Live research takes brands to top of class

Retail companies that incorporate live testing into their brand experience are using real-time insight to reduce the time it takes to launch first-class products.


Marketers at retail brands in sectors as diverse as the building trade and luxury chocolate are gathering real-time consumer insight by incorporating live research techniques into their brand experience in an attempt to create products that are best in class.

Brands that recognise the value of real-time feedback together with the need for real-time response are turning the results of that research into products in a far quicker time, with last week’s insight often becoming this week’s product offer.

Premium confectioner Hotel Chocolat is at the forefront of this ‘insight to product’ cycle, even charging customers for the privilege by running a members-only tasting club.

The subscriber benefit is exclusivity and a certain dinner party show-off potential. But for Hotel Chocolat it has an informed and engaged, self-selecting research sample that feeds back honest and useful insight on the next big thing.

Hotel Chocolat co-founder Angus Thirlwell explains: “Every month we have new recipes. The members are invited to score and we publish the results in a league table – good with the bad, we’re brutally honest. The chocolates with the highest score make it into the range. The benefit for members is that they get the inside track on what we are doing. Equally, the price of the tasting box is gram per gram of chocolate preferentially priced, so there is a small financial incentive for them.”

Thirlwell claims that this live research method alone is enough to deliver insight: “It is the most natural way to fulfil our research needs. With 100,000 tasting club members, we’re more than satisfied that it gives us enough of a steer.”


Similarly, snacks-by-post brand Graze takes customer ratings from one week’s snack box and uses them to inform the selection for the following week (see Case Study below).

It is not just start-up and challenger brands that are integrating live insight as a tangible customer benefit.

TradePoint, the Kingfisher-owned trade brand associated with B&Q, is merging traditional focus group behaviour with in-store activity to glean the most relevant information from its specialised customer base.

“Questionnaire-driven research doesn’t work well with trade,” says Trevor Culpin, B&Q TradePoint’s marketing manager. “Doing the research in-store brings issues alive. You can see body language and adapt your questioning based on customer responses.”

Culpin believes it is crucial that the marketing team with the power to make the changes should conduct the research. “Putting the decision-maker in the room with the customer gives them the sense of importance, that they’re making a difference to their lives and to those of their peers.”

TradePoint marries the insight from these specific in-store events to data provided by the trade membership card. It also runs the Trade Mate campaign where senior managers pair up with a tradesman and spend the day working with them. The programme delivered insight that had an impact on decisions from the exact layout of the store to the introduction of a system for customers to manage their account online.

Culpin insists that the card and its in-store activity are crucial to gaining customer understanding in an underreported sector: “The trade sector is not as well covered with consumer information. This work is used as a touchpoint in the market. Data and knowledge are very powerful things to have.”

Other brands are using digital platforms that deliver real-time insight to conduct live research. Paul Madden, head of digital and CRM at pub chain Mitchells & Butlers, explains: “Many of our customers like to tell their friends, family and colleagues about a positive experience they have had with us.


“To help amplify these recommendations we use the GoRecommend app, which enables customers to make a brand recommendation to their connections on Facebook and Twitter. Nearly 30,000 of our guests have recommended Mitchells & Butlers brands to more than 4 million people.”

Madden believes that the ability to feed back and share is a positive enough experience for customers without having to turn it into a value-added service like Hotel Chocolat or Graze.

“We don’t incentivise customers to make positive recommendations on our behalf. We find it more beneficial to identify positive feedback through our customer survey and in real time ask customers if they would like to share their thoughts and experiences,” he says.

“It is at this point that we present the GoRecommend app and integrate with social media platforms in a meaningful way.”

Brand in the spotlight: Q&A


Ruth Clement, manager of market intelligence,
Mattel UK

Marketing Week (MW): How important is live research?

Ruth Clement (RC): Live research in a relaxed atmosphere creates more spontaneity and natural behaviour. Children who are given permission to play in any way they like with the materials that we make available to them often demonstrate considerably greater imagination and spontaneity than we would otherwise have seen in a more formally moderated group.

What is also interesting is the fact that the children also respond to being given ‘permission’ to play in ways that they are restricted from doing at home where mum doesn’t want a mess being made. A good example of this is where they are allowed to add water to their play.

MW: What insights did you get from this that might not have been achieved otherwise?

RC: We see how natural play feeds on itself, layering elements from the child’s imagination or creativity or their social interactions with other children, without inhibition. They are not self-conscious and talk as they play. This gives us a truer picture of the benefits that children feel when playing with the toys.

“Live research in a relaxed atmosphere creates more spontaneity and natural behaviour”

Ruth Clement, Mattel UK

MW: Do the participants view it as a benefit to them?

Mattel has an ‘Aladdin’s-cave’ viewing facility to observe children’s playing behaviour


It varies according to the objectives of the research as to whether we want to test toys or category appeal with existing fans or potential adopters. What is important in these circumstances is to have friendship pairs within the group, all children within the same year group and sociodemographic profile. There is always a stage at the beginning of the research where a moderator helps the group to get to know each other and to share a common task so that social interaction is made easy. Children almost always relish the opportunity to simply play and there are enough toys and materials to go around.

MW: Mattel US does this in kindergarten rather than taking them to a research environment. Do you do similar campaigns?

RC: Mattel UK has links with schools and nurseries but we also have a viewing facility. Children are sometimes allowed to enter the toy showroom that to a child is a veritable Aladdin’s cave! In 1961, Fisher-Price established a nursery now known as the Play Lab. This research and testing centre was the first of its kind in the toy world and remains at the heart of toy development at Fisher-Price today.

Case study: Graze

The development of Graze’s wholesome-sounding good-for-you snacks is founded in seriously complicated maths and technology.

“We base our business on modelling preferences to a very deep level using an algorithm called Darwin. From determining dietary requirements to the mix of tastes and textures, it generates 4.9 million possible combinations from 100 snack types,” explains founder Ben Jones. “It’s seriously complex.”

This means Graze’s customers can never be totally certain about what they’re going to receive when they sign up for the service. They are encouraged to rate each box as they receive it and those ratings are fed back into Darwin, which then calculates what ingredients should make up the next boxes.

Not only does Darwin determine how to tailor a single snack box from the millions of possible permutations, it also informs the company about the general taste range of its consumer base. So far it has revealed that consumers in Essex are not overly fond of bread and that Scots like chillies.

“We consider market research to be important but place a greater importance on live testing”

Ben Jones, Graze

“We consider market research to be important but place a greater importance on live testing. If we have a new ingredient to test we put it out there and see how it’s rated. As we introduce new things, others slip down the scale. Something that was popular six months ago may no longer be in demand and we can easily pull data out of the system and work out why,” Jones explains.

He admits that running things by numbers isn’t always successful. “We’ve made hundreds of mistakes trying to get the algorithm correct. We’re constantly rewriting it to make sure that every product really is different.”

Jones admits that Graze runs the risk of consumers voting in favour of snack boxes made up of the most expensive ingredients. “Our margin is different on every box. You can’t always send the most profitable stuff.”

For now, the element of surprise on receiving a new box and the attendant sharing that goes on between Graze customers on Twitter and Facebook is ensuring that the company’s live research contributes both to product development and valuable PR and marketing. “The link between the marketing and technology teams is crucial. After 48 hours an idea can be live tested, 48 hours after that it can be rolled out across the business. Marketing holds the key to our success.”



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