4 Communications Lessons from the Cutting-Edge of Market Research

In an age of A.I. and data-driven decisions, the future of marketing is only looking more human.
 
That was my key takeaway after attending the American Marketing Association – Northeast Ohio Chapter’s (AMA NEO) 2019 Market Research Conference earlier this month.
 
I always approach this event with some degree of trepidation. Frankly, I’m not a market researcher, and when the audience begins asking questions about stage-gate processes and complex testing methodologies, I tend to sink into my chair and return to tweeting that last thing the speaker said that wasn’t too complicated and actually sounded cool.
 
The extent to which I absorb the content varies from year to year. One of the key pursuits of a market researcher is to better “know your audience,” and when it comes to the Market Research Conference, I’m not in that target group.
 
Yet, there I sat again, because I find that there are always insights I can glean as a marcomm professional, primary researcher or not. And glean I did.
 
Which brings us back to the opening. This year, amidst all the talk of segmentation and surveys, there emerged an undeniable common theme: Rather than making things impersonal, our ability to gather data and consult the numbers is pushing us to more tailored, resonant communications with our audience members.
 
Here’s what I mean.
 
Market researchers are meeting their audiences where they are today. You should, too.
 
The first presentation of the day focused on a shift in how marketers are gaining feedback from consumers by tailoring testing practices to be more comfortable for the consumer. Researchers from Nestle worked with a company called Buzzback to shift from a traditional desktop computer-based survey method requiring participants to rate options out of one to five stars to a gamified mobile data gathering method requiring consumers to swipe left or right on their touch screens to indicate preferences.
 
One might imagine that this simplified method of data gathering would dilute the richness of the information collected, but quite the opposite occurred. By making it more intuitive and comfortable to provide feedback, the researchers found that consumers provided more detailed responses in extended response text boxes and were more inclined to record video feedback.
 
While research pros in the audience may have scribbled notes on how to apply this setup to their next naming or concept-testing project, I was more interested in a quote by one of the presenters: “Just because a proven research technique works doesn’t mean there’s not a better way.”
 
There’s an age-old adage stating, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But I’m coming to realize that’s a flawed concept. We need to be willing to adjust our processes and protocols if we find a means of doing business that’s more convenient or efficient for key stakeholders. As can be seen in this Nestle study, meeting consumers where they are versus sticking to a “proven” methodology ended up benefiting everyone involved.
 
No matter how far up the value chain you operate, consumer insights still matter to your brand.
 
One of the draws of this year’s conference was a stated focus on B2B marketing. Most of our clients fall into the B2B category, and it is refreshing to see conference content not simply focus on direct consumer engagement efforts by B2C brands. Those are often flashy, but they don’t always tell a story that’s useful for those of us in the B2B communications space. At least that’s what I thought going in.
 
Decision-makers at Lubrizol weren’t so convinced. Lubrizol formulates many chemical additives that improve the performance of consumer products, yet the company is widely unrecognized by consumers given the B2B nature of their business and the fact that they are privately owned. As a result, they have historically relied on partners closer to the consumer for insights into what those consumers want.
 
As speakers from the company told us in the second session of the day, that paradigm began to shift recently when internal stakeholders began to push for more direct access to consumer insights, pointing out that, “If a partner is even willing to share consumer insights to help you create a more compelling product, you can bet they are telling your competitors the same thing.” It was also successfully argued that internal team members at Lubrizol, while consumers, were too close to the company’s products and processes to give an unbiased perspective. They needed outside input to determine what consumers value, and how that ultimately affects how not only end-use products, but Lubrizol additives were marketed.
 
The company successfully gathered useful feedback from consumers by asking understandable questions and applying insights to their complicated chemistry-driven business. The research team was able to determine, for instance, that people want stretchy pants that are breathable, but not see-through. Binding, but not constricting. Now, when Lubrizol is selling elastomeric products that enable this sort of performance in end-use products, they know how to tell a story with a value proposition that will resonate with their customers and consumers alike.
 
The lesson here is not to undervalue end-user feedback as a B2B brand, no matter how far up the value chain you operate, and no matter how complex your product may be. A consumer is making emotion-driven decisions when purchasing products that affect your bottom line, and the more you understand their perspectives, the more effectively you can resonate with their needs long term. More on this later.
 
Having foresight isn’t just about brainstorming for an hour. It may mean hiring sci-fi writers to bring possible futures to life.
 
The future is now. Or at least it can be.
 
That was the key message of a presentation by American Greetings and SciFutures, a “sci-fi prototyping” organization that connects brands with a pool of roughly 250 science fiction writers who are prepared to blow out the brand’s conceptual visions of the future into full storylines.
 
“We see signs of the future today, just distributed unevenly,” Andrea Navratil of American Greetings began. That’s why American Greetings decided to begin preparing for potential future issues and opportunities by using a future-forecasting technique called “Foresight,” originally developed by the military and popularized by Shell when they successfully predicted the oil embargo of the 1970s using the technique.
 
“The future can’t all be about tech and A.I. It’s about humans and their emotions. That’s why we need to create emotion-driven narratives around trends that ‘robots’ can’t if we are to thrive,” Navratil explained.
 
To do this, American Greetings partnered with SciFutures writers. The writers authored 40 stories based around potential future issues/opportunities identified through the Foresight process, and then the stories were analyzed to see what common themes or “big, bold ideas” emerged.
 
The stories were based in a future 10 years out from now, and five narratives with corresponding audio-visual stimuli were presented to research participants to find out what resonated best. Both quantitative data based on participant feedback and neurological data based on their brain activity were collected, then, based on the outcomes, decisions were made regarding what intellectual property American Greetings should purse. It enabled the company to “pull a desired future towards them,” as they put it.
 
Now, most of us aren’t going to invest in hiring a bunch of sci-fi writers to bring our visions of the future to life (as cool as this model may be). But the next time we’re brainstorming concepts or trying to think like futurists, perhaps we can be a bit more creative in the ways we bring abstract ideas to life, whether it’s within the confines of our own offices or in front of our ultimate target audience.
 
Never underestimate the power of an emotional connection to a brand.

On April 23, 1985, Coca-Cola released “new Coke.” They had done their research: this reformulated product was preferred by nearly 200,000 participants in taste tests conducted prior to the launch. Coca-Cola brand representatives expected a resounding success based on all available data points.
 
What they got instead was labeled the “marketing blunder of the century.”
 
This story illustrates a fact that Coca-Cola understands now all too well … that people aren’t as logical as we make ourselves out to be (see: YouAreNotSoSmart.Com), and our subconscious emotional connection to a brand is something far more important than we know.
 
In reality, people who are emotionally connected to a brand are 52% more valuable than those who categorize themselves as “highly satisfied” with the brand. And since anywhere between 50–90% of purchase decisions are emotionally based, these emotional connections can have a significant impact on a company’s bottom line.
 
Today, Coca-Cola recognizes that the idea of “brand value” is largely psychological, and linking your brand name to distinctive positive associations is more important than convincing someone rationally that your brand is the best. It’s why you see campaigns like “share a Coke” or other fun initiatives from the company now. Establishing an emotional connection with consumers is the gold standard for brands.    
 
How do you measure that, though? That’s what Schmidt Market Research sought to find out. In his conference presentation, Schmidt’s Kevin Mahler explained how they established a process to measure how positive emotions about a brand regarding “ease of interaction,” “personalization,” “admiration,” “fairness” and “product/service quality” were affected when “brand disruptions” occurred … think privacy breaches, problem incidence, personal information requests or misalignment with personal values. They found that emotional connections to a brand can seriously mitigate fallout when brand disruptions occur, and the level of emotional connection is a better predictor of customer response to issues than traditional metrics.
 
The takeaway here? Building a brand isn’t all about logical appeals or establishing the right price points. It’s about people’s perceptions, period. If they’re emotionally invested in your brand, they’ll ride out the storm when something goes wrong. If they’re merely satisfied, you’re far more likely to lose them when times are tough.
 
You don’t have to be a “numbers person” to read the tea leaves. Human connections matter more than ever.
 
The world of market research may seem esoteric … and at times, it is. That doesn’t mean that you or I can’t learn from it, though. Ultimately, research is about improving understanding, then acting on that understanding. Even if we’re not running studies, we can still use insights gained from engagement with audience members to make better decisions as communicators.
 
The future may seem scary, filled with automation and digitization that threatens to take the human touch out of everything we do. That’s the worst way we could use our technology, however. If the state of market research teaches us anything, it’s that maintaining a human connection and factoring emotions into the decisions we make is the smartest thing we can do to excel as marketers in the coming years. As I said at the beginning of this piece, in an age of A.I. and data-driven decisions, the future of marketing is only looking more human. Focus your efforts on emotional storytelling and meeting your audience where they are, and you’ll have the best chance to succeed.