Desire, consideration and trial are the most challenging objectives a brand can strive for — a deal-breaker between what makes a brand a “showstopper” or “has been.” To stay on top of their game, brands invest considerable strategy, time, attention and dollars annually to remain relevant in the hearts and minds of consumers.
Increasingly, pencils are being sharpened and budgets are being consolidated or repurposed in order to improve bottom lines. This will continue to be an opportunity or challenge (depending on if you are a glass-half-full or half-empty type of person) for marketers now and in the coming years as they have to prioritize their innovation and engagement efforts to ensure they are top of mind with consumers.
To research or not to research — that is the question. If you are reading this, you have inevitably asked or have been asked this question or variations of this theme. And in the very moment that question was asked, someone, no doubt, piped in with the old adage that Henry Ford is unanimously credited with (even though it cannot actually be verified): “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
As detailed in a Harvard Business Review article, “Ford’s adherence to his vision of the mass-market car and how to materialize that vision was instrumental in both his early success in growing Ford Motor Company as well as his later failure to respond in a timely and effective manner to rapid innovation in the marketplace.”
According to the article, one of the first notable examples of consumer research influencing innovation was with General Motors (GM) under the leadership of Alfred Sloan. Although Ford’s share of the market decreased in the 1920s, GM’s increased due to its consumer-research-driven approach, which aimed to produce cars for distinct market segments as a response to the evolving needs of the marketplace.
This is a notable example of the importance of always understanding what drives culture and the market as they evolve. Consumer insights can drive leading innovators and push culture forward, such as with Ford, Tesla, Apple, IBM and Nike, or help seize opportunities as markets develop. Either way, you need to be prepared with the right information in order to stay ahead of the curve.
Despite challenges with marketing spend, it’s always a good idea for brands to engage with their insights and creative partners to connect with consumers as a way to evaluate perceptions, weed out assumptions, validate or disqualify opinions, uncover new ideas and explore unchartered opportunities. This is why adding insights to the strategic design process sets brands up for success.
Oil and water don’t mix, right? So too, research and design can often be seen as opposing forces that don’t blend very well. When research is used exclusively as a lagging indicator, or as a means of executional validation, research can push design outcomes down a rapid descent into mediocracy. Engaging with consumers is an art form unto itself, and the context in which design is presented and reviewed by consumers needs to be carefully considered and appropriately evaluated.
Innovation is a delicate balance of intuition, vision and insight. When providing client consultation, I typically recommend asking consumers for permission at various stages of development so that they are exposed to new ideas as they evolve and materialize.
In the spirit of design thinking, when we connect with consumers at multiple stages, we engage them in a more meaningful collaboration that informs thinking and keeps consumer desire and engagement top of mind for all stakeholders. Of course, this input will only be as good as the quality of the screening, research design and respondent recruitment process.
I recently worked on the launch of a new-to-market oat milk brand, where consumer insight was critical in the earliest phases. Trends in the health and wellness categories, new dietary trajectories, and sociopolitical issues were critical to informing a successful and resonant brand position that broke through in a category full of complexity and clutter. Beyond the cultural landscape, there were untapped consumer insights into lifestyle, product need-states and category barriers that we needed to understand.
We audited the category with an immersive approach to usage behaviors and context, talking to early adopters, high-engagement consumers and leaders in the plant-based culinary movement. We audited coffee houses, talking to baristas about the oat milk. We created a consumer segmentation hypothesis from qualitative ethnography so that we knew how to activate against their unique need states. Then, once we understood the plant-based milk landscape and oat milk’s unique position in that landscape, and deeply immersed ourselves in the desires, motivations and barriers of the consumer, we built a brand that we knew could break through the clutter and lead the category.
Before engaging a brand in any kind of design endeavor, it is imperative to understand the objectives of the initiative. Where has the brand been? What is its current situation, and where does it want to go? Are we simply looking to freshen up with a simple nip-and-tuck, or do we need a complete facelift?
Once objectives are clear, an audit of existing assets and research should be conducted to determine gaps in intelligence. Do we truly understand the consumer? Do we have a grasp of the category and the competitive landscape? Do we recognize the brand’s place in the broader culture? And importantly, are our early objectives for the brand the right ones?
Designing the smartest path forward comes from understanding knowledge gaps and outlining a plan to get the answers you need quickly, through qualitative research. This knowledge work doesn’t need to be expensive or time-consuming. Getting comfortable with what you don’t know and designing a way forward will always serve your business strategies and pave the way to informed, sustainable growth into the future.