate their feelings.

But what if a high proportion of the target market is poorly equipped to express what they feel? In such circumstances, it may be helpful to do what fragrance brand Anaïs Anaïs did when it was researching teenage girls: enlist the help of people who know the target market better than they know themselves.

In the late Nineties, Anaïs Anaïs was struggling to compete against a wave of new entrants to the teenage fragrance market. Against the fashion of the day, which was to evoke images of girl power, Anaïs Anaïs commissioned consultant The Depot to explore the vulnerabilities and developmental needs of its target market. The project was lengthy and included in-depth discussions with clinical psychologists as well as with teenage girls themselves.

Depot managing director Sanjay Nazerali says: “We discovered that teenagers were longing to admit their vulnerabilities. The popular culture was all about being confident and powerful, but the girls wanted to confide in, rather than compete with, each other.” From this realisation was born the brand idea of having the confidence to be tender.

“We highlighted a way in which the brand could be made to matter to teenagers once more, by catering for a need that had gone unrecognised,” adds Nazerali.

It’s mind and matter

Involving clinical psychologists in research projects is not as off-beat as it sounds, when one considers that market research has its roots in academic psychology. However, as many researchers are at pains to point out, consumer research is not simply a matter of digging deep into the human psyche. Another dimension to developing brands that resonate with consumers is understanding how our emotions and willingness to entertain brand ideas are affected by the world around us.

Simon Roberts, founder of Ideas Bazaar, a research-based strategic consultancy that uses ethnographic techniques to explore the interplay between brands, individuals and society, says: “It’s not as easy as discovering a single emotional value that represents the brand; it’s understanding how brands fit into people’s lives and how emotional responses are influenced by the company we keep, or even by something as mundane as the time of day.”

To illustrate his point, Roberts highlights meal times. During the working week, eating is a functional necessity; a matter of getting the children fed, watered and packed off to bed. Fast-forward to the weekend and meals occupy a completely different emotional territory – an opportunity to get together as a family, turn off the television, cook something special and talk. Roberts says: “It’s vitally important for marketers to understand both of those contexts, and to reflect that understanding in the way they talk to consumers.”

Where next?

So where do these techniques leave advertisers? Will all this insight into human nature give them what it takes to develop brilliant campaigns that appeal powerfully to our emotional needs?

Well, there’s no need to get carried away. As Graham Booth, managing director of Team Research, and a spokesman for the Association for Qualitative Research, admits: “Market research can only take you so far. It can tell you what your brand is about emotionally, and maybe highlight a new area to explore. What it cannot do is supply the creative spark, or the wit, that characterises the best brands.”

In other words, in brand-building, as in so many other areas of endeavour, it is not necessarily knowledge that makes the difference – it is imagination.

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