Knowing the fringe benefits

Matt Coles, a partner in Cardinal, HPI Research Group’s specialist drinks unit, still winces as he recalls the focus group that scuppered his client’s plans for a premium draught ale. The brand’s ingredients were run-of-the-mill, but the PR te

Those at the margins of society have much to offer marketers looking for innovation, for it is here that ideas start before becoming mainstream – just watch for the stereotype-trap, says Alicia Clegg

Matt Coles, a partner in Cardinal, HPI Research Group’s specialist drinks unit, still winces as he recalls the focus group that scuppered his client’s plans for a premium draught ale. The brand’s ingredients were run-of-the-mill, but the PR team had concocted a story that presented it as the connoisseur’s choice. What no one had bargained for, however, was the intervention of a drinks-savvy young woman, who announced to the tasting panel that the overblown beverage was a mass-market brew pepped up with some nitrogen. Though painful, the exposure contained a lesson worth learning. If a product has pretensions that it cannot live up to, better that it should be cut down to size behind closed doors than fall flat in the high-street.

The incentive for marketers to innovate has never been greater. As the pressure intensifies, businesses are looking to consumers for inspiration. But not just to any consumers. Recruiting from the mainstream is no longer the goal; the concern today is to find strong-minded individuals with decided tastes and interests, who can be relied upon to debunk tired formulas and spark some unusual ideas about where the brand might go in the future.

Such is the interest in marginal groups and mavericks that marketers have begun to question whether anyone can rightly be called mainstream. “From a distance you build up a picture of what normal consumers look like; the closer you get to nailing them, the more they reveal their differences like dots in a pointillist painting,” says Tamar Kasriel, head of knowledge venturing at the Henley Centre. This interest in studying extreme patterns of consumption to better understand customers as a whole has prompted new approaches to research, counter-balancing the profession’s conventional preoccupation with results that are, in a technical sense, “normal” as opposed to those that are “deviant.”

Kasriel says: “If you look at how quantitative research works, it automatically discards what’s going on at the edge, because it removes the outliers in the sample. Yet it’s here that you have an opportunity to spot leading signs that may ultimately affect the rest of society.”

Fashions bubble up on the fringes of popular culture; most fizzle out as quickly as they appear. But once in a while, a trend that begins in a niche lays down roots that spread out to society at large. A prime example is the soaring demand for male cosmetics, which was once bought by only a small group of men.

Margin to mainstream

For marketers the constant maelstrom of trends and counter trends poses the practical challenge of deciding what to invest in and what to ignore.

The crux of the problem is that ideas culled from the fringes of society, rarely appeal to the rest of us on first airing. However, even when a new product or service has been rejected, often there will be something in its make-up that people like. This may be a sign, that with the right marketing, the idea could catch on.

Coles gives an example of this phenomenon, citing how many diners “turned their noses up” when gastropubs first appeared in London’s suburbs. “The idea of shabby, bohemian pubs serving restaurant standard food just didn’t attract most consumers,” he says. One feature of the gastropub recipe that people did warm to, however, was the use of open-style kitchens. This idea of “kitchens as theatre” was developed, whetting customers’ appetites for the full experience.

Minority reports

Legislation strengthening the legal rights of minority groups not to be discriminated against has encouraged businesses to look afresh at niche markets. Of particular importance was the legalisation last year of civil partnerships, effectively creating a same-sex “marriage” market for brands to expand into. But how many companies have grasped this opportunity?

Not many, according to Sarah Bridgman insight manager at OMD Insight, which commissioned Outright 2006 – an online study of the lifestyles and opinions of Britain’s gay community – in partnership with Channel 4 and GaydarRadio. “While there are certainly businesses, such as Hilton Hotels, that have responded to civil partnerships, we came across plenty of companies that are alienating gay people.”

As an example, Bridgman points to financial services brands, which gay respondents tended to view quite negatively. “A lot of it may simply be to do with presentation. If you look at the literature for products like mortgages, it’s all traditional images of mums, dads and small children. Very rarely do you see a single sex couple.”

It is commonly reckoned that about 6% of the population is gay. However, the Outright survey, which featured at last month’s Market Research Society Conference, points out that the commercial importance of gay consumers is higher than this figure might imply. Backing up the stereotype of the “pink pound”, the study found that in many categories – including travel, financial services, skincare and IT gadgets – gay consumers do indeed outspend other shoppers. But does this imply that brand owners should be targeting gay people intentionally? Not everybody is convinced.

Tony Hoare, a member of the Independent Consultants Group and a partner in Stormbreak, a research agency specialising in gay issues, fears an influx of brands hoping to “cash in” on the pink pound. But it is not only the good faith of marketers that Hoare questions, it is also their judgement. “People really take umbrage when they know they are being targeted because they’re thought to have spare cash.” What is more, Hoare argues that, in the long-term, the pink pound is destined to fail.

“As a society we are becoming more integrated. In cities such as London and Amsterdam there’s already a strong cross-over culture, where being gay or straight isn’t even a topic of conversation anymore,” he says. In other words, brands should target consumers according to their lifestyle not their sexual orientation.

Labelling consumers as either “gay” or “straight” may not be helpful, or even relevant, in most contexts. But, sexual orientation isn’t an issue that marketers can ignore entirely. Just as showing a mix of ethnicities has become common in advertising, so should depicting same-sex couples, implies OMD’s research. In product categories where gay consumers consistently outspend other shoppers, it may also make sense for brands to advertise in specialist gay media.

Reality check

To market effectively to people, brands need first to understand something of their lives – hence the demand for customer insight. But minority lifestyles may well be an area where no research is better than poor research, because of the misapprehensions that a distorted picture can breed. A common pitfall is where insight projects merely compound stereotypical images of a minority group, by focusing on its most visible and easy-to-reach members.

Rebecca Eligon, acting head of ethnic minority research at Ipsos MORI, gives an example: “Where we live is a big influence on our opinions. Minority respondents living in extremely concentrated communities often have very different views to respondents elsewhere.” Hoare makes much the same point with respect to the gay community: “If you rush around gay bars and clubs, it’s inevitable that you’ll find a specific type of person, but miss out on other groups,” he says.

Another much-debated issue is whether to pair-match interviewers and interviewees: gay and lesbian researchers with gay and lesbian respondents; Hindu and Muslim researchers with Hindu and Muslim groups. For work involving sensitive issues, or strictly observant religious groups, this is usually recommended. But what of other situations?

Being ignorant of the culture you are investigating often spells disaster. But, then again, it sometimes helps to play the ingénue. “Asking the obvious questions and getting people to really spell things out can be very helpful,” says Andy Nairn, joint head of planning at ad agency Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy. To get the best of both worlds some agencies employ a mixed approach, teaming researchers who share the minority’s identity with colleagues who do not.

This marriage of knowledge and naivete can work well, according to Coles. As an example he mentions a study where his company employed a gay bar-owner to advise its researchers and take part in interviewing. As well as assisting the fieldwork, the bar-owner’s knowledge of the gay scene brought an insider’s perspective to bear on the project, which benefited the analysis too.

Unfamiliar territory

Added Value global client managing director Jonathan Hall also supports this way of working. But it is the opportunity to see the world through the eyes of an outsider, rather than an insider, that he values most. To illustrate this point, Hall mentions a project for Coca-Cola, which paired Japanese researchers with an ethnographer who could neither speak, nor read, Japanese. The real benefit was being able to compare what came back from the two approaches, he says. “The researchers picked up on very different things, giving us a much richer view and an understanding of how our familiarity with a situation shapes what we see.”

After years of pigeon-holing consumers, far-sighted marketers are abandoning their cut-and-dried categorisations about what defines a group. From a human perspective this willingness to study different lifestyles and cultures feels right. As Kasriel says: “As individuals we make up our lifestyles by joining many different niches; not one particular group.”

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