Consumer-facing companies wishing to push the boundaries when it comes to brand innovation are increasingly engaging with their most “extreme” and passionate followers to get above average insights that inspire product developers to think outside the box that surrounds traditional research methods.

This unconventional market research might ask a woman obsessive about cleaning to swap houses for a day with someone who is only averagely house-proud, have a transsexual test hair removal cream or get a woman who is into bondage to test out sex toys. Indeed, the agency Sense Worldwide has researched its advertising work with dominatrices and hackers alike

“Researching weird people is often good,” says Rory Sutherland, who wrote The Wiki Man. “They don’t simply talk about the category conventions, but bring entirely different, unexpected and original insights to the experience.”

EDF Energy has recently gained insights from people who think about energy in a very different way to the average consumer. These include someone who generates their own energy and therefore is completely self-sufficient, and a man who has organised his household’s energy appliances in such a way that even when he is outside the home he knows whenever his wife is using the washing machine or which lights she has turned on.

“Consumers are typically disengaged with their energy supplier and it can be hard to get their input into new product development,” says Marcus Taylor, head of insight at EDF Energy.

One extreme example is a guy… who has noted down how much signal he is getting at each service station on the M4

“The research project helped us think outside of the box for understanding what drives different consumers’ engagement with energy,” he says. “However, this type of work is best used occasionally and specifically – it does not replace traditional research.”

Selina Sykes, senior brand manager at Unilever’s Lynx brand similarly believes that if you go to the extremes you can find some interesting insights. “It is important to look at things from lots of different angles in order to understand your consumers and your category,” she says.

“If someone is obsessed with your brand, then they are going to have a really strong point of view. While some of those insights won’t be relevant to all of your consumers, they may give you some ideas or some inspiration.”

Debra Walmsley, customer insight manager at British Airways, adds: “Insight is going through quite an exciting period of development because technology has enabled us to do things differently. These new and disruptive techniques might give us a different angle or provide a different insight. When we look at it in conjunction with our traditional methods, it might give us those sorts of breakthroughs, especially when it comes to innovation.”

One recent example of this is the research Premier Foods has done with research specialist YouthSight when looking to extend its Mr Kipling brand.

It used atypical consumers and put them into focus groups with ‘regular’ people. For example, one group of young creatives, who are segmented according to personality traits and interests, as well as expertise in given categories, were put into groups to see if they could push the boundaries beyond what would have been expected by just using the target group.

A control group and another sub-group of the database known as ‘curious minds’ join the young creatives in the focus group.

“Using this group on a specific innovation task put my hypothesis that to get the best and most original ideas, you need the most creative people to help you in the process to the test,” says Nick Rabin, head innovation practitioner at Premier Foods.

He adds: “It was fascinating to see the sheer number of ideas coming back from all three focus groups. Many of these great ideas will go into our internal filtering process and we
now have marketing strategies that we would never have come up with by just using our existing process.”

Digital services

A similar approach is helping O2 become a digital services brand, rather than solely a mobile operator, according to UK marketing and consumer director Sally Cowdry.

“O2 was built on a philosophy of ‘see what you can do’ and we believe that when you see things differently there are no limits to what you can achieve. To ensure we think as creatively as possible it is important to engage extreme experts and thinkers. Working with more extreme customer groups allows us to identify emerging behaviours, which may become more mainstream in the future.”

Ribena is also looking to find people at the extreme end of the spectrum and leverage its brand loyalists and advocates. “It’s crucial for brands to get close to consumers and understand their needs in order to develop long-term brand love,” says Caroline Fredj, senior brand manager at Ribena, who focuses on trust and advocacy.

“We want to gain insights into what it is they love about Ribena, and engage and reward them through tailored programmes so they continue to spread their love and introduce new consumers to the brand.”

Online communities of people who show extreme interest in a product or topic area often collect themselves together and Ribena has worked with insight specialist Brass to identify who the influencers are online and work with them to engage the target market of mums.

“This way we identify who are the top influential mummy bloggers and tweeters and how they are linked. We then establish programmes to harness them,” says Fredj. These influencers will be part of Ribena’s online strategy next year and will be used to trial new products.

Untapped source

Albert Muniz, associate professor of marketing at DePaul University in Chicago believes extreme users are still very much an untapped source of research. “We are still in the early stages of using extreme users and there are lot of institutional obstacles – on both sides – to overcome,” he says.

“I’ve been a big fan of Lego’s efforts in this regard. It has gradually used its advanced users – which it calls Adult Fans of Lego – for over a decade. They have participated in several product developments and around 20 have been hired as Lego designers.”

Ultimately, market research should inform marketers and heads of insight to make the right decisions that allow them to create value for current and future customers and stakeholders. So if brands can identify consumers who are obsessed with them, they may also be on to a winning streak with your average Joe.


tom rainsford

Tom Rainsford
Head of brand and proposition

Marketing Week (MW): What are Giffgaff’s brand values and how do they relate to extreme consumers?

Tom Rainsford (TR): The founding idea of Giffgaff was about the extremely involved community of our members that contribute aspects of the business that normally a company would do, including customer service and spreading the word about the brand. People also get involved in our ideas forum, from which we have implemented 200 concepts including all of our price plans.

MW: What sort of research do you do with your extreme consumers?

TR: We have members who will do stuff for the greater good of the Giffgaff community. One extreme example is someone who has read every line of our terms and conditions so that he can be the guy who can answer the terms and conditions questions. Another, who calls himself Andy Zero, has driven to service stations on the M4 and noted down how much signal he is getting at each one.

MW: Why does the brand attract that level of dedication?

TR: We are trying to approach mobile and our business model in a completely different way than others in the category. To do that, we have very open and honest conversations with our members. They are interactions that they will not get anywhere else. In addition, we have a very engaging brand.

MW: What is the benefit of the way you gain insights?

TR: Because we are having these daily conversations with our members, everyday insights regularly pop up. It might be something really small that confirms what we have thought or seen in other research.

By having those daily interactions with members, we are constantly getting insights. People are talking to us about how they interact and use the services that we provide. The conversations we have with our members are less confined and rigid than a piece of traditional research might allow for. Gaining insights on a rolling basis fits our brand and how we want to run our business.

Case study: Smart approach with Stylist


Particularly passionate advocates of Stylist magazine have been using their smartphones to feed back to the brand. They can upload content on anything that interests them and provide another side to the free title’s research strategy.

“We have 20 members of the Stylist mobile community submitting over 500 pieces of content,” says publisher Glenda Marchant. “It gives us an interesting flavour of who they are and that adds another dimension to more data-based research.”

Researchers argue there is a powerful, confessional side to connecting with people via smart phones. The phone, which is a very private object, facilitates and fosters consumers’ relationships with whatever they are obsessed about. Using smartphones in this way follows the rationale that if you use real people in research, rather than controlled focus groups in a research vacuum, they are freed up by the opportunity to share experiences.

“We have learned a variety of different things about the way these women think about the magazine as well as extensive details about their lives – everything from what they are doing at a given time to what they are planning on wearing the next day,” says Marchant, who worked with agency Flamingo on the mobile research.

Stylist has also capitalised on the opportunity to get closer and deeper for the work it does with brand partners. A recent project with Marks & Spencer used the Stylist mobile community by setting them tasks such as taking pictures of shop counters and explaining what they like and don’t like about them.

2012 predictions


Emanuel Gavert
Innovation manager
Global chocolate category

There is a place for this type of research in our industry, especially for businesses that want to be the masters of their own destinies. I believe it is important to foster a practice within these large organisations to always look for the next big thing – a way to achieve this could be to use these alternative research methods with extreme consumers.


Ottokar Rosenberger
Country manager UK

Understanding customers who are most passionate about your industry is key to future product development. Social communities are very powerful. We have a highly engaged social media user base – over 13,000 on Facebook alone – giving us a platform to communicate directly with our audience on anything from our product to their opinions on online dating, all of which is invaluable research for the business.


Adam Margolin
Head of marketing and management information at Spar UK and author of Making Business Child’s Play

This is an interesting area to look to in future but using it would very much depend on the brand and the product. I can see some logic in taking a group of people obsessed with cleaning as adding value but I would not be comfortable with using them as a single group. They would add a layer of interest.


Andreas Eisingerich
Associate professor of marketing
Imperial College Business School

I predict this area to grow. Extreme consumers are very small in numbers. There are not many of them out there, but they get their voices heard. Social media helps them. However, a lot of questions remain as to how a brand may work with extreme consumers to create greater value for stakeholders. Future research in this area is clearly rich with potential.

jane frost

Jane Frost
Chief executive
Market Research Society

The world of extreme consumers is just one of the many areas where research is coming to the fore. In-depth research can help us all understand some of the hardest to reach groups in society. Techniques such as these highlight how evidence can be used to inform our knowledge on a wide range of topics, helping us to make better decisions to the benefit of both business and public policy.

Top tips… on how to approach this type of research

Use extreme consumers when you need a new perspective on an issue.
Consider where you do your research. If you do it on Facebook, users potentially own the intellectual property of ideas that emerge.

Know what the baseline is in terms of what the average consumer is doing, so you can judge how these extreme users are going beyond it. This makes sure you don’t mistake their passion for normal behaviour.

Don’t just go for people who claim to be advocates of the brand – use unconventional recruitment processes as well.