Research. One of marketing’s most essential tools has a dark side.

Market research can help you find your brand truth. Or lose it.

The fastest, most affordable way to move the needle on performance is by better understanding customer needs.

Market research is vital to achieving an understanding of who your real buyer is and what drives them. It will help you identify moments of truth in the buyer journey. And it will hone your understanding of customer barriers and the factors that build trust and brand loyalty.

Market research can also uncover the deep points of potential connectivity that, in turn, form the basis of great advertising. Just as true, however, is that poorly motivated or conducted research can be poison.

I see research as being analogous to prescription medicines. A few years ago, we created a campaign (SafeScript) for the Victorian Government to launch a new system of prescription monitoring for high-risk drugs. Our challenge was that many of the medicines essential to the quality of life for many people also have a dark side, with dependency and addiction being a common outcome of incorrect use.

Market research is the subject of a similar dichotomy. Many marketers have become dependent on research for what may seem like logical reasons – such as validating a strategy or creative concept. Or they may want to de-risk difficult decisions. While both are valid objectives, the tendency to ‘dumb down’ research to ‘prove a position’ is leading to some poor outcomes.

Reaching for the lowest common denominator

I can’t count the number of focus group I’ve attended where one of the research subjects has sought to dominate the session, or where the moderator or methodology has a clear outcome in mind. Or where the research is structured to rely on people with no knowledge of an issue being pressured to form an instinctive opinion on it. These are just some of the more obvious shortcomings of poorly conceived and managed research.

For an extreme (and entertaining) example of this, I invite you to check out this amazing exercise where a focus group was asked to assess the famous Apple Think Different campaign. It’s as delicious as it is excruciating.

The more systemic potential flaw in all types of research, however, is more difficult to identify. It is structurally embedded in the research process itself and requires great skill to filter out. It is this:

The very process of engaging in research creates an ‘unreal’ environment – one where the views expressed by respondents may not accurately represent what they really think.

In qualitative and quantitative research, it is completely normal for respondents to ‘perform’ in a way they believe reflects well on themselves as an individual. Even in notionally anonymous online quantitative surveys, there remains the propensity to ‘curate’ answers in a way that the respondent feels increases their acceptability and personal prestige. The validity of that research is obviously compromised.

We all lie in market research

In his book, Everybody Lies (Bloomsbury Publishing 2017), researcher and data scientist, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, provides a diverse range of examples about how people lie in surveys.

Set against polling that predicted a resounding Clinton win in the 2016 US presidential election, for example, Stephens-Davidowitz mapped with perfect accuracy, which States Trump would take out on his way to victory. He did this by establishing that real voter intention was much more closely linked to the way voters searched for election information rather than how they responded in polls. Those who searched Trump Clinton were substantially more likely to vote for Trump while those who searched Clinton Trump were more likely to vote for Clinton.

The data this insight revealed was so accurate that it predicted voter outcomes in every single swing state – even those considered to be ‘welded on’ to the Democrats.

In this and many other cases, Stephens-Davidowitz showed that people are much more likely to reveal their personal truths when they think that no-one is observing them. Conversely, they are more likely to edit their opinions when somebody is listening. Even if that person is reading their responses anonymously and is a stranger they’ll never meet.

A similar phenomenon was also at work in the Brexit vote and in the 2019 ‘miracle’ federal election which gave Scott Morrison such an unexpected win.

This, by the way, is why Myers Briggs questionnaires seem to ask the same question in so many different ways. It’s simply aiming at identifying the degree to which the respondent is glossing over their true view.

The fact that research respondents find it so hard to give answers that are not tainted by the desire to ‘look good’ is understood by great researchers and they employ a range of techniques to ameliorate its impact.

It’s hard to measure if there’s nothing to measure against

Concept testing in isolation can be a good disaster check. But what are you really trying to test? What do you want to move the needle on?

Getting the right data before you do anything else means that everything that follows is more informed and insightful. It means that, along with all the obvious benefits of knowing your audience better, you have a framework against which to objectively test concepts and their potential impact.

What does the audience think now? Is that favourable to us or not? In what ways do we need to change audience mindset? To what level is audience suggestible or malleable? What are the themes that might shift their thinking? What are the primes (or psychological triggers) that can stimulate them into action? What is the lexicon the audience finds relatable?

This kind of data allows you to anticipate, then prove, the business case for what can be significant campaign investments.

Concept test with care

Concept testing can be meaningful, but only when it measures audience reactions against the control data that comes out of the primary research noted above.

Also, the most effective concept testing takes place at a very early stage of campaign development, well before the creative ‘gloss’ is applied. This is because a fully developed concept brings variables into a testing environment that may distract respondents from the real issues.

You’ll have experienced this in the music you listen to. The real merits of a piece of music are evident in its rawest state, and a great song is amazing whether it’s played on a ukulele or by an orchestra.

The search for meaning and difference

According to behavioural scientist, Dr Peter Steidl (NeuroMarketing, 2012 Clearspace), the effect of dopamine within the limbic brain is the principle driver of human decision-making (this is contrary to the common understanding of dopamine being simply your self-producing ‘happiness’ drug).

Themes of death (particularly of someone other than yourself), fear, loss, social connection (or opprobrium), conquest, success – all illicit a powerful dopamine response in humans. So, finding and leveraging these deep human connections is a critical ingredient for success.

But Dr Steidl also points to what he calls The Dissonance Effect, where awareness is turbocharged when it detects something that is not predictable or normal in the course of the everyday. A new idea has the same effect but is difficult to unearth.

But how do you know whether an idea is either new or compelling? If allowed to, a skilled researcher will help you establish whether you’re going to pierce the audience consciousness or be seen as irrelevant.

Confirm that your ideas are new and true

Remember the last time you heard a comedian or speaker say something and it just clicked for you. “Wow, I’d never thought of it that way”, or “That’s me, right there.” Invariably, this is a response to a human truth – something deep and intuitive.

Apply this effect to your brand and you’re on a winner. It’s why finding what’s new and true about the relationship between a brand and its audience is always at the core of our brief to researchers.

We even call it the search for a New Truth. And we believe that finding your New Truth is worth investing in.

In praise of great market researchers

It’s easy to underestimate the value of a great researcher. There’s constant pressure to reduce the cost of research and view it as a ‘tick box’ or ‘disaster check’ (both of which are fine provided you’re not expecting anything to fly).

But if you’re looking for market research that can help you make a genuine difference, here are some characteristics to look for:

A hunger for insight – the best researchers are entranced by the prospect of getting to the heart of the matter. That means they need to get to the heart of your business.

Methodology - a great researcher is the one that is constantly mitigating against even the most subtle prejudice and bias. They’ll do this by carefully crafting methodologies to filter out subjectivity in favour of objective views in response to very specific and relative questions. So, rather than asking which concept a research subject prefers, they’ll ask a question like ‘what does this idea communicate to you?’ and measure responses against the campaign objectives.

Conviction – look for a researcher that has the confidence to stay the course in the face of those who are simply ‘looking for the right answer’.

In summation

Great market research can help you make bold decisions – ones that can transform business performance. Poor research may provide cover when things go wrong, but it reinforces existing thinking and stifles great ideas.

My advice is to never rely on market research to make a decision for you. Think carefully about the value of any research that sits in your ‘business-as-usual’, risk management or validation bucket. Rely on research to better understand the people you need to convince and make your own decisions based what you learn.

And, finally, work with people mature enough to get this and it will keep you from away from the dark side.


DPR&Co is a leading digital marketing agency in Melbourne. Get in touch to learn how we can equip your brand for the next normal.

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