How to get to know what you didn’t know you didn’t know

Market research is an evolving beast. And now researchers sit alongside Big Brother watching for clues to our buying habits on flickering screens

Cartoon%2004/04/2007What makes creativity happen in marketing services? Touching though the image of free, creative spirits spontaneously coalescing around a shared vision and harmonious personal chemistry may be, the reality is usually very different.

Success sustained over the years undoubtedly relies upon attracting the best pool of talent available. Yet it would be unthinkable without the energy, vision and drive of an individual shaping the agency’s culture. Ogilvy in its heyday would have been unthinkable without David Ogilvy, BMP without Martin Boase, Lowe Howard-Spink without Sir Frank or Wells Riche Greene without (the exceptional woman in the group) Mary Wells. We’ll go bipolar in the case of Saatchi & Saatchi, but the principle stands.

Knowledge is power and even phoney, unreliable knowledge is thought better than none, especially if your rivals have access to it. Since Rome went the way of all empires we have no way of knowing how the soothsayers would have evolved their methods and techniques as new technologies emerged. Would they perhaps have cast aside the chicken entrails, whose grisly secrets informed many a crazed Caesar, in favour of something more modern and happening, such as tea leaves. Alas, we cannot know.

Today, however, the social historian is more fortunate. Though our civilisation may be crumbling – the popularity of Jonathan Ross is merely one indicator among many – we are able nevertheless to trace the evolution of modern phenomena such as market research. It began, of course in the US with Dr Gallup and the clipboard. The technology remained stuck for many years until the advent of the computer. The clipboard and pencil, wielded by part-time workers on street corners, continued to be a primary source of data, but the microchip enabled the raw material to be processed rapidly and in exciting new ways capable of delivering any result that might please the paying customer, or client to use the term favoured by those who provide white-collar services. (Aromatherapists, for example, have clients and in many ways are not that dissimilar to market researchers; both, for instance, employ sweet-smelling oil, though one only figuratively.)

The next significant development was the focus group, the small, hand-picked microcosm of the citizenry at large, whose prejudices, inchoate opinions and nascent ruminations were raked over and analysed with the same attention to detail, and with similarly dependable results, to those applied to chicken giblets in Ancient Rome.

Whatever next, we wondered, as the results of the latest survey of the eating habits of under-fives slid unread from our knee. Here is the answer: ethnographic research. The polysyllabic term derived from ancient Greek roots is the very thing to whet the appetites of marketing departments eager for an insight, be it ever so small, into the minds of the customer and hopeful that science, or something sounding scientific, might be the key.

Ethnographic research is described as the detailed observation of the day-to-day behaviour of a small sample from a target group of consumers to shed light on how they use, choose or buy products. It is as if the focus group had been released from behind the two-way mirror and allowed to roam free, or as free as it is possible to be when followed day and night by a researcher with a handheld camcorder.

Researchers claim that at some time, usually towards the end of the first day, the novelty of being filmed wears off and the unselfconscious behaviour of the paid volunteers emerges. Hours of video recording are analysed for "key behaviours" before being edited down to a single hour’s movie to be played back to the subject and the client.

Siamack Salari runs an ethnographic research company, Everyday Lives, and explains that the big benefit of the technique is that it "uncovers things you didn’t know you didn’t know about", which sounds like the perfect palliative for the paranoid.

"What the subject didn’t do or nearly did can often reveal far more about their inner motives than what is happening on the surface," he says. "If you ask me how often do I make coffee I would say ‘every day’. But if you were to film me then you might find that quite often I help myself to my wife’s tea in the morning. I am usually too lazy to make a cup of coffee."

There must be something of significance hidden in that example, but for the moment it eludes me. But let us not rush to condemn. By their results should you know them, so here is another example. Salari says he wanted to know what it is about a product that makes it iconic. So his team followed volunteers in America, Japan, Europe and beyond and filmed them for a total of 180 hours. The conclusion? "Teenagers prefer fashions that allow them to customise the item of clothing and take ownership of it, such as wearing a cap the wrong way round or pulling the tongue of a pair of trainers from behind the laces."

Be honest. Did you really know you didn’t know you didn’t know that?

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