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Best New Thinking Winner 2010

Mr Churchill what are focus groups for?

I saw Darkest Hour this week and was rather startled to find Winston Churchill aka Gary Oldman Oscar laureate, resolve his agony of uncertainty about whether to make peace negotiations by following royal advice from George VI and go and ask the people. This apparently involved wandering onto an underground train instead of attending a war cabinet and holding an impromptu focus group.  Who would have thought that the research industry in this country would find such a surprising and distinguished ally? I have probably spoiled enough of the plot for you so far but it won’t surprise you that this underground conversation turns out to be pivotal in the film.

Just in case you aren’t clear about why this is such a surprise, let me rehearse why focus groups are rubbish. Because Churchill’s focus group perfectly embodies the issues.

What’s wrong with focus groups

1/ Dodgy ampling – you can’t just wander onto a train, accost the first people you find and ask them questions. Why? Because they will all influence each other. But they will also distract each other because coming from completely different backgrounds they will dislike each other and cordially disagree. After all, what they have in common is that they happen to be in the same tube carriage. Critics of focus groups don’t like who turns up and how they come together.

2/ An unreliable intermediary. Churchill might not have been quite as famous as the king but was perfectly recognisable to those riding the underground.  So if the prime minister asks your opinion about foreign policy, how reliable are your answers going to be? Answer not very.

3/ Artificial questioning. Churchill is unfamiliar with the underground, he barely knows how to engage with his audience. He shoots from the hip asking about what is preoccupying him. He gets the answer he needs in less than 5 minutes.  Which is lucky because he gets the feedback just when he reaches his stop at Westminster.  A regular criticism of research is that it isn’t like real life. Well no it isn’t and it never could be. This certainly isn’t remotely like real life.

4/ The respondents were not in possession of all the facts. Churchill knew the war wasn’t going well.  And he had taken care not to inform the public. They had no idea how bad the situation was. So their confidence was misplaced.  If they had known what he knew, they would probably have answered differently.

What research IS good for..

churchill on the tubeLet’s pivot (I think that’s what the young turks like to murmur at this point). Why might this impromptu focus group be a helpful example of where qualitative research CAN be useful?

1/ Firstly because it gives a clear outcome – Churchill doesn’t need a topic guide.  He wants to know the mood of the British people. So more or less he asks them – and is surprised by the vehemence of their answer. That is all he needs. To go back to the house of Commons and tell him he has a single focus group (sorry the nation) on his side.  The value of research is when we use it for decision support. They could have told him it was all rather scary and they weren’t sure what to think. They didn’t.  It didn’t matter whether they were informed or not. What mattered was their mood. And they got that across to him.

2/ Because Churchill needed to make a binary decision. Either to accept defeat as inevitable or reject it. This is where critics of research don’t understand it because they don’t like the lack of science. It’s not scientific – you’re using it to make decisions, not to make the decision for you.

3/ Because there wasn’t a professional intermediary. Compared with your average researcher who spends the first 10 minutes carefully detaching themselves from any opinion or emotional engagement whatsoever, it was perfectly obvious that the Prime Minister was serious and genuinely needed whatever feedback the carriage was willing to give. If you have skin in the game – ask the questions. You might get a sensible answer.

4/ Because what decision makers value above all else is not objectivity but momentum.  Research can provide that very quickly when objectivity is far far harder to put together.  A balanced sample would have taken weeks and required a small army of intermediaries.

Brexit, focus groups and supporting your decisions

Last question Should Theresa May conduct her own focus groups? On Brexit say? Well, perhaps she does.  It is time we recognise the role marketing plays in shaping culture and challenging it. We have been through a supine few years when data has been collected and slavishly followed. That’s a predictable and lazy way to do research. You have to have some idea what your customers are going to buy. But you can’t assume they’ll know what they want or be able to put it into words. Research is how you make up your own mind about the decisions you have to make, how you support those decisions.  How much you adapt what you are doing to current realities. But as important how do you understand how to change the current realities. Darkest Hour is an intriguing reminder that it ain’t necessarily so – nor does it have to continue to be either.

CAVEAT – Did it happen? Is it true? I should say in mitigation that this is the most controversial scene of the film because there is no evidence that anything like this happened or COULD happen. Here’s a link if you want to explore that further.  But it IS the pivotal moment of the film. So for me, the point stands. Whether or not it is factually correct – the role in decision making stands.

Object oriented planning

history of the world 100 objectsHistorians on the media have been running away with this. First, we had Neil Magregor’s History of the world in 100 objects, a Radio 4 series followed by a book.  It is also an ingenious promotion of the British Museum since all the objects came from there. After this he brought out Living with the Gods – another Radio 4 series – still available on podcast and an exhibition which is on at the British Museum priced £15 until April 7th. Does anybody want to join me on a visit at some point in the next month? And now we have Civilisations a BBC TV series with an app to accompany it.   So you can inspect each object in 3D and roll it around on the screen of your phone.  These seem to be promoting objects from regional UK museums – marketing is at work again!

Objects are a powerful way to think about culture. Not just because with ancient civilisations objects are all that is left for archaeologists to find. But also because to a significant degree, they are repositories for culture. We may think we carry the behaviours and conventions around in our heads and bodies. But without exception culture leaves a trace. We mark our contexts with signs and objects which signify and facilitate the way we practice our values.

brand wrapmap

The brand wrap map – using objects to understand customers

In the Pirate Inside Adam Morgan has a very useful chapter on brand wrapping where he borrows a model from anthropology. Within this scheme, he offers physical and sensory cues from iconic objects. And internal artefacts which embody internal culture in the host organisation – what it’s like if you are an employee or a volunteer. As well as language and customs and stories, objects have power.

So when understanding the customer’s world the study of objects needs to be part of it. The most obvious one from the perspective of the marketer – is the pack. Not only what it communicates and how visible it is on the shelf and in home. But how the pack is used. What meanings it has for the customer. You look for different information on a pack that you do if you visit a website. It’s different. And sometimes packs are left in prominent places in the home – they have meanings which are visible to the rest of the household or to visitors. But there are also objects associated with consumption as well as those which we use to signify status, or our state of mind.

Apps are objects too

hatstand jon steelIn the app we have a programmed object which is more like a tool than anything else. And it is worth looking at the apps that get used most frequently and recently. Versus those which you never use. In which case we might want to ask why you keep them on the phone/tablet? Why did you not delete them? What was the owner expecting but didn’t follow through to use?  Just as we measure empathy and standout for brands, we might want to evaluate apps for utility and relevance.

The value in an object is how it is used, what it means, what its history is and how it relates to other objects.  Compared with an idea which may be joined with other ideas – objects are intrinsically complicated – they may be decorated – they may reflect multiple or serial kinds of use with meanings changing as the use changes.  For planners, the value of an object is first in understanding those who live alongside it and may use it. But if we are set on behavioural change we may be interested in co-opting objects or even creating new ones or giving old ones new meanings. They are never repositories of communications – that’s a book. Or website. Objects are useful and meaningful.

Account Planning in 50 objects – what object will you nominate?

Account Planning is 50 this year. So as part of the celebrations, the Account Planning Group has set out to tell the story of planning these first 50 years in objects. The final list will be 50 but they are want to generate a lot more which through voting and argument we will boil down. You can see those already posted on the APG site here as a way of starting the process by which you can nominate objects.  We have a parallel page on Reddit where you can nominate objects. Please put a date on it if you can and a title, an explanation for why you think the object is significant as a part of planning culture. And your name please – we would like to know who is doing the nominating. Reddit allows discussion and up and down voting of ideas.

Applying degrees of separation to content

Content. There’s far too much of it. There is no barrier to making it. There’s no cost attached to doing so. And worst of all you don’t have to be very good at making it. Monkeys on typewriters could produce it. So we rely on search engines to order it for us. Only they have a commercial agenda – they are also advertisers, and publishers. So they use the data they collect from searches and from sending spiders around the world wide web to index it. To make it easier for advertisers to reach customers when they are in the moment.  That means more clutter not less.  More advertisers bidding to get my attention.  The assumption being that while I am in the market I am fair game for everybody. that is a recipe for being overwhelmed.

So in conversation with Verity Johnston of Amp an idea emerged about whether it might be possible to apply filters using the 6 degrees of separation principle. The 6 degrees of separation concept means that according to statistical calculations you are no more than 6 people (friend of a friend of a friend etc) from everyone on the planet. Only thanks to digital media they reckon that figure is falling towards 4 degrees of separation.  Could the 6 degrees be applied to content as well as people.

Let me explain. Linked in is full of management speak posts about a depressingly small number of topics which have already been much written about.  That is what I would consider to be content 1.o. Its within reach.  It has been put in front of me because there is an assumption that I am going to be interested by virtue of my job descrition. The articles I read and comment on and those I write.   What I need with content 1.0 is a filter rather like a search engine. Which means that once I have seen my obligatory CRM, social media,  customer centric article – then for a period of say a week I don’t have to be bombarded with the other ones which are also content 1.0.  Notice that I have allowed for fractions because it becomes like a library classification system and more sensitive as a result.

Content 2.0 is where the most interesting content can be found

degrees of separation 2Content 2.0 is the sweet spot. Its the best one by the way for getting a new job. Your friends know about the same jobs that you know about. At one degree of separation they may be very supportive but they are not a lot of use. Friends of your friends at 2 degrees of separation on the other hand are much more useful. Because they know about jobs that your friends don’t know about. One of the best uses for Linked in is finding about opportunities from contacts of contacts who you don’t actually know. There are way more of them than your friends but they extend your nextwork. What is the content equivalent of this. Well if I am a Real Madrid supporter  I suppose content 2 would be anything about Spain on the one hand. Or football on the other. But not about Real Madrid.  So if I turn out to be a Real Madrid supporter and I am not Spanish then a Spanish wine or a Parador hotel might be interesting content for me. So might Lazio or Bayern Munich. So content which is actually interesting because it builds on  what I already know but offers me something new.

Content 3.0 I will call aspirational themes. Branded content I find interesting and am willing to go public about that I like it and endorse it.  I may not be that involved with it. But its a chance for advertiers to pitch to me. With a fair likelihood of success.  But this is about advocacy and conspicuous consumption.

Content 4.0

I will call private interests. Things I am interested in but I don’t want to broadcast. It might be a medical condition. It might be my sexual preferences.  Based on browsing history these can be immensely ueseful for content providers and advertisers but it is unwise to make a full frontal approach.

Content 5.0 is whatever isn’t in the other 5 levels. Things so different from my interests it doesn’t make a lot of sense putting them in plain sight but I would’t be offended if you did – just bemused.  But if I did want something completely different. Content 5 is where I would find it. Though it would be a bit of a needle in a haystack.

Content 6.0 is my rejection list – the topics that make me mad. Daily Mail for non daily Mail readers! This is content that really should not be served up to me under any circumstances because the adverse reaction is less about what is being offered than being the sort of person who might be offered this – what sort of person do you think that makes me out to be?!   So should not be shown.

Can we have less content 1.0? a LOT less

So to summarise I want a limited amount of content 1.0. I would prefer a lot of my content to be content 2.0. 3.0 and 4.0 are useful territories for brands and advertisers to attract my attention. And content 5 is ok for random ness sake. Sometimes we find that interesting!

I am suggesting that there would be grounds for a search engine to filter for these levels. And to make it easy for me to find things from different levels if I wanted to look.  I think there is still far too much content 1.0 perhaps that is the fault of linked in’s architecture.  I am not forced to visit every single Google entry of the hundreds of thousands available to me. But the content platforms don’t allow that kind of filtration.  But it would be great to be able to search for content 2.0.

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Automation and market research

automation in market researchThis is by way of a summary of the 2 sessions I initiated on the topic of automation in market research. The first being a webinar as part of NewMR’s festival of MR at the end of February. And the second being a panel discussion at the MRS national conference.  The pretext for wanting to have a discussion on automation was because of the way it was talked about as inevitable and desirable. And alongside it the idea that the number of people in research is set to decline by as much as half.  But the specific trigger was reading Contented Dementia by Oliver James who explicitly warns against asking Alzheimers patients any questions.  Because they are no longer laying down new memories and are unable to construct an answer (which is distressing for them). This reminded me of the cardinal principle of elicitation – that when you ask someone a question they don’t retrieve the answer for you they have to construct it. And depending on context, they may also tailor their answer to the appropriateness of the context and how they choose to answer who is asking the question.  So question and answer is a far from trivial matter and it seemed to me that automation was likely to be treating it far too simplistically. Oliver James was due to give a keynote at the MRS conference in March of this year. So I got in touch with the MRS and asked if it would be possible to involve him in a panel discussion as well and to gather a panel around him to discuss the topic of automation. Which they and Oliver readily agreed.  In this post I want to highlight some of the main points I took away from the discussions.  You can hear the recording of the NewMR debate here. And you can read a review of the MRS panel discussion here. Unfortunately, the second session was not recorded and although I had a recorder to hand I was too flustered as the chairman to remember to switch it on. Sorry! butI hope the following post gives a flavour.

new MR logoOpportunities and threats of Automation in Research: The NEWMR session

This was more of a debate with Ray Poynter who had written a report about automation as chair of the automation team if I can call them that. Fiona Blades of Mesh Experience whose company uses data sent via mobiles to measure customer experience. Steve Phillips the founder of Zappistore one of the leading agencies involved in automation. On my team we had Natalie Geddes director at the retail specialist agency ABA and Rachel Lawes of Lawes Consulting, a specialist in semiotics and anthropology.

The point was made that research has always used scale and automation to do its work. But that the last few years have seen a stepchange in how much automation is being used.  Good practice dictates that quantitative surveys should be piloted and this practice was becoming less common meaning that surveys weren’t always properly understood and could generate rogue results when questions were understood and answered at cross purposes.

Steve Philips gave a robust defence of Zappistore’s methodology. Arguing that the same questions were used over and over in many different surveys so had been more effectively piloted than most ad hoc surveys.  It was the repeatability of the questions which meant that clients could have confidence in them and the questions were expected to be reviewed every 18 months as language use evolves.  His argument is that the only automation which is sanctioned is where something can be done by a machine. And despite the influx of capital from venture capitalists it is researchers who are making the decisions about what can and cannot be automated. And frequently it is researchers who are deciding not to automate or use an automated survey as a component in a mixed mode methodology which involves other forms of data collection other than automated surveys.

Rachel Lawes was concerned about the loss of context. That the asking of a research question was more about where it was being answered than who was answering it.  Online research usually doesn’t take the time to find out where people are when they answer the question. But the automators argued back that where this was critical the question would be asked. And that the variety of contexts where the questions were answered would even out.

Natalie Geddes felt that all research couldn’t be reduced to online there would always be a need to interview people in location to see how they shopped and how they used products. So online surveys were a useful part of the repertoire but couldn’t replace all of it.  ABA were also running surveys in which thematic apperception questions were being asked and however automated the collection of these the analysis still had to be done by a human being.

Which brought on a discussion about the extent to which AI was deployable in analysis. It was felt that AI had a long way to go and that although data could be sorted and indexed that open questions still had to be analysed by hand. The issue was when AI would be sufficiently sophisticated to be allowed to work alone rather than as an amplifier of a human analysts work.  We’re not there yet.

Fiona Blades pointed out that the automation of data once collected had made a huge difference to speed of turnaround and benchmarking. And this had allowed marketers to understand the nuances of multimedia campaigns and how these were working.

MRS conference 2017 research automation debateCan Research Automation coexist with Elicitation? The MRS panel discussion

This discussion was much more focussed on the issue of elicitation and the creation of answers. Panellists were Oliver James the psychotherapist, Steve Phillips of Zappistore, Anjali Puri Global head of Qual at the research agency TNS Kantar. And Dr Mariann Hardey of the Advanced Research Computing centre at Durham Business school. And I chaired the discussion.

Oliver explained his understanding of elicitation and the panel agreed a common definition

Elicitation – has to do with all primary research involving actions taken by the researcher which will  affect or incite a response from the participant.  And what the participant produces is something which emerges from the elicitation -it is not simply retrieved. 

and Steve offered a definition of automation which the rest of the panel accepted.

Automation – any task which a computer does instead of a person.  

Oliver’s point is that the asking and answering of questions is a human activity. And that each party adopts a persona from which to answer the question. He had just been speaking about the way David Bowie dealt with his own mental health issues by distinguishing between his separate personas of David Jones, David Bowie and Ziggy Stardust. Who is being asked the question and who is answering it? The researchers were less concerned about who was answering the question because that emerged organically from context.

Upping your Ziggy Once again Steve argued that automation represented a step change, not a seachange, which makes research accessible to many more companies than ever before. For example surveys could be timed to the appropriate time of day when it might otherwise be difficult to arrange for human researchers to be able to conduct interviews.

Anjulia Sharma argued that machines could be applied to do elicitation.  Even if she did not think that AI was capable of replacing humans to do analysis. Mariann Hardey – present by video screen warned of the challenges offered by social data when brands had different meanings online when used as social currency. This was likely to affect how brand studies performed. Automation could not be applied to everything even if social media harvesting was now automated.

Mariann Hardey – present by video screen warned of the challenges offered by social data when brands had different meanings online when used as social currency. This was likely to affect how brand studies performed. Automation could not be applied to everything even if social media harvesting was now automated.

There was an opportunity to vote at the end of the discussion – and those who believed that automation could coexist with elicitation vastly outnumbered those who were troubled by it – 96 filed out through the Ayes door and 6 via the Noes door!

There is no doubt that automation is on a massive growth curve at present. But I was pleased that in the 2 discussions we were able to rehearse how complex research is and what automation needs to achieve before you can automate ALL research.

For those who are curious and pick up this post in time. NewMR have yet another talk about automation on Friday March 31st which you can find out more about here!  Ray is telling us when automation should be applied to research. Here’s the link.

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Washing up liquid – will the advertising wash?

Ecover washing up liquidThe creative students of SCA Brixton were developing advertising about washing up liquid. Choice of 3 brands.  Fairy Liquid – the market leader and doughty performer. Persil the brand using emotion to connect with their customers. And Ecover gamely working to disrupt the sector in the mainstream. I am falling behind. Since these briefs based on Dave Trott’s binary brief are being given to the students at 2 week intervals so there is a ton of propositions and ads to review. But the work rate even from these inexperienced creatives is instructive since almost no agencies have the luxury of 6-7 teams working on a brand. And here there are 3 times as many. Paul Feldwick memorably said that until he had a piece of advertising in his hands it was hard to make sense of it.  You don’t crack communications problems at the briefing stage. The point of a good brief is to get the creatives to do interesting work.  So here are a few reflections.

The binary brief route I had identified for detergents is coded BBB after the 3 questions: Established brand reselling to existing customers using a brand benefit. Which kinda works for all of them.

What are the languages around advertising washing up liquid?

Fairy is in some ways the easiest to execute because the brand is such a bruiser, the product is effective. They have been saying it for decades and your mum would approve.  But that means that it is so easy to get the ball on the green that you end up with quite a lot of good work but nothing insanely great.

Fairy Liquid washing up liquidPersil washing up liquidPersil brought some interesting approaches. They are using limited edition fragrances to tart up was is a dull job. There were approaches about mindfulness and who you washed up with.  There was one about the smell of new mothers and the detergent not masking her scent that I thought was really powerful.  But it was a reminder that the most powerful work isn’t necessarily the one with brio that is an obvious award winner.  Sometimes the advertising has to get out of the way and let the insight weave its magic spell. And that is what worked best for me from the work I saw.

Ecover was perhaps the most difficult. Because it is easy to come up with environmental flagellation. Ecover has no problem appealing to extremists. But the faithful is not where they want to make their mark, but with the mainstream. And something as mundane and familiar as a washing up liquid should not be making your regular user feel guilty (or for that matter smug). It is a really tricky balance.  So several of the routes went straight into the sandtrap of shrill denunciations of corporate greed. Don’t get me wrong. It is work that stands out. But probably just gets looked at and blocked.  Any softer a route would turn into greenwash and get ignored.

The one route which did get my attention started with a provocative headline about us poisoning the oceans. Offset by gorgeous art direction. If WE referred to Ecover I would say that was an own goal. If WE referred to all the detergent brands and Ecover was the good guy it was shall we say predictable?   If we referred to a whole society bent on flushing the environment with chemicals to stay at ease with itself and Ecover was offering a way back to sanity – that could be an interesting way forward. But here’s the thing. This route picked its way into an out of the sandtrap. It didn’t try to avoid it.

Advertising needs to tackle the dark side head on – this takes time!

One of the hallmarks of advertising that we remember and even love is that it takes the dark side, the sand-traps and works with them. It doesn’t whitewash them. But it takes time for teams to find their way out of the bunkers. And plannings job is to help them map the difficult territory. If you are turning campaigns around in a few days you won’t have time to do this work. These youngsters had a fortnight. Time well spent I would suggest.

Market expertise needs to be based on EVIDENCE people! Otherwise you are faking it

market expertise demands evidenceA cautionary tale about experts and what they base their expertise on. For those of us who have market expertise.  Let’s just call him the Professor . He watched  a TV documentary in the early noughties. About cot deaths.  Following which the professor called the child protection authorities to say he thought that in the case of the family featured the children had been deliberately smothered and he feared for the safety of the remaining child.  Tricky call. If you or I had called the TV station we would have been written off as cranks.  But this was an expert who had not only worked in the frontline of the NHS for many years he was also a paediatrician volunteering in international healthcare and an expert witness when such tragic cases came to court. Surely he had an obligation to warn if there was a possibility that a life could be saved? The General  Medical Council disagreed and charged him with misconduct.   He was banned for working in childcare for 3 years. This. and other cases involving the professor rumbled on for years.

Market expertise is only such when based on evidence

fantasies and projections misleadBut here’s the point. Even if you are an expert, however extensive your experience, your expertise needs to be based on hard data. A TV documentary is not. It has been prepared with an editorial slant – the interviews and camera angles have been built to argue a particular case.  I trust I am speaking to experts now.  My question is whether you fulfil the criterion of an expert who is so by virtue of knowledge as well as experience.

This is hard. I know it is. There isn’t enough time to do the job properly.  Clients don’t make provision for proper research. And what your colleagues appreciate is your ability to imaginatively conjure up who the target customer is. And some of the time you can get away with it. But..

If you have never spoken to someone who has bought the product or used it. If you haven’t  seen ordinary customers translate a piece of communications into their own words. If you haven’t checked whether the communications resonates with their impressions of the brand. Then why did you go to work today? What value are you actually contributing other than your ability to imagine? to fantasise.

Theorising without evidence is fantasising

Projection is a powerful mechanism. Fantasising is another. The problem with both is that at their root they represent wishful thinking. Your audience at their comprehending motivated best. Only most of the time they’re not like that. They are busy, bored, tired and distracted.  If you are spending your time projecting your positivity into audiences and thinking the best of them then you are creating a fantasy that will not serve your clients well. You know this. So that’s why pushing hard to talk to real people about real communications is so important. It could be as important as the difference between a lie and the truth. It’s not that you deliberately set out to be deceived, but there is a reality check you get when you go out of the office and ask. And watch. And listen.

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Yoghurt – using advertising to sell to existing customers with a brand benefit

SCA advertising school Brixtonthe collective Here is the second set of briefs (this time for advertising yoghurt) which I wrote for the School of Creative Arts in Brixton led by Marc Lewis.  A school which every year trains young creatives so they can get placements for their first advertising job. I spend a day a week as an account planning mentor with around 35 students from half a dozen countries. This year Marc has asked me to use Dave Trott’s binary brief format to prepare creative briefs for the teams to work with. Because of the number of students I have to write not one but 3 creative briefs so there is some variety. For me as brief writer, it is mind bending since I have to approach the chosen market from 3 different directions. What this exercise shows is how you need advertising to play a different role depending on where your brand is.  The second set of briefs is about yoghurt for the UK market. For  3 brands the Collective, Yeo Valley and Yoplait Liberte.

Yoghurt is a classic mass market brand. Cheap to produce and ubiquitous it is readily available in developing markets. As long as you have lots of cows! In the years I was visiting Romania to train marketers and advertising people I saw the move from yoghurt being a commodity that everyone knew and probably had someone make for them at home. To a supermarket product sold with all the bells and whistles that western marketing brings. Yoghurt after all, is just fermented milk. But how profitable it can be if you can wrap a brand around it. Using Dave Trott’s binary brief I concluded that all 3 brands had a similar task – to protect existing customers using a unique brand benefit. To stop them wandering off and trying alternative brands.

binary brief has 8 outcomes


So here are some musings having written the briefs and seen the work which resulted. What makes this activity a little abstract is having to this with no research input whatsoever. Oh for a focus group or some accompanied shops, not to mention a little ethnography to see how these products actually fit into customers’ real lives!


Provenance –  tired or a real point of difference?

Yoghurt is an established category with not much innovation to speak of. I wrote the briefs to focus on brand instead of product benefits. Why buy from this company rather than another? The easiest way to go was to focus on the irreverent roots of the Collective a Kiwi brand even though it is produced in the UK (and partly in France), Liberte which might be safely tucked into the stable of Yoplait the French dairy giant but had its roots in Montreal.  And Yeo Valley – a farming co-operative in the southwest of England.  Yeo Valley’s advertising has in the past has been eccentrically English – but has the added burden that you can’t just promote yoghurt – they have a whole range of products that the advertising alsyeo valley yoghurt limited editiono needs to serve.  So is it a good idea to pitch the 3 brands as an international contest: A New Zealander, a French-Canadian and an Englishman walk into a (dairy) bar..

That is too easy. Actually, that line leads to weak briefing because you end up playing to national stereotypes. Though the French students in the school were momentary interested in the French Canadian connections. Apparently, there are a lot of jokes about French Canadians in France.  It is more fruitful to ask how the national stereotypes manifest themselves in tone of voice and product selection.  The Collective offers some pretty odd flavours and they have a certain anarchy which I recognise from having spent time in New Zealand. But imagination and irreverence are more interesting to work with than generalisations about Kiwis.  Likewise, it was the size and sheer scale of Yoplait which has produced a yogurt with twice as much milk. In other words, French techno-industrial expertise was more useful than cliches about Frenchness: is haut couture and haut cuisine a valid association? This is where Yeo valley turned out to have a bit of a problem. Everyone knows food from the country is better but actually, that is where most food comes from and the general well-being of livestock and farmers is well and good but hardly a major reason for choosing a British country brand. It doesn’t help that most supermarkets have created entirely bogus country own label brand names to sound a bit more natural. If you ARE a real country brand are you saying anything distinct about yourself? Really?


yoplain liberte yoghurtWhat about premium-ness?

Premium-ness is tricky when it comes to yoghurt.  However luxurious the ingredients and manufacturing processes, supermarket pricing and promotions are a terrifying leveller. Just because a brand has high quality ingredients and high production values, doesn’t mean it can charge significantly higher prices. That may not matter. If the trade is impressed enough enough to stock the product and if retailers feel they are offering the customer a bargain then the premium-ness is part of the set up that makes the offer price point look even better. But it’s not surprising that these brands with the possible exception of Yoplait (yes that really is a Liberte product photo on the right-hand side) weren’t willing to innovate because you couldn’t raise your prices to take profits.

The students were enterprising enough to ring the brand owners and got an interesting insight – that they were trying to batter their way through the supermarkets levelling with segmentation marketing to particular customer groups.  If digital allows them to target that precisely then.. hmm maybe but I am not holding my breath on that given the problems we currently have with online targeting and content delivery.

How the students responded to the Binary Brief

I would love to show you examples of the work the students did but let’s give them a few more months and briefs to mature their work.   In the end, the strongest work found ways to connect with the ways customers ate the product.  Together with an interesting route to dramatise how delicious and desirable the product was.  What they did, for the most part, was to head for product rather than brand truths. Let’s see how they tackle the next brief they receive.

Two  briefs down and six more to go. The school reopens next week. Stay tuned. And if you need activating – it should be perfectly obvious that if I can write 3 briefs in the same marketplace for 3 different brands at the same time then giving you some forensic support on one brand is like falling off a log. So call me! Even if the brief isn’t about yoghurt advertising!



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Is 2017 the year we get out of the ice age now?

ice age now - monopoly of ownershipA post about the ice age now and what must follow it. The week after the management consultancy Accenture bought the advertising agency Karmarama, I had the privilege of watching Dave Buonaguidi in full flow talking about the current state of the advertising industry. So you have him to blame for starting me off along this line of thought.  His rant reminded me of the extraordinary concentration among intermediaries that we have in the UK at present.  Which is not good news for marketers.   I think we’re in an ice age at the moment and I want to explain how bad things have got. I don’t propose to make forecasts for 2017 but simply to observe that ice ages don’t last forever.  This ice age will break up like all the others, though in the grip of this particular one it’s hard to see what is going to thaw first. Though the Brexit and Trump triumphs have convinced me that all is not well for the monopolistic powers at work.

Dave started off by pointing out that 2 accountants run most of the London advertising market.  WPP and Publicis between them own most of the major agencies.  And quite a few consultancies and research agencies too.

The agency Dave founded had according to him, turned into a management consultancy the week before. Campaign magazine led with a sensation story that now all the other independents were due to be snapped up by management consultancies.  With not a word of criticism – why would they?  Macmillan is another publishing conglomerate.

Award winning advertising that customers never see

Buonaguidi went on to bewail the lack of creativity – his evidence – the multiplication of award schemes where agencies pay to submit their work and all win prizes. Who is on these juries? Oh other creatives of course who have not excused themselves from winning awards of their own, by going on juries. It’s a gigantic Ponzi scheme where no one knows which ads are really the best because all win prizes. The Cannes Lions company floated for 800 million this year. This is only one of the best known award schemes. There are plenty more.  So are the ads any better? Ask a panel of creatives.  Heaven forbid you ask members of the public who are supposed to be on the receiving end of this. It turned out that none of the general public had seen at least one of this year’s submissions at all. It still got a prize.

How much of this advertising is any good? Well, at least we have a crop of IPA advertising effectiveness awards and a back catalogue of effectiveness winners that spreads back nearly 40 years. The catch is that advertising effectiveness is only as good as the submissions. And if the only candidates are those which those who submit them believe to be above average then we don’t have any examples of ordinary or even bad advertising to compare them with. Proper statistical testing, tests samples right across the board.  Without this, we know which effective campaigns are more effective than others submitted. But we don’t know whether a campaign with indifferent creative can also increase sales or if a bad campaign can actually reduce sales.  Not unless we have a balanced sample.

All good knockabout stuff from Buonaguidi.  But I believe we’re in an ice age not just because of the concentration of ownership of agencies and awards.  But because of the concentration of advertising spend online between just 2 companies Google and Facebook.  More than 50% of advertising spend is spent online now and more than 80% of the online spend is split between these two.  That concentration of power isn’t helpful.

Firstly because there is no separation of powers. In a healthy democracy, we split the executive, the judiciary and the military to stop all sorts of unpleasantness from crooked judges who won’t pursue crooked leaders, rogue generals who seize power, dictators who jail judges, and presidents who abolish inconvenient laws.  Our separation of powers in advertising used to separate media owners, content providers, and advertising sales. To that list could be added news providers too.  And direct communications with customers. Google and Facebook don’t make a distinction.  Oh and I nearly forgot – they also provide their own auditing in terms of audience impacts.

If you’re a marketer this is a nightmare

ice age now polar floesYou don’t know if your advertising has been seen. By how many people.  Or for how long. You’ve got media auditors and procurement crawling all over your figures beating down production and media budgets but that doesn’t save you a lot of money if the currency you are trading in to reach your customers is forged.  And a lot of the content your ads appear alongside is faked so those posting it can collect your advertising spend.

It’s not Google and Facebook’s fault. They can’t help being monopolies. They  CAN  help how much tax they pay and it’s a pity that with a significant proportion of the UK population on the road delivering packages to UK homes at all hours of the day that these companies (shall we bring Amazon in here too?)  aren’t paying their fair share of road maintenance, education for literacy and numeracy and upkeep of the environment in the UK which is what our taxes go to pay for.  They funnel that advertising money out of the UK economy so we no longer benefit from advertising spend.  Sorry, that was a cheap shot but it is a consequence of monopoly, the weight of the ice crushes the life out of everything. And don’t expect our politicians to do anything about it soon. Remember their relationship with Rupert Murdoch? Quite.

What you need to do is to form direct relationships with your customers. Email marketing? Only the arrangement we have with email providers means that emails are read and tagged so that the monopolistic intermediaries  (can I bring in Microsoft at this point?)  are using your own customer communications to find out more about what they’re interested in.  The result is that the monopolists sell this data to third parties which means that your competitor advantage in talking directly to your customer is eroded as content from your competitors is targeted at said customers.  Worse still, the content providers are using keywords to identify and hurl more and more content at customers meaning they have less and less time for you. At least good old fashioned media providers like the TV and newspapers gave you a fixed allocation on the page or in the hour so you had your few seconds in the sun.  But your share of voice is falling.  You are getting further away from your customers and the company doing it is the one taking your advertising budget.

It is an ice age for communications theory. Paul Feldwick in The Anatomy of Humbug has written eloquently about the dominance of the persuasion theory. But the prevailing culture of behaviourism means that observation has replaced the customer perspective.  We need both behavioural AND cognitive models.  This is a particular problem for digital marketing. Online analytics is not sufficient on its own.

This blog you are reading has been redacted,  not for human readers but for SEO, otherwise you’ll never see it

Enough hand wringing. What is going to happen?

I think marketers are going to vote with their feet. It was bad enough when Lord Leverhume was misquoted about half his advertising budget being wasted.  It’s a lot higher than that now – and eventually, marketers are going to have to develop their own channels routing around intermediaries and in particular monopoly intermediaries.   You have to maintain direct respectful relationships with your customers which can’t be appropriated by new-fangled media channels who don’t behave like the old ones.  Why fund someone who is trying to steal your lunch and who falsifies the receipts?

If you are committed to the extra effort of managing your own channels and content then make sure you employ 3rd parties who can measure your impact. Who don’t have a vested interest in their holding group.

What about the issues with the concentration of creative agencies? Nice to see Accenture buy in a bit of creative talent. But the trouble with M&As is that the clients can often be kept but the talent walks out of the front door. None of the staff at Karmarama were asked if they wanted to work for a management consultancy. Let’s see how many stick around.

The great thing about digital is that it is possible for independents and start-ups to get traction without needing massive funding.  So I expect a new crop of creative communication which is not dependent on these legacy platforms. Samsung and Apple might be interesting places to look for emergent delivery channels which the big 2 don’t control.

Marketers need healthy markets to trade in and the current market of marketing services is far from healthy. It is in all our interests that intermediaries are genuinely independent. And that content, advertising, news and the measurement of audiences are kept separate.  If advertising were not run by 2 accountants there might be safe places to start such a discussion but I can’t think of them.  Best wishes for the New Year and 2017. Now here’s to the end of the Ice Age!


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Customer encounter workshops

Customer encounter workshops (or customer experience) otherwise the keywording bots won’t pick it up. Because that is how mechanistic SEO has become. Apparently, no one searches for dialogue customer clientcustomer workshops. Silly them.  Running workshops where you bring real customers into the workshops is one of the most enjoyable kinds of workshops available. That’s what my clients tell me when I have organised these for them. Because like all good workshops the you can’t fix the agenda beforehand – the output comes out of  the group interaction. In which we put together customers AND clients and mix for maximum effect. These kinds of sessions can be run at very different scales.

Variations of customer client encounter 

I have done it in women’s fashion with a client team of 4 and 4 very energised customers who we knew pretty well by this time because we had involved them in various types of research. I have had the privilege of running a Town Hall for Karmarama – this is a format created by Mark Runacus which involves running some half a dozen focus groups simultaneously with customer groups from rejectors to users of other brands to loyalists. With a moderator on each table and at least one client on each.  Roy Langmaid runs something similar rather like a chatshow in the style of Jools Hollands where he can walk to and from some key witnesses but also get feedback from the stands.

The mother of them all was run a few times by Deborah Mattinson of Opinion Leader Research. When as many as 2000 people in a room from all part of the National Health Service participate with the Health Secretary sitting up on the dais getting feedback and hundreds of moderators working at the same time.  They asked me twice to be a moderator but to my eternal regret, I had to turn it down both times. It sounded amazing! Most recently I put together a client team and people who were users of extreme deodorants – to have the kinds of conversation you simply cannot have anywhere else. The benefit of these kinds of workshops is direct, insightful conversation because here was an environment in which those with the problem felt understood.

Accelerated learning from customer experience

customers and clients can make odd buddies but good ones

Customer encounter (sorry experience) workshops are wonderful because unexpected things happen when you put real people and real experience alongside those very people who spend most of their waking hours working out how to communicate with such people. It is an accelerated learning environment for both parties. Perfect for what-if questions. You can write up the findings but the main value is in the cut and thrust of the discussions because you get through key issues so fast. I still remember the client was taken aback when someone asked a customer how the stores would launch a petite range. Oh came the reply You’ll screw it up same as you screwed up the outsize range by keeping it in the front of the store for only a week then hiding it away at the back. We would not! said the product manager indignantly. And then got firmly but comprehensively taken apart. Detail by detail. Right down to signage and the phrasing of advertising copy.  No client worth their salt resents that kind of drubbing because it gives you a stream of inspiration to put your next marketing plan together.

cheetah in your face spectators customer experienceIt’s important when running these sessions to build a buddy system so a client cannot shelter behind a moderator or sit to one side and both customer and clients participate. And be frank with one another. We need to prepare both carefully. All too often it is easier to warm up customers via interviews ahead of time. They are better prepared and motivated than clients who can sometimes look like rabbits in the headlights!   I would embed a customer encounter workshop at the end of a research study. And I would run a client workshop to sort out the learnings following the customer workshop.  This is a link to a presentation I did for New Market Research on co-creation.  The process simply doesn’t work if the client won’t get involved. So ideally there should be a pre-task and a preparation session for the client. Before the customer encounter event itself.

Customer experience is not a spectator sport! 

This matters because despite all the customer-centric language marketers don’t meet real customers as often as they ought to because of being really busy.  But without sensible preparation, the session will be a bit like putting the big game in an enclosure. Piling the clients into stripey Land Rovers and driving around the animals while they take pictures and talk loudly. The animals do not respond well to such treatment! For a few months,I kept a blog called Brand Safari all about sustainable marketing. You are welcome to visit and browse some of the blog posts here. Customers need to be respected. And so do client marketers. bringing them face to face and alongside is hugely valuable. But we’re not running a freak show and as a facilitator I make strenuous efforts to keep the playing field level.

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