How it’s not just a case of ‘Ad A’ versus ‘Ad B’ when it comes to qualitative research

Comms Savvy research consultant Sue Burden reveals how consumer feedback can offer detailed emotional insights into a campaign beyond a ’yes or no’ response.

Sue Burden
Sue Burden

How does qualitative research help develop successful communications campaigns? There are some ancient myths about market research hindering the development of great advertising – think back to the famous Heineken “Refreshes the parts” ads of the 80s and 90s, which went onto be an iconic campaign, despite being supposedly being “rejected by focus groups”, as declared by ad agency CDP.

Myths around the value of market research have been largely de-bunked as exaggeration and fable – see Kevin McLean of Wardle McLean’s blog post We need to put these examples behind us, to look at how exactly market research contributes to the development of successful campaigns.

Catriona Ferris, Unilever’s consumer insight manager for laundry, recently commissioned a qualitative research project to help develop Comfort fabric conditioner’s new communications campaign. The research was conducted by qualitative research agency Flamingo.

Ferris mentioned that one of the key benefits from the research was seeing the campaign development from the perspective of brand users. Within the company, the transition from the previous “Clothworld” ads featuring the well-known characters Lisa Weaver and Darren Denim to the new “Comfees” family ads was seen as quite a big change. Fear of an adverse reaction by consumers to such a dramatic change has often seen marketers put the brakes on many new campaigns. Reassuringly, the consumers in the Flamingo focus groups saw this development from ad agency Ogilvy as more of an evolution, building on the strengths of the previous campaign.

Once the team knew they were on promising new ground, Flamingo founder and director Kirsty Fuller saw the agency’s role as being one to fully understand how the core idea of the campaign was working, as well as any areas where it wasn’t working and how it could be taken forward in a way that would maximise its success. “We are big fans of great creative work and want campaigns to be highly creative and deeply engaging,” she says.

The intended core campaign idea was of Comfort helping the mother in a family. The research was designed to explore this idea and define how it was working for the brand and its target audience. Fuller described the ’light bulb’ moment as when they were doing the research for a particular script featuring the Comfee mother trying to outdo her teenage daughter.

The script was not so well received and it did not appear to ring true with respondents. Flamingo’s research showed how this reaction was linked to the character’s behaviour not being consistent with the role of a mother in the cohesive and flourishing vision of family life that Comfort and its consumers were embracing. This insight enabled Flamingo to clearly define the core campaign idea in consumer terms – the Comfee mother’s role was most successful when she was being the family’s unsung hero and tactful behind-the-scenes fixer.

This example shows how qualitative research that supports communications development is not just about whether respondents prefer ad A or ad B. The key value is in understanding why ad A is preferred and what it communicates about the brand, as well as being able to draw conclusions on why the campaign has been successful that can be used for future development. As Unilever’s Ferris puts it: “The better you know your consumer and your campaign, the better judgements you can make on the total communications mix, not just the TV commercial you are researching.”

Fuller describes this process as being liberating for the creatives: “It’s not about being prescriptive, but about being clear on the fundamentals – it’s protecting creativity, but avoiding protectiveness that leads to great campaigns.”

One challenge from this campaign was its international scope – spanning four regions from Thailand to Brazil and the UK. Here Flamingo see their role as defining the cross-cultural unifying drivers behind the idea. Fortunately, although there are some differences in the definition of motherhood, there are sufficient commonalities to make the idea successful at an international level.

Fuller says that there’s always pressure to be more market-specific, but it is by defining how the idea is working at a deep and fundamental level that enables the campaign to focus on its cross-cultural strengths. Flamingo’s offices on the ground in the various markets enabled them to give more depth to their understanding of the cultural context. This resource was also used by Flamingo to provide a ’Think Piece’ on other markets where the campaign might work in the future.

The campaign has subsequently been tested in quantitative research and received very positive results prior to its international launch. Ferris describes the particular contribution that Flamingo made to this success as ’the quality of the thinking and adding value beyond the debrief’. Unilever is now hopeful that the Comfee family will do the business for the brand.

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