It’s time to get personal

Market researchers are deploying ever more inventive ways of ascertaining what consumers think of the brands they buy. They are getting ‘up close and personal’ and observing their every move, says David Benady

Watch out when you next go shopping, that besuited executive stalking you down the supermarket aisles could be a senior director of a multi-national corporation observing your every move.

Brand owners feel that a wide gulf has opened up between them and their consumers, and they are looking for new ways to bridge that gap. They have discovered the benefits of observing the way people buy brands in supermarkets and have taken to organising discussion groups with consumers to find out what makes them tick.

This new creed of “customer closeness” means that executives are even answering calls to customer carelines so they can get a better “feel” for their consumers.

It sounds a bit like David Attenborough climbing into a gorillas’ den so he can observe the primates at close range. Marketers, too, are watching consumers in their natural habitat, though their concern is different from that of the zoologists. They want to know how to squeeze more profit out of the common but perplexing species known as the consumer.

The market research industry promotes a wide range of observational techniques, such as ethnographic research, where marketers and researchers move into people’s homes to find out how they relate to brands and products. But the search for ways to get closer to customers is throwing doubt on the effectiveness of traditional methods of uncovering people’s reactions to brands, such as focus groups.

Researchers say marketers are increasingly trying to break through the two-way mirror of the focus group and place themselves in the middle of the discussion.

Reach out, they’ll be there

As Claire Bruce, managing director of market research company Nunwood Consulting, says: “It is the kind of thing our clients are calling out for more and more. It is not enough to have the traditional focus group viewing facilities. Clients want to reach out and touch their consumers.” She takes clients on shopping trips with local teenagers to see how they spend their time and money, and to learn how they interact with one another when they are in a shopping centre.

The problem for marketers is that they often work in companies supplying goods and services to people who are not like them. A lot of marketers may be college graduates in their 20s and 30s, and who find it difficult to empathise with a child, an elderly person or a mother on a low income, who might be their consumers.

Some believe this age-old problem is only now being addressed. Quaestor Research managing director Anne-Marie McDermott says: “It’s the marketer’s classic problem – how to gain a better understanding of your customers and get to know more about their lives, concerns and values. It’s perhaps surprising then that the idea of ‘customer closeness’ is only now becoming more of a feature on the agendas of marketing and market research departments.

“Companies are increasingly prepared to spend money on giving managers more direct access to the views of customers.”

Quaestor has carried out a “customer closeness” exercise with catalogue retailer JD Williams, which involved conducting eight three-hour “participation workshops” between customers and top executives from the company. Head of customer insight at the mail-order company, Alan Palmer, says top managers from chief executive Alan White down took part in the workshops. “We have got data coming out of our ears about customer transactions and we conduct thorough research to get insights about our customers. But there is nothing like meeting customers face to face to create a sense of reality about them. It is harder for the managers to avoid customers’ concerns if they have met some of them. It is a way of bringing the insights to life,” he says.

He claims the company has introduced subtle changes into its catalogues as a result of the workshops, such as explaining some of the clothes in clearer ways.

Missing the point?

It seems incredible that companies have to hire expensive market research consultants to teach them how to put themselves in their customers’ shoes, when this is supposed to be what the job of marketing is all about.

It is often said that the most successful brands are those that are in touch with their consumers, or at least can view the world from the point of view of those they are trying to sell to. But as companies grow in size and become more global, bureaucratic and remote from the public, their managers increasingly become estranged from the people they are trying to serve.

However, not everybody is convinced that there is much benefit in customer closeness exercises, other than making marketers feel they have done something useful. They may give managers the sensation that they are in touch with that great, amorphous mass of people who buy their products for a wide range of reasons, but some doubt the practical uses such exercises can be put to.

What do you do, then?

One line of attack on customer closeness comes from those who believe that listening to people answering superficial questions such as “what do you think”, or watching them choose one product over another gives no great insight into their relationship with brands.

One sceptic is former MTV marketing director Sanjay Nazerali, who is now a director of research company The Depot. “I am not convinced that knowing what people do is the same as knowing why they do it,” he says.

“People are doing the most insane things with ethnographic research, living with families so they know that breakfast is eaten in such-and-such a way, but it doesn’t tell me why they listen to that radio station or eat that cereal. Market research needs to be less diagnostic and more oriented to understanding why people do what they do.”

Nazerali favours the motivational approach, where people’s deeper emotional relationships to products are uncovered and used to position and market brands. He gives one example of work he has done for a company promoting family holidays, where his research showed that people buy such holidays mainly out of guilt about spending too much time away from their children – probably working to be able to afford to pay for the holiday.

“A family holiday is about appeasing parental guilt,” he says. This parental guilt factor forms the basis for the marketing campaign for the brand which is breaking this summer.

However, the purveyors of customer closeness workshops say that the approach can provide insights into motivation missed by other methods such as in-depth psychological probing. “Anybody who decries customer closeness needs to move on and wake up to the fact that this is a step to achieving individually tailored insights,” says Nunwood’s Bruce.

Hi-tech solutions?

There have been attempts to circumvent the corporation’s apparent distance from its customers through the use of technology. Internet retailing enables companies to glean masses of data about how their customers behave when they buy products online. Customer relationship marketing is supposed to enable companies to amass detailed information about consumers and put it to use when people phone in to request information. And brands are making increasing use of text messaging to send out supposedly personalised communications.

But all this may turn out to be creating further distance between marketers and consumers, as it precludes personal contact with the business concerned. It is partly a reaction to the fear of losing contact with consumers that has prompted companies to hire specialist researchers to recruit panels of customers and cosy up to them.

Yet many believe that information about transactions is the most important tool companies have for understanding the behaviour of their customers.

Transactions speak louder

Total DM managing director Andy Wood says: “The bedrock of customer understanding is, truly, transactional data, which enables marketers to pinpoint customers, their values, trends, wants and needs. This type of information is ‘actual’ data, whereas market research is often subjective – respondents could exaggerate – especially in a group environment.”

He believes it is difficult to apply any lessons from workshops and focus groups to database marketing. His job may be to get people who are spending £30 to increase that to £50, but he says that this task does not depend on understanding why they are spending the money. “If I actually knew the ‘why’ it would be impossible to apply it to a 1 million-strong database,” he says. Even so, he concedes that market research has a role to play in giving a general strategic direction to brand owners.

Market researchers are just like any other profession – they promote their own theories and approaches and tend to dismiss their rivals’ offers as the work of “cowboys” and misguided fantasists selling sub-standard techniques.

Such is the way of business, though it can be confusing for marketers who are bombarded with the claims of different researchers and consultants. But it seems likely that marketers will jump at the chance of conducting customer closeness workshops as they look for ways of making their brands more responsive to consumers.

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