Listen… selectively

Marketers have to listen to customers when preparing a launch or redesign, but to what degree should they do so? Underor over-reliance on market research can leave a brand out of touch or hamstrung by indecision. By Ruth Prickett

Everyone in the business of selling acknowledges, at least in public, that the customer is always right. Sometimes, however, customers are fickle, unimaginative, tight-fisted or just plain stupid. How can marketers and designers isolate real demand from whims and genuine concerns from whinges? How can they come up with something that these difficult customers will love?

Research is the obvious answer, but it is easy for managers to become so wedded to their brand that no amount of research will remind them what it’s like to be on the outside. In any case, customers themselves seldom agree about what they want and are liable to change their minds. Few customers will be able to tell researchers what they will want in two years’ time.

Scot McKee, managing director of marketing and communications agency Birddog, says: “Ask 100 people the same question and you will get 100 different answers. Unfortunately, that doesn’t help sales, so the trick is to know your customers and how they relate to your brands.”

McKee says the solution is to use market research to ensure that you know your customer and then to balance flexible marketing with solid core brand values. “If a brand has to change with the tide, it will never achieve the consistency needed for success. The job of marketers is to aim for the long term, but be flexible enough to accommodate what’s happening in the short term.”

Marks & Spencer, for instance, suffered when it was accused of losing touch with customers, but has returned to popularity with new ranges and representatives such as David Beckham, while remaining true to traditional brand values – quality and value for mid-market customers. “M&S’s fashion and clothes changed, but not dramatically,” says Leroy Logan, design director of marketing services company Mustardhouse. “What has really changed is the look, image and message.”

SiebertHead planning and development director Simon Sholl agrees, but warns that this does not mean companies can get away with superficial changes: “The first M&S makeover involved changing the bag to a fresher shade of green – it just showed it was out of touch.”

Elastic brands

Sholl prefers the term “brand elasticity” to “brand integrity” since it implies potential. Such elasticity can be seen in the case of Caterpillar, which successfully expanded into clothing from earth-moving equipment. Less happy attempts include Bic’s move into producing perfume – “Bic misunderstood the psychological drivers behind perfume sales and how these clashed with its own brand image of being cheap and disposable,” he explains.

Smallfry Design managing director Steve May-Russell argues that understanding customers involves not just their material needs, but also their emotional ones – and these often remain constant between markets. When his company worked on barbeques it found that gas regulations vary from country to country, as do eating habits and food. “But we realised that barbeques aren’t for cooking – they are party-enablers. They are a family, holiday activity,” he explains.

While some of the necessary information comes from research, success also depend on how companies use consumers in the design process. Opinions differ about the ideal mix. May-Russell says: “Market research is too often a rearguard defensive action to justify a decision that’s already made. People used to hire us on briefs that were fundamentally flawed, but we are now getting involved much earlier.”

Sholl points out that being compatible with consumers does not mean asking them what to do: “You need to get the research right at the start. You can’t keep going back and asking for reassurance or new input.” His company uses a workshop system it calls Syncretics to get together representatives of all parties involved – technical, marketing, consumers, sales and retail in one entrepreneurial forum, allowing them to discuss ideas and spot hitches early in the design process.

Clare Fuller, director at BamberForsyth:Fitch, adds that many companies could use their information more effectively: “You can rely on market research and on having good marketing people, but I’m surprised at how few companies check what their competitors are doing.

“Understanding long-term trends in customer attitudes and using these to draw your own conclusions can be more useful than asking consumers directly. If we’d asked teenage girls ten years ago whether text-messaging would turn them on, they might well have said no. We might have been better placed to anticipate demand if we had understood their need to chat with friends and used our imaginations to think about how to satisfy their craving.”

It is possible to over-research a product, however. McKee argues that companies don’t need lots of research, just enough good research: “Go in at the start with a clear beginning, middle and end,” he advises. Sholl adds that managers who are unsure of their brand tend to rely too heavily on research: “Unlike the way a drunk uses a lamp-post, research should be used for illumination, not support.”


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