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Fresh Voices: The Qualundrum of Innovation Development

Being still relatively new to the world of qualitative research I found myself disheartened when the Global Innovation Director of Diageo, Syl Saller, exclaimed during her talk on innovation development at Marketing Week Live that she ‘hates focus groups’. I couldn’t help but question whether she was valid in taking such an openly strong stance against research or whether the objective was to create an impact – unfortunately at the expense of the market research industry.

 

Editor’s Note: Too often social media can be an echo chamber of the usual suspects (myself VERY much included). I don’t think that means that what we are saying is less valuable in any way, but certainly injecting new participants into the process can infuse the blogosphere with some great new perspectives. That is why we’re launching a new initiative to show case newer (and often younger) research professionals that are looking to join in the online conversation. To inaugurate this new feature that we’re calling “Fresh Voices”, join me in welcoming Samantha Bond of Northstar Research. Samantha and others that we’ll be showcasing are the future of our industry, so I hope you’ll join me in welcoming her into the community!

By Samantha Bond

Being still relatively new to the world of qualitative research I found myself disheartened when the Global Innovation Director of Diageo, Syl Saller, exclaimed during her talk on innovation development at Marketing Week Live that she ‘hates focus groups’.  Admittedly, I can appreciate that lines such as, ‘great innovation isn’t about rigor and process… it’s about great ideas, being experimental and having the courage of your convictions’ were highly motivating and inspirational for the room of marketers looking to Syl for guidance.  However, I couldn’t help but question whether she was valid in taking such an openly strong stance against research or whether the objective was to create an impact – unfortunately at the expense of the market research industry.

To some extent Syl perhaps hit a personal nerve, as from my experience so far I have grown aware of the tensions in regard to researching innovations. Thus, when humans are known to be creatures of habit, how do we test products that challenge their habits?

As Bourdieu’s sociological theory explains, ‘individuals learn to want what conditions make possible for them, and not to aspire to what is not available to them.’ Furthermore, everyone knows that Steve Jobs, the guru of innovation, did not believe in research, often saying ‘you can’t expect people to know what they want.’

Therefore, depending upon the extent to which an innovation departs from current human behavior, it can be difficult for consumers to simply imagine how a new product would work and when they would use it.  In addition, when it comes to subtle brand innovations consumers can be naturally resistant to change. As a result, when placed in a focus group with a range of options, respondents can often lean towards the familiar and recognizable, ‘playing safe.’

Within this context, is there a role for qualitative consumer research in the innovation development process or is Syl right to promote the idea that risk taking and self belief is key?

In many ways, it depends on the intended use of research. By this I mean, consumers cannot always be relied upon to articulate what they want and neither can they offer certainty as to how a product will fare on the market.  Naturally, some level of confidence and risk taking is of course required.

However, consumers undoubtedly offer invaluable insight into their daily lives, product usage and areas of opportunity, as trends towards co-creation and crowd sourcing highlight.  They can therefore help to inform and develop a potential idea.

Furthermore, skilled researchers do not merely take consumer responses at face value. Instead they are able to understand the market and context in which a concept is being tested and consider consumer reactions in relation to the research objective, to assess the potential of an innovation and provide recommendations.  The value of research therefore rests to a large extent upon the relationship between client and agency – particularly the agency’s understanding of the client’s strategy in order to design and conduct the most effective focus groups.

Only last week an article in Marketing Week highlighted the success of focus groups in generating new ideas when the right respondents are recruited. In this instance combining traditional consumers with ‘extreme’ consumers was found to spawn highly creative discussions.

Thus, when planned and utilized effectively, qualitative consumer research has a valuable and justified role within the innovation development process. We therefore need more clients who promote and endorse the benefits of research, rather than careless ‘impact-focused’ statements that depreciate the value of our industry.

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2 Responses to “Fresh Voices: The Qualundrum of Innovation Development”

  1. Betsy Leichliter says:

    August 1st, 2012 at 9:31 am

    Excellent thoughts well said, Samantha.
    When I hear clients say things like “I hate FGs” it makes me sad. It reminds me of the scene in “Thelma and Louise” where the they are driving their convertible through Texas as Thelma complains about her deeply unsatisfying marriage, and Louise says something like, “Your problem, honey, is that you have not never gotten properly laid.” Thelma laughs. Then she meets Brad Pitt, and quickly changes her whole attitude toward men.
    Unfortunately, one disappointing research experience can turn clients off to a particular method, or to research in general. However, a great experience can bring them back.

  2. edward04 says:

    August 3rd, 2012 at 4:06 pm

    From the job title, it would seem that Ms.Saller is not a Research person? There are plenty, really plenty of folk out there who publicly denigrate “research” – qualt, quant, you name it. Why do they do that? Might be worth reaching out and asking her/them – above and beyond the standard canons about creativity, habitualisation, the Apple/Jobs paradigm….I’d give it this spin: every industry has its own doubts, positioning challenges, feels undervalued, etc etc. Some industries are better at managing their reputations, putting a case forward, communicating, and yes, selling, than others. How good is the average MR person at that? How many people out there do we have waving the flag? Who should do it? I’d say: each and every one of us “is” Market Research. The best way to change our perception/image, get onto the front foot – quallies, quants, whatever . is in my view to be articulate and cogent in the realm of business decision making. There’s plenty more to be said on this issue…I’d say there is so much evidence that qual. research has a huge role to play in all sorts of marketing issues that there isn’t much cause for concern if we hear – again – focus groups being bashed. I love qualitative research. There. Said it.

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