Special Report Research

How to use if effectivelyAs marketing budgets tighten, and increasing scrutiny is placed on the smallest expense, the question for marketers is not so much whether to use research to identify opportunities and avoid costly mistakes, but how to use it...

How to use if effectively

As marketing budgets tighten, and increasing scrutiny is placed on the smallest expense, the question for marketers is not so much whether to use research to identify opportunities and avoid costly mistakes, but how to use it effectively.

In this special report, research consultants, marketers and agency professionals explain when and how they use research so it illuminates the decision-making process without becoming a crutch.

A couple of years ago, the Vancouver office of McKim Baker Lovick/BBDO created an advertising campaign for a new lottery game called Punto.

Unlike other lottery products, the key to winning at Punto had more to do with skill and knowledge than pure luck.

However, the television creative was much the same as that used for other games of chance marketed by B.C. Lottery.

The commercial employed an on-air presenter, a jock in this case, who talked about the functional benefits of the game. As it had done for other lottery campaigns, the agency’s media department planned and executed a massive media buy, with the goal of reaching adults 18+.

Didn’t work

Everyone associated with the project expected to see positive results. But in the words of Jim Southcott, the advertising agency’s vice-president and director of client services, the Punto campaign ‘did not work at all.’

Rather than point fingers, both the client and its agency were determined to get to the heart of the matter.

The client asked the agency to conduct research to determine whether people would be more inclined to buy tickets if the prize value was increased by $5 or $10.

The research turned up something unexpected. Most of the people playing the lottery were not, in fact, lottery players at all. They were sports buffs.

‘They didn’t care what the prize was,’ Southcott says. ‘To them, it was all about researching their picks. They were offended that people would actually call it a game of chance.’

Armed with this insight, the creative team designed a new commercial that barely talked about the product (except for a brief reference at the end), but successfully tapped into the emotions of sports fans.

In the new spot, the commercial intercuts a well-dressed businessman speaking dispassionately about his enthusiasm for the game, with the same character, now excited, yelling at the tv screen, threatening to set his lottery ticket on fire when he thinks his team is losing and, in the end, celebrating his team’s win.

Sales of the product tripled in six months.

Not only that, Southcott says, but the agency was able to cut the campaign’s media budget in half by concentrating its buy on sports properties.

As marketing budgets tighten, as increasing scrutiny is placed on every conceivable cost – from product launches, to line extensions, to new retail locations, to advertising, sales promotion and direct marketing campaigns – it is hard to dispute the value of research.

Mike Egan, director of sales and marketing for fluid and refrigerated products at Etobicoke, Ont.-based Ault Foods, puts it this way: ‘If you make decisions purely on gut feel, you’re taking a huge risk in today’s environment.’

‘It isn’t fair to the people you are responsible to, from your shareholders right the way down to your truck drivers, to bring out something that’s going to be a dud,’ Egan says. ‘And it’s not very good for your career, either.’

The question then, is not so much whether to use research, but how and when to use it so it supports the decision-making process without becoming a crutch.

Luke Sklar, president of Toronto-based market research broker Luke Sklar & Associates, says although the trend is declining, there is still a significant amount of research being done that simply justifies an internal point of view.

‘We often ask our clients, `If you were to not do this research, what decision would you make?’ And `If I were to show you this research and it completely contradicted your decision, would you change your mind?’ You would be surprised at how often people wouldn’t change their minds,’ Sklar says.

More pressure

‘All that being said, we can’t be so naive to know that our multinational clients have more parent company involvement, have greater pressure on their careers, and their bottom lines, and, therefore, there are times when you must marshall the facts to justify an action plan,’ he says.

Deborah Sawyer, president of Toronto-based Information Plus, a company that retrieves secondary information and conducts custom research primarily for business-to-business marketers, agrees research is all too often used to support decisions that have already been made.

Sawyer tells the story of a trust company that wanted to introduce an investment product aimed at pension plan sponsors. Although well-established in the u.s. and Britain, the money management technique was relatively new to Canada.

Not ready

Research showed the Canadian market was not ready for the product. The technique had low recognition and the brand name the client had chosen had the lowest recognition of the three names proposed.

Convinced it could overcome any obstacles, the trust company ignored the research and went ahead with its plans. In the end, the vice-president pulled the plug on the project, having failed to convince pension plan sponsors the product was a worthwhile investment.

Sawyer says clients not only ignore research that does not support their point of view, ‘they often go with approaches that tell them what they want to hear, not what they need to know,’ adding clients have been known to fire researchers who turn in less than favorable results.

‘There’s a whole shoot-the-messenger system at work,’ she says.

Human nature

Asked why clients would place pressure on research suppliers to tell them what they want to hear, Sawyer says it is human nature.

‘People feel very threatened when they find out [something negative,]‘ she says. ‘Their jobs are threatened. Instead of seeing it as something they can do something about, there is a tendency within organizations to place blame.’

‘In many cases, they haven’t even countenanced the possibility they might find out negative things, like the demand for a product is going to decline, or customers are unhappy.’

Ruth Corbin, chief operating officer at Toronto-based marketing and social survey firm Angus Reid Associates, says she strongly discourages clients from doing research if they have already made up their minds on a particular issue.

‘If someone says, `I have to do this research because my boss wants me to so he can justify it to the organization,’ then we understand that their real goal is not testing the product, but helping to communicate the message throughout the organization and we will redirect the research so he or she will achieve that goal,’ Corbin says.

Trying to achieve

‘It’s a matter of understanding what the client is trying to achieve, rather than what he or she may say on first blush,’ she says.

‘Very often, they are relieved that they are getting value for their money, where they had come into the process being cynical.’

Tim Wingrove, senior partner at Toronto-based Commins Wingrove, which commissions research on behalf of clients such as Lever Bros., Pepsi-Cola Beverages and Thomas J. Lipton, among others, says the key to using research is understanding when it can be helpful and when it cannot.

‘I don’t think anybody can dispute the notion that decisions are made better by being in possession of better information,’ Wingrove says. ‘The only dispute is `When is that information better information?’ ‘

He says a lot depends on the cost of the decisions that are resting on the need for information.

The more important the decision and the more money there is at stake, whether it is launching a new product, developing an advertising campaign, or redesigning a package, will dictate the degree to which that decision should be guided by research.

Egan agrees.

‘Say it’s a new package that involved new equipment at the plant, and that involved an investment of a million and a half dollars,’ he says.

‘You’ve got to sell lots of truckloads of that product before you break even, and that’s before you look at launch costs – advertising and promotion, your sell sheet, and so on.’

On the other hand, Egan says, you have to know when not to research.

‘If it’s a simple product line extension, you might not even research that,’ he says. ‘You might say, `Jalapeno is popular these days. So let’s have a jalapeno dip.’

‘That’s a no-brainer, because it’s a no-risk proposition. It involves minimal product costs, it probably fits on your current production line, and you don’t have to spend a lot in advertising.

‘You can probably use a point-of-sale item that announces `bold new flavor.’ Those kinds of things don’t even merit research.’

At Labatt Breweries of Canada, research is used first to identify consumer needs, and later, to verify concepts, says David Kincaid, the company’s national director of marketing.

‘We don’t use it to cover our ass, so to speak,’ Kincaid says. ‘That’s not something that’s a good investment.’

‘You can make the research say whatever you want it to but, ultimately, that doesn’t do the marketer any good whatsoever,’ he says.

Bad decisions

‘It doesn’t present the truth, it doesn’t present a fair assessment of the needs of the consumer, and what that eventually leads to is a lot of bad decisions.’

One of the most contentious uses of research continues to be in the area of advertising creative.

Generally speaking, there are two stages to creative research.

The first is exploratory, in which the client and its agency talk to consumers on a general level about a category and its brands. The insights gained at these sessions are used as a mental springboard to develop the creative.

Evaluate advertising

The second stage, which has proven a source of grief for many creative directors, asks consumers to evaluate the advertising.

Brian Harrod, creative director at Toronto-based agency Harrod & Mirlin, likens the process to being pecked to death by ducks.

‘I believe in saturation research before you start doing creative, getting as much information as you can about the product, about the consumer, about the consumer’s attitude to the product,’ Harrod says.

‘But once you do the creative, it’s too late,’ he says. ‘I’m not interested in whether they like it or don’t like it.

‘I have no problem doing disaster checks, because there might be something that might be offensive to a particular group, but where I do have a problem is going to focus groups to ask which piece of creative they like, or whether they like the creative.’

Harrod blames evaluative research for tempering the gut feel of creative directors.

‘I’m not sure the reason I’m seeing more cautious creative is because the creative guys created it that way, knowing it had to go through research, or whether it’s the result of being squeezed out the other end of the creative research process, but I’m seeing a lot more bland and forgettable creative lately,’ he says.

Martin Shewchuk, creative director at Toronto-based advertising agency Leo Burnett, says he does not believe research is stifling creativity, but adds it is true that creative directors find themselves working with the evaluative process in mind.

‘Each client uses a different testing methodology,’ Shewchuk says.

‘Each one has his or her own set of standards that are considered acceptable norms,’ he says. ‘A lot of times when you go into the creative process, you do have to think about what this particular testing methodology recognizes as good, and you do find yourself writing for that.’

Shewchuk cites a testing methodology in which recall garners the top score.

‘What we’ve discovered over the years is there are certain tricks – like having a loud noise at the beginning of your commercial – that will contribute to recall,’ he says.

‘So when you sit down, you ask yourself whether you can do this so it will get a big recall score.’

Shewchuk says the biggest source of frustration with evaluative research is that it does not always tell you what you should do differently to correct the problem.

‘Oftentimes, agencies are accused of being like doctors,’ he says. ‘We give our best advice, but we don’t guarantee results. As far as I can see, research companies can be accused of the same thing.’

Allison Scolieri, vice-president of Goldfarb Consultants, a Toronto-based marketing and behavior research consulting firm, says although there are limitations to evaluative research, it can provide valuable insights.

‘If you have designed a campaign with a particular strategy in mind, with a particular message in mind, you can certainly understand whether consumers are getting the intended message,’ Scolieri says.

‘If they are not, it’s the role of the moderator to find out what people are having a problem with and how the creative might be modified to eliminate it,’ she says.

Even Harrod admits there are times when, with the right moderator and qualified respondents, evaluative research has been able to improve a campaign.

A case in point: Harrod & Mirlin created a mall poster for Evian water in which a grape and raisin are juxtaposed. The headline read: ‘If you don’t drink enough water, it shows’.

Focus group participants said they did not like it. Rather than let the matter rest, the moderator found out what they did not like. It was the headline.

As Harrod puts it, ‘They didn’t need the line. They were Evian drinkers. They felt they were smarter than that.’

Harrod blocked out the line and had the moderator show it to the group a second time, at which time it received a much higher level of approval.

Peter Holmes, creative director at Toronto-based advertising agency Franklin Dallas, agrees the value of creative research is largely determined by the skills of the moderator.

In a pre-creative session for the pregnancy test Clearblue Easy, focus group participants said the advertising should not talk about sex, or present sex in any way as part of the advertising, a finding that Holmes says he edited from the report before presenting it to the client.

‘You have to have sex in order to even need the product,’ he says. ‘So sex is relevant to the product. To make a broad statement like that seemed to me to be ridiculous.’

Holmes asked the researcher to conduct a second focus group to find out precisely what respondents meant when they said the advertising should not refer to sex.

‘[The moderator] was taking what the focus group was saying literally, without coming back and really taking care of this `sex is part of the product’ question,’ says Holmes, who adds Canadians are reluctant to talk about matters they consider taboo.

‘It’s a matter of delving a little more deeply into what they are actually saying, or asking questions in several different ways to arrive at the truth,’ he says.

As it turned out, the respondents were uncomfortable only with more graphic depictions of sex. The finished commercial, which shows a man rolling over and falling asleep while his partner lies staring at the ceiling after they have apparently had sex, increased sales of the product by 25%, while brand awareness increased 75%.

‘Had we listened to the research literally, and not questioned certain things about it, that spot would never have happened,’ Holmes says.

Southcott agrees it is important that researchers not put words in the mouths of respondents if they are to discover a core insight.

When McKim conducted focus groups on behalf of its client BC Tel, for example, it used a technique called collage building, in which participants were provided 100 pictures and two bulletin boards, one representing BC Tel and another representing a major long-distance competitor. Participants were asked to build collages representing how they felt emotionally about each company.

Rather than interpret the collages themselves, however, focus group leaders asked the participants to tell them what the photos meant.

‘If they put up a picture of a dog, a researcher might say that must mean they felt warm and fuzzy toward the telephone company, when, in reality, they felt they were involved in a master/servant relationship in which the telephone company was treating them like a dog,’ Southcott says.

Ultimately, he says, the goal is to make sure the consumer is at the centre of the process.

‘Clients will say `I know exactly what consumers like about my product – it gets clothes whiter,’ ‘ Southcott says. ‘A creative director might say, `I’ve got this award-winning idea’. What often gets lost is what the consumer finds relevant.’

Wingrove agrees.

‘There is often a certain arrogance on the part of business managers that they know better and can, in themselves, understand what consumers ought to want, or do want, when, in fact, they are, a lot of times, out of touch with what consumers want,’ he says.

Paul Lai, manager of marketing research at Calgary-based Canadian Airlines International, says it is vital to listen closely to what consumers are saying if research is to be used for illumination, rather than support.

‘When we have a concept, we usually go in with something that is definitely not cast in stone,’ Lai says.

‘Sometimes, it’s not carved in anything,’ he says. ‘We listen closely to what people have to say, and we often change direction somewhat slightly. Other times, we fashion a new idea altogether.’

Last year, while doing research to find out what was most important to the airline’s business travellers, Lai discovered many of them find travelling unpleasant. Used to being in control at their office, they felt helpless when they boarded a plane.

Although there are things the airline could not change – flight delays are inevitable – Lai proposed better communication with passengers, especially during delays and cancellations.

Passengers responded by telling Lai it was one of the most important features they would look for.

As a result, Canadian is now writing a policy manual that makes communication a consistent product feature, so that everyone from pilots to baggage handlers understands its importance and knows what to do under specific circumstances.

Lai says when the feature is introduced in the fall, it will provide the airline with a competitive advantage at little or no cost.

‘If we hadn’t done the research properly, if we hadn’t listened, communication probably would not have been one of the things you would think of as being important when it comes to travelling,’ he says.

Asked whether he had a prescription for using research, Lai says the most important thing to remember is to approach it with an open mind.

‘I don’t think [research] should ever be used for support,’ he says. ‘Research, when done properly, should help the client. It should not be something that checks creative thinking, but something that allows for and facilitates creative thinking.’

Ultimately, research should free and inspire marketers, rather than act as a crutch, say the experts.

‘Research is only part of the answer, and it never was meant to be the whole answer anyway,’ Corbin says.

‘If clients are making their decisions based strictly on research, they are doing themselves a disservice,’ she says. ‘Research can do a lot, but it cannot provide the essential management judgment that only people within the organizations can give. You can’t leave that component out.’

Or, as Holmes puts it: ‘We have a saying around here. Poor research tells you about the past. Good research discovers opportunities for the future.’