Build or burn?

When market research is unreliable

When I was a kid I participated in the worst piece of market research ever.  A group of us were playing in the street when a car pulled up and a couple of strangers stepped out and offered us free crisps.  (This was the seventies).  Quite aware that you shouldn’t talk to strangers, we nevertheless eagerly accepted the crisps.  There were two types of snack offered.  One was a brand familiar to us, the other was a new product.  The researchers wanted to know what we thought about the new crisps and how they compared with the other brand.

The new crisps were horrible.  They were a kind of sugary-coated Quaver.  The sweet taste really clashed with the normal savoury taste of crisps.  Anyone unlucky enough to be handed a packet of the new crisps pronounced them ‘different’ or ‘really nice’ but quickly hunted around to see if there was any of the normal crisps still available.  Mad Men this wasn’t.  Not long afterwards, these new crisps appeared in the shops.  I can’t recall their name. We avoided them like the plague, laughing at any poor soul who had wasted their money to see what they were like.  I admit to always having a slight scepticism about market research ever since.

This early experience of market research fuses with my later experiences of being interviewed by TV crews looking for a comment from ‘the man in the street’.  Caught unawares and asked about a topic I hadn’t given much thought, my mind goes completely blank and I reach for the nearest cliché to hand.

Recently I listened to a market researcher claim his work reached beyond the simple ‘question-response’ technique of traditional market research and instead aimed to understand the science behind how consumers make decisions.  He went on to describe an experiment he had run that illustrated his work.  It involved putting people in a hot room for a while, then giving them an ice cream, and then asking if they felt refreshed.  I’ll let that story hang there for a while…

I have found that when you ask people their opinion about something new, the response is usually disappointing.  The more novel the subject, the more disappointing the response.  It’s an observation, not a judgement.  The reason is simple.   All we have available to judge something new and unfamiliar is our existing frame of reference of things which are old and familiar.  The problem is we have a much clearer, sharper picture of what was there before.  The new thing being described often seems ill-defined and vague by comparison, making it more difficult to see the benefits.  Our minds go blank.

On a flight to the US in 2003 a colleague showed me an iPod.  He explained he had his entire music collection on the device and so through this long flight he wasn’t going to be short of choice for listening to music.  Looking back he must have been puzzled at my lack of enthusiasm.  I didn’t quite say it will never catch on, but I didn’t show any interest beyond a polite ‘Oh right’.  At that time, the way I listened to music, I didn’t particularly see the need to have my whole music collection with me.

The point of all these anecdotes is not to diminish market research, although I do think it’s at its most powerful when giving you information on things that are already familiar to people.  Instead I want to highlight a truth about leadership: sometimes it involves ignoring feedback and going ahead anyway.

I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve proposed a change at work, even minor ones, and been told it will be a disaster, only for the change to go ahead and, a few months later, no one batting an eyelid.  The time that really stands out is a proposal to introduce a deli-style sandwich bar in a traditional chips-with-everything staff canteen.  During my presentation, I posed the question ‘Will people be prepared to pay £1.60 for a decent cup of coffee?’  No sooner had the words come out of my mouth than came a loud shout of ‘NEVER’ from a man in the audience.  Some months after the deli/café area was refurbished, the queue of people waiting for a ‘hand-built’ sandwich and a latte stretched out the door!

What’s the moral of this story?  By all means ask people’s opinion but sometimes leaders have to be ‘ahead’ of public opinion.

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