Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Trouble with Research


Characterizing target markets is older than advertising. Way older. The first successful cave-to-cave salesman had an instinct for sizing up potential customers like Ms.Og before she ever rolled back her front boulder for him. He did this by drawing on what he knew about human nature, and creatively applying it on an individual basis, person to person. Might seem primitive, but it’s still the most effective way to reach human beings.

Trouble is, business loves numbers, because quantification seems to make slippery subjects easier to grasp, and there’s some truth to that. However, the numbers game is too often used as a shield rather than a creative tool. Insecure marketers turn to numbers to justify decisions in the event things don’t go exactly as planned. After all, it’s a lot easier to hide behind a phalanx of figures than take the brunt of the blame for a blown call.

Of course, market research has come a long way since the dawn of selling. Today, it’s a quasi-science that can drown a well-meaning marketer in minutia. Ask any research guru to describe a key market segment, and you’ll get an encyclopedic recounting of facts and figures, with the kitchen sink thrown in. It may be comprehensive, but it’s not lifelike. And lifeless stats make for lifeless messaging in advertising and marcom, two disciplines that thrive on instinctive creativity.

Collecting data has always been the easiest part of market research. It’s knowing what to do with the raw numbers and tenuous conclusions that really counts. From the looks of most of the ads and marcom currently being spoon-fed to Baby Boomers, few marketers know how to separate useless factoids from the meaningful ones. Obvious research conclusions lead to obvious messaging, which leads to boredom, and you can’t bore Boomers into buying.

(As an aside, I recall an expensive, and very time-consuming study that once revealed that people wanted a lawnmower that lets them cut their grass quickly and easily. That was the bottom line conclusion! The creative group I headed up at the time didn’t find that very informative or inspiring, but at least we had a lot less time to get the commercials done and on the air.)

So, next time you’re faced with a solid block of research, make like Michelangelo and chisel away everything that doesn’t look like David. That takes real creativity, but if you can do it, you can be sure that you won’t weigh down your creative executions with stuff that doesn’t engage and resonate with your target market.

I’ve been in this business for decades, so I know that research can be valuable in fashioning a rough caricature of the Boomers, but if you want to reach their Buying Center consistently, you’ll have to ferret out the things that really matter. Then you’ll have to speak to the Boomers’ individuality with insight and imagination, framing your messaging in ways that reaches them where they really live.

If you can do that clearly, concisely, creatively and cogently, you’ll succeed. If you can’t, all the facts and figures in the world won’t help a bit.

3 comments:

Christopher Simpson said...

Ogilvy was a big proponent of research, but only to find out how well a particular campaign was working. When he picked up an eye-patch on his way to pitch for Arrow Shirts, the spur-of-the-moment decision had nothing to do with numbers, and everything to do with understanding something about men who buy shirts.

Good post.

Vince Vassolo said...

Ogilvy's famous quote about research still rings true today. He said, "I notice increasing reluctance on the part of marketing executives to use judgment; they are coming to rely too much on research, and they use it as a drunkard uses a lamp post for support, rather than for illumination."

Thanks for the kind words Christopher.

mseitzer said...

Fantastic post, Vince. I really enjoyed the content and the way you presented it. I especially loved the Michelangelo/David bit. In my profession - doing government relations work for the Alzheimer's Association - I find a lot of practical applications in what you're saying here...politicians do look at numbers, but just giving them factoids alone won't get us the funding/legislation/mandates we want.

Fascinating subject - well-written post!