6 market research rules to drive your brand

How to gain and use consumer insights to pursue growth, whatever your budget

Innocent Drinks has engaged in market research since its earliest days. The story of how its founders tested out their pure fruit smoothies at a London music festival, with bins marked ‘yes' or ‘no' depending on whether punters thought they should ditch their day jobs to make the drinks full-time, has been well told.

But this dialogue with the consumers has never stopped, and it has offered the now £100m-turnover business critical insight that's fuelled growth and shaped the launch of new products such as Juicy Waters, orange juice and, recently, veg pots. “You've got to understand the customer,” says Jan Worsely, head of consumer insights and market research guru at the drinks brand. “A lot of people think market research is something you do when you consciously think: ‘Right, we need to do some research on this.' Understanding consumers is something you do all the time.”

Knowing your target customer inside out is crucial to getting ahead in any market. Before spending money on the launch of a product, service, ad campaign or even a rebrand, it's vital to gauge the appetite or response with some considered and thorough research. It's also important to know who your competitors are to help you do things better. But you don't always have to spend thousands to get the answers that you need.

We asked Worsley and several experts in the field to tell us how to get the most from market research – and what do to with the results.

1. Know your customer

While Innocent does work with third parties for research purposes, the company that started out by asking people for their input directly still believes in this approach. “It's important to speak to people yourselves, whether in a focus group or just on the phone,” says Worsley. “Wherever you can, it's about getting those insights and understanding people.”

Research agencies have their place and can offer additional resources that can be extremely useful. But if you maintain a relationship with your customers you will rely less on third parties, and when you do work with them on in-depth projects, the likelihood is the research will not throw up any nasty surprises that necessitate a major change in strategy.

2. Get opinions and statistics

“Research is a layering process,” says Claire Nicholson, co-founder of marketing agency More2 and a lecturer at the London School of Marketing. “All research is an additional tool.” She advocates the use of both qualitative (opinion-based, such as focus groups) and quantitative (statistics-based, such as footfall figures or electronic point-of-sale data) research and often a mixture of free and paid-for tools to ensure you're not getting a one-sided market view.

Surveys are widely used for gaining a better understanding of your customers' needs or how they perceive your brand. They can help you profile your customer base, and it can sometimes be useful to send them out anonymously to ensure objectivity from your respondents. For example, Innocent conducted a quantitative survey to gauge reaction before taking the controversial decision to trial their products in McDonalds. Conscious of a backlash, given the conflicting ethical stances, they had to do their homework.

“We monitored responses to the decision on our website, but first did some independent research on a nationally representative sample,” explains Worsley. “We didn't necessarily say to everyone: ‘We're Innocent,' but rather: ‘Which of these brands do you think would suffer or would you think less of if they were in McDonalds?'” The results were reassuring, suggesting that people who buy Innocent products want to buy them, wherever they may be.

Nicholson warns that one of the pitfalls of opinion-based research is that “what people say they do and what they actually do are often different”. She also recommends limiting surveys to no more than 15 questions and mixing up the way you put it together, so people aren't tempted to just click through it.

3. Know your objectives

Before starting research, it's important to have a clear aim and know why you're doing it. What's it going to tell you that you don't already know and what will you do differently when you find out? “If you can't do anything with that information, there's not much point asking that question,” says Nicholson.

Worsley recommends bringing in third parties when you think they can add something, “such as a particular piece of data or for complex research you can't do in house”. Innocent uses World Panel to offer standard metrics and insight into consumer spending behaviour. This helped them find out that 30% of people who buy their kids' smoothies don't have kids, for instance.

When looking for funding, banks and investors will often want to see a solid marketing plan, ideally backed up by credible research, so it often pays to find a sample that's nationally representative. A retail buyer may also want national figures.

But Worsley advises doing your own research first. “People want you to serve them better and it's easy to underestimate how much feedback they will provide. So go out and find them before doing massive research.”

However, it's not always easy to find them yourself. For manufacturers, there is a buffer between them and the actual consumer. “Although retailers may be able to provide transactional data, they won't have demographic information as to who's actually buying their products,” says Nicholson.

If your company serves businesses, speaking to the decision-makers may not be so easy. But it may not be much easier for a research agency and this will be reflected in their price. “Business-to-business markets can often be smaller sample sizes or potential universes, but there's typically a closer relationship between buyer and seller,” says Nicholson.

If money is tight, there are several low-cost options you can look into. According to Toby Newall, head of qualitative research at reserach agency Evo, you can sometimes get an agency in for a day's consultancy before starting research, to offer you valuable guidance and a framework.

4. Run your own focus groups

“Research is something you can do with relatively small budgets,” says Worsley. “Go and speak to people directly rather than getting a third party to talk to them for you.” This will often give you some other insights, too. A focus group will give you spontaneous feedback that a survey never could.

Innocent has used events and samplings to build up its database of contacts and gain feedback. Its website has also proved invaluable for research purposes, allowing you to join the ‘family' and receive a weekly newsletter, which will often include surveys asking questions such as: ‘What new recipes should we launch?', replies to which prompted the launch of the blueberries and blackberries smoothie as a one-litre take-home version. It became an instant bestseller.

Facebook and blogs are also used effectively to allow customers to comment and feed back. “One of our recent blog posts was on veg pots,” says Worsley, “and sure enough, people are responding. Then you've got all this free insight there as to what you should do. It's a really powerful thing.”

5. Use the results

One of the most useful things an agency or third party can offer is an impartial, independent and honest analysis of the results. There's no point in embarking on research if you're going to ignore anything that contradicts with your own personal views.

It's also important to pull together the different feedback you have gathered from various sources.

“We make sure we're feeding that insight straight into the business,” says Worsley. “We're collating it and giving it directly to the people involved so they can tweak the recipes or change the packaging, whatever it is that people are unhappy with.”

6. Check against third parties data

Claire Nicholson, co-founder of marketing agency More2, offers her tips for market research sources:  

  • Most magazines have readership surveys, which are free
  • AC Nielson Homescan records grocery purchases, covering over 126,000 households across 18 countries 
  • Taylor Nelson Superpanel is a continuous consumer panel, giving information on grocery products overlayed with demographic segmentation
  • Data and research companies eg Experian can help you find others that are similar to your best customers
  • MORI national opinion polls
  • AGB and the RSMB give you research on TV ratings and demographics
  • National Readership Survey gives an estimation of the number and nature of people reading print-based media




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