Going Deep

As innovation in research goes, Canadian marketers are not likely top of mind. But recognizing the growing complexity of today's consumer has forced Canadian marketers like Unilever and Burger King to branch out into more experiential territory.

As innovation in research goes, Canadian marketers are not likely top of mind. But recognizing the growing complexity of today’s consumer has forced Canadian marketers like Unilever and Burger King to branch out into more experiential territory.

It is no longer just about finding out what people have to say about a product or a brand, as it is about understanding targets better than they understand themselves.

‘You can’t ask consumers what they want anymore; technology is moving too fast and there are too many [variables] at play,’ says Jake McCaul, founder of Toronto-based forensic research group Second Sight Innovations, which has several multinational clients including Tropicana in the U.S.

‘Traditionally, companies tend to ask the same question dozens of times through dozens of pieces of research, but the trick is imagining the answer before formulating the question,’ he adds.

While focus groups remain a coveted form of consumer research, the part they play in the research mix and the medium through which they are conducted are key to the evolution of research techniques in this country.

Lisa Brenneman, Burger King’s national marketing manager, research, new product development and PR, for one, subscribes to the idea of turning the subject into the marketer in unconventional focus groups.

For the first time this past summer, researchers took a sample group out to lunch. In a one-on-one scenario, each consumer was taken to Burger King as well as some key competitors to order and eat a meal.

Then they were asked to participate in a full-day brainstorming session where they would act like a mini marketing department. Finally, questions would be mirrored back to focus groups.

‘This three-part process helped us get behind the behaviour of ordering and consuming, tastes, details about food, menu boards, and the importance of cleanliness in the restaurants,’ says Brenneman.

Similarly, Toronto-based In-Sync, one of Canada’s most leading-edge research groups, believes the best way to get to the heart of your target is through ‘auto ethnography’ or empowering the targets to research themselves.

‘We charge them with exercises that direct them to become reflective of their needs and their relationship to a brand or product,’ says In-Sync partner Susan Bardwell.

For instance, in a recent research study for a high-end car manufacturer, In-Sync used auto-ethnography to understand the target’s relationship to their own vehicle, who they are as drivers and their relationship to the brand’s vehicle.

To begin, eight people (who owned the client car or key competitive brands) were sent markers, stickers, instructions and a black book filled with a series of self-reflective exercises (like describing moods and personifying drivers using words and images) to complete within a week. Each participant was also assigned a key contact person to refer to any time throughout the week, after which the respondents were interviewed about their answers.

Through this process, the client discovered the distinction between the product-centric and the driver-centric relationships to its brand. This insight was then used to produce a whole new set of questions for face-to-face interviews with a fresh set of respondents.

The resulting marketing campaign is in the works now and the positioning and messaging are no longer about the technological genius of the car, as it was in the past, but rather the relevance of the vehicle to its driver. The company also discovered in research that this message for its brand is a key competitive advantage because there was more of a driver-centric orientation with its brand than others.

Over at Unilever, where the Dove brand has been engaged in an ongoing ‘beauty-themed’ campaign, ‘the first question is how women’s self-esteem is affected by body image,’ says Unilever marketing director Mark Wakefield.

In years past, ‘ethnographic research was just about going into people’s homes. Now we do it as part of our brand building and consumer understanding plans.’

For the Dove campaign, researchers would go shopping with women and spend time in their homes talking about the meaning of beauty and deciphering what they consider beautiful.

With the discovery that 98% of women believe they are not beautiful, 67 female photographers from around the world were asked to provide photos (with captions) of what they consider beautiful, which were then presented in a traveling exhibit that ran across Canada last spring.

After the shows, which were effectively test cells, the company gained further understanding into women’s self-images and ideas of beauty. This led to its ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ advertising, which is based on the message that there are many definitions of beauty.

But this is not to say today’s trends in research are about replacing the old with the new.

‘Really it’s about taking a holistic approach to understanding people in a multifaceted way,’ says Johanna Faigelman, a cultural anthropologist who was recently recruited as VP, director strategic intelligence and planning for MacLaren McCann.

Hiring Faigelman, instead of a traditional strategic planner, is a sign that clients are looking for a new level of consumer understanding. Says Faigelman: ‘A lot of what goes into decision making [deciding to buy something] relates to deeper unconscious beliefs and experiences.’