Making research part of your ‘brand conversation’

Tom Woodnutt
Tom Woodnutt

Who says market research has to be a boring and sterile chore that you force onto a consumer? Tom Woodnutt, director of innovation, Hall and Partners, explains how research can be presented as an extension of the brand experience.

Businesses love to put things into boxes. But what if the requirements of our ever changing world mean that the boxes of the past are becoming outdated? What if marketing, market research, CRM and PR could all belong in one big box called “Brand Conversation”? Maybe it’s time for us to start thinking outside the box and redefine how we conceptualise the key ingredients of the marketing mix.

One of the forces of change throwing the organising principles of the past into disarray and blowing down that cardboard city of boxes is that friendly revolutionary: ’digital technology’. No contemporary article on marketing would be complete without a reference to the new era of ’two-way dialogue’ and ’participation’ forged by digital. Most successful corporations, now preach the value of ’two-way dialogue’ between their brands and customers.

They know that if they only shout in a ’one-way broadcasting’ voice, they can and will be easily ignored as people are doing more than just passively watching what’s on the box.

More and more brands are waking up to the fact that it is better to listen and talk rather than ignore. These conversationalist brands are able to take the sting out of cynicism, tap into goodwill and understand people better. All well and good, but it does raise some unsettling questions about the status quo.

What do ’two-way dialogue’ and ’brand conversations’ actually mean? Which marketing box should they go into? And where does it leave the discipline formerly known as ’research’? If it leads to direct sales, then surely that’s direct marketing? But then they’re about generating positive stories, so isn’t that PR? But they’re also a part of customer relationship marketing…

Some brands are happy for ’brand conversations’ to mean that they simply have an official Facebook page which they get their agency or a brand manager to manage sporadically with no clear strategy. Others go as far as building new product development strategies around it (My Starbucks), CSR led communications ideas (Pepsi Refresh), CRM programmes (BT and Twitter), loyalty campaigns (Marmite and Facebook) or even use it to create a new sales channel (Dell and Twitter) and even create the entire brand and pricing model on it (Giffgaff and online community).

One might baulk at the confusion thrown up by the blurring of disciplines, or simply exploit the efficiencies as boxes slot nicely into other boxes: the research box fits snugly into a CRM box, which is stacked neatly into PR and Marketing boxes.
To be ’box-clever’, brands should embrace this convergence of disciplines when appropriate. For example, when doing research surveys with people that have joined, say, a Facebook fan page or visited the brand’s website, why not make the survey look and feel like an extension of the brand experience? This ways, research becomes marketing.

When brands send out feedback requests to CRM databases, why not get new product development ideas out of it too? So then CRM becomes both research and new product development. And, if brands get customer feedback at the point of sale via mobile, why not recruit them to a branded online community to tell them about new offers and get their help in refining them? This way, customer feedback becomes both CRM, NPD and PR.

At times, this means making research into a conversational experience that feels like an extension of the brand, rather than a disjointed, sterile, pseudo-scientific chore. Research agencies need to embrace the idea that their role as ’conversationalists’ is not always one that is wholly independent from the brand in question.

This means working closer with creative and brand teams to ask questions in ways that are true to the brand, creative and communications strategy. This also means that clients need to bring traditionally disparate departments into much closer collaborative unions.

Naturally, there is still a role for research that is independent from the brand. However if we start to pull a more broad, discipline-neutral and inclusive definition of ’brand conversations’ from the marketing box of tricks, then brands could benefit from more efficient and effective insights and more engaged customers.

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