Market research has come a long way since its inception. It’s evolved with the times, always leveraging the latest communication & technological innovations, and is now evolving to meet the unprecedented needs and implications of our new normal in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jonathan Asher, EVP at EyeSee Research, has seen the industry evolve firsthand. Starting out in general marketing research, both supplier and client-side, followed by many years in branding and package design consulting, he came full circle with a return to research, specializing in design and shopper testing. His range of experiences at a variety of firms, privately held and global, has informed his approach to framing the research method, managing studies, and sharing insights with clients who have an infinite stream of business and brand decisions to make—some evolutionary and some revolutionary. He advocates for considering both risk and opportunity when it comes to evaluating research findings and going beyond the data points to think holistically about how research can be used to make decisions at a brand and a bigger-picture, business level.
We sat down with Jonathan to talk about where the market research industry has been, where it’s headed, and how the industry is evolving to meet clients’ changing needs.
You have an intimate understanding of the long arc of market research—can you give us an overview of the history of market research and how you see things evolving going forward?
It’s interesting to think about how things have changed over the years, and every time there’s a change, people feel like this is going to be the end of research as we know it. There was a time when most marketing research was done door-to-door (when people were willing to answer their door), and people were happy to spend time talking to a researcher about matters in their lives.
One big change was using telephones to conduct research, which was fast and efficient for interviews because you didn’t have to go door-to-door, but the data that came from this approach was sometimes flawed. When Harry Truman won the 1948 presidential election, the pollsters predicted that his opponent, Thomas Dewey, would win—there were headlines on all the front pages of papers across the nation incorrectly touting “Dewey Wins!” The reason for this calamity was that opinion polls were conducted by phone, but at that time, not everybody had a telephone. The people with more money were more likely to have a telephone, so when pollsters did their survey, the sample wasn’t representative. It was overly influenced by people with more money. Those people voted Republican and Dewey was the Republican candidate. In any event, there are trade-offs with these things; when you get new technology, you have to be conscious of those.
Another evolution was research in shopping malls. People were concerned that here, too, you have a biased sample. Do you get a truly representative group of people shopping in a mall? It was cost-effective to have people in a central location, which is where the term “central location testing facilities” (CLTs) came from. Over time, CLTs became so accepted that when it came to an online study, the question was, will they be as good as doing the study in a CLT? What was at first suspect became established, and now the new method is compared to that.
Today, there are concerns about the sample with online studies—do you get the same people over and over? Technology provides advantages and then it’s up to us—it’s our responsibility to make sure we’re using the tools properly. We must be thinking through whatever safeguards, anticipating the things to watch out for, and making sure we use them effectively.
I was viewing online focus groups the other day. It struck me that previously, with in-person focus groups, there was a level of intimacy. In order of who gets the richest information, it’s the moderator, then the people in the back room, then the people viewing remotely. But it seems like online research completely flattens it. Everybody’s a square on a screen. And at first, I thought, oh, this is bad. It seems like with technology, there’s an opportunity to pivot on how we even think about this because, ultimately, we’re trying to connect with people in an efficient way. Given the historical context, where we are now, and where we’re going, could this be a brave new world?
I’ve moderated many focus groups, so I know that there are subtleties you pick up on in the room. So the idea that everybody’s equal in terms of their access to the respondent with online surveys is very interesting. With all of it, there are trade-offs. Which method is more likely to lead to respondents—traditional or online—being honest? Because people lie, whether intentionally or unintentionally, or they tell you what they think you want to hear. Online, the responders are on their own when they’re home. In which of those settings are they more likely to be honest? What can I say or get away with when I’m alone versus if someone’s sitting with me and there’s a social norm that I’d better tell the truth? Or, hey, I want to impress this person if I’m in the room, whereas if I’m by myself online, I can be honest because I don’t have to impress anyone. I don’t have an answer. The medium shifts the message, in a sense.
In qualitative, and even quantitative, it seems the answer is never really cut and dried. How do you counsel clients needing to make big decisions, when they may not get definitive answers?
Part of it is understanding what we’re trying to do in a macro way. The way I frame it is, it’s about two things: minimizing risk and maximizing opportunity.
Too often, people don’t think about the opportunity side of the equation; they just think if we do this, and we get it wrong, the business is going to massively decline, and that’s going to be terrible. The reality is, risk is very easy to manage.
If you’re a lead marketer, if you just don’t do anything or you don’t do anything big (for example, a refreshed package design with a very evolutionary change), it’s safe. In terms of design exploration, it is good to always push hard to make sure your agency has covered the spectrum. In research, you want to know how far was too far, because it’s easy to rein design back in, closer to current. But it’s not so easy to push design to a slightly uncomfortable place—that’s probably where you’re going to start to make a big difference in your business. So, the first thing is, let’s make sure we’re thinking about both risk and opportunity. Let’s also understand that there’s probably not a single, absolute best.
For example, sometimes a company is testing two or three designs, but none are the clear, favored design, meeting the objectives. Sometimes, the results find that one design achieves great visibility, and the other delivers great, clear messaging and appetite appeal. In these situations, clients often ask if there’s a way to bring bits and pieces together without a Frankenstein design outcome. But that doesn’t necessarily work… when you bring it together, the Gestalt may not fit together well. Sometimes the learning is to continue guiding you toward the endpoint. So it’s accepting, going in, that the endpoint equals success, but it may be more than one step to get there. And that’s okay.
Often, a client has a business to run and business decisions, as well as brand decisions, to make, and our consumers are not going to tell us how to run the business. So how do you navigate that? Especially now, how should a brand owner navigate all these research choices? And, who can help him or her ask the right questions?
A great question. How do I find and understand the right approach, right partner, and right method overall? It has to start with the objectives. What is it that you’re trying to learn? If you’re trying to learn what kind of recipes people make with your product? Well, you might be able to get that from social media, and it may cost you next to nothing. Or, where do people store the product? Maybe that’s some online research or ethnography or a diary panel. So it really depends on what the objectives are. If your objectives are about shopper research or package design, which are easy to talk about, because they’re so tangible, there are a lot of options. For many years, PRS was the “go to,” default option for packaging research. However, many clients now are unwilling or unable to budget that kind of money and take that kind of time to do an in-person research study. These days, they don’t have to, because they have viable online alternatives that are faster and cheaper and, in some cases, as good.
So, many chose to use online approaches. There are a lot of good options, and you are able to fit your needs of time and budget and still get answers. But, there are trade-offs with that. Once you select the right partner, you must then make sure the right questions are asked. When you’re trying to replicate when a product hits the market, and see how people react to it, you want them to only be exposed to one option. The questions asked are more about their “system one” behavioral response, which of course everybody talks about now: Do they see it? Do they buy it? Can they find it? In addition, some “system two” questions can be useful, such as: What are their perceptions of the product and package? What messages do they understand? Why is it that they didn’t buy this product? And, what might we need to do differently?
Where are we today—when we seem to be at another cusp of research methods going 100% online and it’s sort of a bit of a new day. Can you talk a little bit about how your role in research has changed or hasn’t changed?
One of the things that has changed over time—that’s a good thing—is going from being an order taker to being a consultative business partner today. Design firms and research firms are similar in this regard. The industry has gotten more consultative because clients need us to put ourselves in their shoes to understand the bigger picture and business objectives more fully. It’s not just about implementing a study. For all of us, it’s about having a business challenge and needing some insights and information to help make sound business decisions.
What we provide is more than just the study results—e.g., design A beat design B—rather, it’s about the business issue and how to solve it. For example, do they have a proposition that could penetrate this category? Is what they thought was going to make a difference in fact not important to consumers? Is there anything they can do to break through on a cluttered shelf? At a minimum, it’s about understanding their issues. But it’s really about going beyond the packaging and baseline design questions to make recommendations from a business standpoint, and ultimately succeeding in market.