Join the dots to see the full insight picture

The role of the brand researcher is evolving into one that gathers data from diverse parts of the business and turns it into actionable insight to fulfil company objectives.


When people take notice of market research, it is usually the result of a big consumer survey that delivers an attention-grabbing top-line result. But the headline results usually belie a meticulous process of gleaning insight from customer data from many sources over a long period of time.

According to Lloyds TSB market research manager Gonçalo Teixeira, an evolution is occurring in the ways that brands use market research to generate a useful end product.

“Today’s role of a customer insight function has developed significantly from simple data collection, analysis and reporting into a specialist function where all suitable means and sources of information are used in combination to generate insight,” he explains.

Not all companies are evolving as quickly as the discipline itself, however, according to Tony Fitzgerald, research manager for global insight within Bupa’s group marketing department. He says: “It sounds like a cliché, but actual insight is still lacking in some organisations.”

The biggest barrier for most companies in dealing with customer data seems to be a legacy from the old departmental systems, such as a lack of communication between insight teams dealing with market research and their counterparts in data analysis, who are mainly looking at business performance information. Other issues might be poor briefing of agencies and an over-reliance on producing data for data’s sake.

The roles of different departments in delivering insight to organisations is underlined by statistics collected by the Association of Users of Research Agencies (AURA). A survey of its own members shows that only 45% of company research budgets is spent by the insight department. The rest is held by other departments, though it might still be insight staff that carry out research on their behalf.

It is not always easy to bring divergent data sources together, especially when information is siloed in separate departments like this. At the Met Office, market research manager Sandra Cotterill says efforts are under way to standardise the classification of data between the research team and the team dealing with customer relationship management (CRM), so that the two can feed back into one another.

Previously, she explains, although each department knew the other held mutually useful information, it was technically problematic to merge the two (See case study, below).

Many other brands will also be holding data that could contribute to their understanding of their markets and target customers. CRM databases are storage vessels for just this kind of information demographic data and purchasing habits, for example, as well as customers’ comments on the service they have received.

Herwig Schiefermüller, vice-president of customer experience at steel-maker Outokumpu, describes how the company incorporated customer feedback into its other research data. In collaboration with customer loyalty company Syngro, it introduced relevant questions into its surveys to bring these two data streams together.

“The methodology directly asks customers whether they would recommend Outokumpu, on what basis they would recommend and critically whether they would consider alternative suppliers. This ’Voice of the Customer’ methodology provides a more complete market context for Outokumpu,” says Schiefermüller.


At easyJet, meanwhile, research manager Shaendel Hallett says she plans to increase the communication she undertakes with market research agencies to ensure they are united in serving the brand’s business objectives. As well as getting agencies together to explain how the work done by each fits together with the others, she is seeking to make them perform more analysis of data before it reaches easyJet, so that research can be seen within a business context.

Hallett says: “Agencies sometimes just deliver the data, and it is up to the client to challenge and push harder for what it is they actually need. Agencies deliver decks of 100 charts, but what I really need is two or three key messages.”

Bupa’s Fitzgerald says it is crucial for companies to take a holistic view of all the elements that feed into their knowledge about their markets, particularly for multinationals: “Bupa, operating in around 190 markets around the world, has a lot of information coming in from different areas. It is our job as a centralised department to make sense of it and push it out to the business in a way that is accessible and of use.”

It is this process that produces the understanding from which business decisions can be made. According to Kathy Ellison, head of customer and market insight at specialist insurer Ecclesiastical: “Insight is a combination of traditional research, market intelligence and data analytics. The three parts are a critical mix. We never have one without the other.”

As well as large-scale surveys interviewing representative samples that might be thousands-strong, brands can take a range of anecdotal and informal approaches to collecting information. These might include internal opinion gathering, expert panels, co-creation of strategies with groups of customers or desk research that collates existing knowledge from those in relevant positions.

ESPN senior research manager Matt Roberts says: “We will do a combination of things, be it surveys, focus groups or website usability testing. We have done on-ground research where we have gone to games and interviewed people at Premier League football and rugby games. We produce portals for our internal staff members so they can get access to research data.”

Roberts says that many companies, including those at which he has previously worked, tend to focus on producing as much data as possible and circulating it around departments, without taking steps to determine what the data means. Instead, information should be brought together to create a meaningful story about where a brand needs to go. Ecclesiastical’s Ellison calls it “knowledge management”.

The whole process also needs to be accountable for the results it produces. ESPN’s Roberts says the broadcaster’s research is always directed towards increasing its audience. The insight team is made to account for any budget spent on research and must show what value it has ultimately brought to the company.

“We do not just produce numbers for numbers’ sake. We try to make sure of the end goal: is this piece of research going to help us increase our subscriber numbers, and how? How is it going to help us change behaviour?” he explains.

Like any area of marketing, insight always has one measure of success return on investment. If the information it produces is not discernibly making a company more profitable, others in that organisation are likely to consider it a waste of money.

And like any other discipline, market research does not stand still. There will always be emerging sources of information that can aid brands in their strategy. Companies must adapt to these changes so that they know they are doing everything possible to ensure their disparate data streams flow into one coherent story.

Figure focus

  • 1-60 Number of staff in research departments at AURA-member organisations
  • 6 Average number of staff in an insight department
  • 45% Percentage of companies’ research budgets spent by the insight department

Source: Association of Users of Research Agencies (AURA)

Case study

The Met Office

The Met Office’s insight department is undergoing a process of combining data from its customer relationship management database with findings from market research. This aims to give the weather-forecasting organisation a better overview of how it serves its customers. It involves not only analysing data on how customers use its services, but also taking their cues on what research to conduct and then assessing its usefulness afterwards.

As an example, the Met Office is changing its database to incorporate fields where comments from customers can be entered. It can then run reports from the database to indicate how well it is performing against the issues raised.

Met Office research manager Sandra Cotterill explains: “We have a net promoter score survey [which asks customers whether they would recommend the service to others], which is sent out to customers when we have completed a service.

“The question that goes with that is: how could we improve things? That question gets fired back into the CRM and attached to the relevant customer. Themes then emerge for different segments of our customer base, which helps us adapt our services to suit them.”

Cotterill says that market research is undergoing a lifecycle change at the Met Office, moving from using the CRM system as a means of shaping traditional research pieces to using it as a source of customer information that eliminates the need for more research to be done. It requires the Met Office to ensure its analytics and insight departments classify data in the same way. Previously, Cotterill says, it was siloed in different parts of the business and was difficult to bring together.

The Met Office is also moving towards co-creation in its research through roundtable events. It invites customers from the three main segments to which it provides weather forecasts and climatic data commercial companies, the government and the public, the last of which is served mainly through the BBC to roundtable events. They bring their problems to the Met Office’s forums and the scientists bring their technology to work out how best to solve them.

Cotterill summarises the Met Office’s aims: “We are trying to increase our value to both the commercial and government side of the business, and to do that, we need to understand better what it is that customers want and how they want to be served. By analysing how they are working with us through CRM, we can make improvements.”

top trends 2011 predictions


John Irwin

Senior research manager

At TalkTalk, the consumer insights team is made up of researchers and data analysts. We regularly append actual customer data, such as use and spend, to survey data that we have collected through traditional research methodologies. This enables us to look at the results based on actual behaviour rather than just claimed behaviour. For example, are customers who are claiming to be making more landline-to-mobile calls than a year ago actually doing so?

We are also increasingly doing ad-hoc pieces of research to help the other half of the team understand the behaviours underlying their data. They might see a drop off in use of their data but have no idea why this has happened, so we will speak to some of these customers in order to understand what is driving this change of behaviour. We aim to work even more closely and so always take an analyst to research briefs and vice-versa.


Gonçalo Teixeira

Market research manager
Lloyds TSB

It is as important to explain what we can get out of research as it is to explain where there will be information gaps and there always are. Complementing sources and existing knowledge are key to generating meaningful insight. A clear example of this is exploratory research into future trends, consumer behaviour or regulatory landscape developments.

The focus should be on aligning data with customer and business needs and investing time in the way research is communicated and embedded in the business.


Matt Roberts

Senior research manager

We use our data sources for different reasons bigger surveys to ask who and how many, and the panels for why and how. At other media owners where I have worked, there was a reliance on giving out loads of data and sending out streams of reports. That is something we are trying to change here, by using dashboards, having regular one-to-one meetings, and explaining how data can help people improve their part of the business.


Tony Fitzgerald

Market research manager for group marketing

We can get pulled into being research-doers just monitoring processes and making sure the research happens. Our role is definitely more about making that information usable.

From a group perspective [within Bupa], people come to us because they know we know how to do research. Increasingly, they are also coming to us because they know that we can help find those nuggets of information that are really useful and on which new communications or new products and services can be built. That is entirely the direction that we want to go and the direction that others are moving in.


Herwig Schiefermüller

Vice-president of customer experience

We have been collecting customer feedback within the various entities of our company, but we have not been able to use these insights for the greatest benefits. We are now establishing an ongoing feedback programme that I believe will be a competitive advantage.

Our ’Voice of the Customer’ programme confirms that a high satisfaction rating from a customer is only relative and of limited value until that information is benchmarked in real time against market competitors. The extra insight from the programme has helped us to identify specific pointers to help us improve ratings from individual customers. The next stages of this will incorporate a ’closed loop’ process, through which the senior management will be able to analyse feedback and provide practical actions for improvement.

Top tips

  • The role of insight teams has evolved from commissioning individual pieces of research to generating meaningful information from multiple sources.
  • Some companies are still failing to bring together separate insight strands. This might be because of poor communication between departments or research agencies.
  • Companies need to beware of producing data simply for its own sake without real understanding of how it will be used.
  • Standardising data classification between research and data analytics departments can help in combining separate streams of information.
  • Producing data without contextualising it in terms of business objectives is wasteful. Explaining these objectives to agencies can help ensure research delivers value.
  • As well as traditional surveys, brands can gain insights from business performance data, CRM data, internal opinion gathering, expert panels and co-creation, among other methods.



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