I was recently on the client side watching focus groups moderated by a reputable research company. I was hired by the client as an Innovation Consultant to “grow the brand through product innovation”. This client contacted me after numerous unfruitful attempts to innovate and while I usually prefer getting involved earlier in the research process, I adapted. I have excellent relationships with my colleagues in the market research industry and I am always excited when Research is conducted prior to innovating. I passionately believe research guides better strategies, better ideas, and better solutions. However, research to move innovation forward is a tad different to regular market research.
While the focus groups where being conducted, I witnessed one of the clients moving uncomfortably. Forty-five minutes into the focus group, he left the client room and never came back. As he walked out, he voiced “I cannot keep listening to these appalling participants criticizing my brand” referring to some candid comments from participants who disliked the brand. The next day, he did not show up, which did not surprise any of us given that on that day we were going to talk to brand rejectors (clients who had tried our products and would not recommend it).
A week or so later, we gathered to get the research results and I noticed how the client’s biases dominated the room. Every time something “negative” came out, he would try justifying it “that is the perception of someone who had never used our brand”, “who said that?, it must have been a rejector”, or “that must have happened because of xyz”. So instead of paying attention, seek understanding and flipping threats into opportunities, this client was forcing the presenter to avoid deeper discussions of any negative comments that emerged during the research.
As the primary information user, I needed to understand the underlying meaning of how non-consumers and rejectors felt about the brand. This included, the good, the bad and especially the ugly. I wondered how I could use the information being obtained, if this person kept pushing the conversation towards the positive. As an Innovation Consultant, pain points create opportunities to innovate.
By the end of the presentation we were left with little information on how to “grow the brand through product innovation” but plenty of ideas to write this blog post.
I am narrowing the learnings down to the 3 things clients must be willing to do before deciding to conduct Market Research, especially if they want to innovate.
1. A client must be prepared to face the discomfort of consumers trashing their brand – Clients that turn a blind eye to negative feedback, hinder the effectiveness of any research initiative to innovate. Innovation is about fixing a consumer pain point, so it is extremely important that consumers talk about how your brand or product does NOT fit into their lives or might not fit their needs. If you are conducting research to give yourself a pat in the back and ignore any criticism, research won’t help you move your brand forward.
2. For research to be a good investment, clients must demand the market research agency to act as consultant, not just a provider of market information – Clients must be open and clear about what decisions will be made with the information gathered. Market research for innovation is very different to other types of market research. The research agency must understand this, because they will need to design the right methodology, ask the right questions and embrace new ways to gathering insights. Copy pasting old methodologies just won’t do it for product innovation!
3. Insights (the human problem, or the why, behind the business problem) not data is what leads to innovation – Getting to the insights requires a different kind of interaction with consumers. The tried and true focus group methodology might not be it. Don’t get me wrong, Focus Groups have a place in research but when you want to anticipate needs, you need specialized techniques. A moderator that asks respondents to rationalize why they do things will get superficial and often unsound answers in a group setting. People don’t know why they act the way they do, or even how to express what they want in the future.
To innovate, take the cliché and still highly relevant quote “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses” (H. Ford). A researcher should use tools to extract what the consumer future needs might look like — a faster mode of transportation. Customers might not have mentioned the need for faster transportation or a combustion engine, that is the art and science of anticipating needs.
If you want to discover, try something new; co-create with consumers, spend a few days with them, observe and ask question in the context of the consumer using the product and challenge consumer’s responses.
Reinventing the future is no small task. Hopefully, this article will inspire a few folks to question whether the traditional research formula will give them the understanding needed to spark the innovation your business might need to adapt and grow. As a research client and a research vendor, I incorporate creative problem solving and design thinking techniques to gather the insights that will lead to better innovation. Whether through research or innovation consulting, let us know how we can help you understand, create and innovate.