Tackling market research with confidence

Understanding customers is vital but market research isn’t always as high up the agenda as it should be.


Marketers often cite time as an obstacle to carrying out market research. The other challenge is uncertainty about how to go about it, coupled with an element of complacency that marketers already know exactly what the consumer wants and needs.

“I used to feel that I just didn’t have time. Now we’ve been challenged to slow down a bit and make sure we include research in our process,” says Sue Johnson, head of retail marketing at Flight Centre UK, and one a graduates of Marketing Week’s Mini MBA in Marketing run by Mark Ritson.

“It’s hard to argue with the notion that research isn’t optional,” she says. “How can we possibly do anything else well if we don’t first understand how the customer is thinking and feeling?”

Johnson admits Flight Centre used to make decisions with ‘If I was the customer I would…’ thinking. “It was good to be reminded that I am, as Mark Ritson would put it, an ‘idiot to consumerism’,” she adds.

The market research module has changed the way many students approach marketing, giving them the knowledge to tackle it more confidently. But that’s not to say it’s easy.

Another graduate, Graeme Johnson, founder of marketing agency Great Ape, works predominantly with SME clients, and says that getting businesses to see value in thorough research is often the greatest challenge.

“The research module was great for offering accessible tools, narratives and case studies with which to demonstrate the value of research, as well as outlining the full range of potential approaches and methodologies.”

Qualitative or quantitative?

One of the chief focuses of the module is qualitative and quantitative methods of research, and the pros and cons of each. Ritson cites focus groups as a classic qualitative method, explaining that these can play a valuable role in marketing, allowing marketers to learn from consumers.

But he adds a word of warning: “The problem is that the samples are small and therefore we are never going to be able to calculate the magnitudes or use numbers.”

This is where quantitative methods come in. “Quantitative research allows us to test things, and with representative samples it allows us to measure things and have numbers,” says Ritson.

One of the most popular and valuable quantitative methods is surveys, a tool which the module explores in some detail. Ritson says, “If you ask the right questions you have all kinds of wonderful opportunities to analyse the market. We can slice the data by various different demographics; we can measure the attitudes and how they change across different groups; and perhaps best of all, we can look at which attitudinal variables drive things like preference, by looking at correlations.”

Knowing what your customers want and don’t want from you can be very powerful when you’re in the boardroom.

Nathan Levi, Totally Money

This wisdom struck a chord with a number of students, with Nathan Levi, CMO at Totally Money saying that he learnt the importance of market research for new propositions, and “how it can help segment customers and form the basis of one’s marketing strategy.” He says he now puts “more emphasis on the creation and design of surveys” as a result.

Following the course, Sue Johnson adds that Flight Centre UK has also sent out surveys to existing customers, something which has “been very insightful” and helped give the company greater direction.

Ritson’s point about both qualitative and quantitative methods being insufficient if used in isolation also resonated. Levi says: “I learnt the importance of qualitative research, which can complement your quantitative research.”

Combining the modalities together to get the best vision of your market is key. “You need two eyes to see with depth, and you need both kinds of market research to truly understand in a deep way your overall market dynamic.”

Working backwards

The reference to professor Alan Andreasen’s theory of ‘backward market research’ – first postulated in the 1980s – also proved thought provoking.

Ritson explains, the approach starts not with the research itself but with the decision you need to inform. “Work backwards with the charts and tables you need and then design the research instrument that will feed that analysis and give you the data you need.”

He describes Andreasen’s thinking as one of the most powerful insights he has ever been given about marketing. He is not alone. Graeme Johnson says the theory has “completely changed” the way he works. “It’s a far more coherent and purposeful approach to determining what research you actually need to do.”

He cites the example of a jewellery client that had been experiencing some disparity in sales across particular product ranges. The company’s own research suggested that the issue lay in design development.

“After conducting further structured research using the backward research approach, results revealed that the real issue lay in the positioning of the product range and the pricing strategy,” says Graeme Johnson. “A simple adjustment in each area has so far proved fruitful in elevating sales.”

He says that as well as helping him to present a compelling case for research to clients, the theory has also created both time and cost efficiencies in the research process.

Sue Johnson has also seen working backwards make an impact. “It’s made it really easy to frame the questions we use in our research. With less than 12 questions we were able to get some very rich data.”

A powerful tool

Of course, challenges still remain, not least in getting C-suite executives to understand the value of robust market research.

“If the business is market-orientated it’s less of a battle, but perhaps unsurprisingly, so many aren’t,” says Graeme Johnson. “The Mini MBA as a whole was really good at joining the dots and painting a clear picture of how everything knits together.”

Levi echoes this sentiment, and says Totally Money now has a budget for market research.

“[The course] has taught me that market research is a springboard from which you can challenge your business to be more market orientated. Knowing what your customers want and don’t want from you can be very powerful when you’re in the boardroom.”

  • Professor Mark Ritson will be teaching the next class on the Marketing Week Mini MBA in Marketing from September 2017. To find out how it could make you a more confident, more effective and more inspired marketer, and to book your place, click here.