The Old, the New, and the Different, by Jackie Nichols (VP Research and Insights)
Having the opportunity to return to a once familiar place 10 years later is an interesting experience: one is not the same, nor expects things to remain the same. But the brain’s immediate reaction to contrast and compare provides plenty of food for thought.
I joined the Market Research industry in 1996, working for 10 years in Product Development and consumer understanding for one of the largest corporations in consumer packaged goods. Learning from the experts at a company that was so data driven, and probably spent the most money on generating such data, was probably a more advanced course than any I could have taken at a prestigious MBA program.
Fast forward to 2006, when I made a career move to the service industry, both as an entrepreneur and as President of a non-profit community organization that attended the needs of thousands of customers. And after 10 years in that second professional life, I recently returned to the Market Research industry as a partner at an independent firm (Yes! They still exist!). One year into my third professional stage, I’ve been able to find some traits that have remained present while also become acquainted with new tools, techniques, players and methods. Some of which I’d like to discuss today.
The first thought that comes to mind as I compare the old and the new, is that the essence of what we do and why we exist remains the same: organizations large and small, want to understand, analyze, predict and more than anything influence what their customers think and do. From the deepest of the insight generation processes to large-scale surveys, it’s all about how to ensure that our products and services meet a consumer need. Perhaps for me the biggest advancement on this core subject is the acceptance of human unpredictability and unreliability, pioneered by Kahnemann and Ariely and now called Behavioral Economics. Technologies that allow us to measure biological responses to stimuli and identify how people feel before they even become aware of such reactions continue to break ground on the subject. For me, this is welcome and almost revolutionary progress.
The second memory of my early days in MR that has evolved since is our love affair with generational marketing: segmenting and labeling people according to when they were born. I remember attending one of the first presentations about the Yankelovich report by one of the authors of the book “Rocking The Ages”, and how I felt that someone finally understood why, as a Gen X’er, I couldn’t see eye to eye with my baby boomer managers. As the youngest of those days are now in their forties looking at several new groups that have come after ours, I am catching up on all the definitions and theories on Millennials. But it surprises me to see the negative clichés I read in so many reports on this group. It almost feels as if they are referring to alien beings that just landed from a different planet. Or perhaps they are written by thought leaders who are infusing their personal biases to those articles because of their experience with their own high school children. So yes, what our consumers do is still defined by who they are, how and when they were raised, the issues they (and the country and the planet) have dealt with, and we need to understand them if we want to have a chance for success.
The biggest change, of course, all across the board of the consumer understanding world, is the incorporation of technology and its impact on how we do things. I can’t thank the Universe enough for digital surveys completed on mobile devices instead of having to type hundreds of responses to open ended questions. The amount of time it takes for a large scale Habits and Practices test is now a few days instead of several weeks of fieldwork and an equal number of typing and processing. Shopper research with mobile eye-tracking tools is light years ahead of the first shelf mock-ups we put together back in the early days. But with all of this, there is always the fine print: I remember most of my biggest “A-ha!” moments came from walking around the streets of Mexico City following the interviewers for one of my product tests, or visiting consumers’ homes in Manila. Not only I developed a huge respect for my fieldwork providers and a better understanding of the way our methods and tools were used, but I also learned and experienced so much more from listening to a few consumers in person than I can ever get from an online survey. And if you add that to the fact that most of the players in the industry are so large that they may just be referring to you by the account number, I do miss the personal connections of days gone by.
So, as I plan the path for my new venture and focus on making Network Research a relevant player in today’s competitive world, I do intend to embrace most new technologies and methods, focus on understanding the whole consumer and not just a buyer of this or that version of my client’s products. But most importantly, I do commit to ensuring our company provides that high-quality, personal, reliable and close connection with our clients and our consumers that maybe some Millennials with their wireless headphones and almost built-in phones won’t understand.