View from the Blue has been very quiet this year. When the Covid-19 pandemic first hit, the world was suddenly full of data on consumer habits and predictions on the new normal and frankly I felt the last thing anyone needed was more noise from me.
Like many, naively I had hoped that the Coronavirus crisis would be a short-lived affair and there would simply be a natural time where it felt meaningful to write about marketing or research issues again. In the short term, keeping the business going by focusing on delivering great work for our clients simply felt like the only priority.
As we stare into a winter with what feels like a constant carousel of changing guidelines, I must accept that this natural watershed moment will not magically appear. However, before trying to put finger to keyboard again, it feels only right to call out three beacons of light in what has been a seemingly ever murky mire of predictions and consumer data.
1. The Score from Kokoro – if you haven’t seen any of the output from these weekly webinars, my old teammates at Kokoro are producing a weekly round up of consumer sentiment – essential reading based on a great, consistent data set rather than one off snap polls
2. Huq Industries – for me this data has been an essential barometer to offset the plethora of surveys. Forget what customers say they do, this shows how they’re actually behaving
3. Ipsos MORI – unique amongst the pollsters in not only tracking public sentiment but also a consistent prevalence data through the Imperial College home testing programme. With all the dodgy data interpretations floating around in the media, this programme is a rare example of consistent and reliable data
I’m sure there are plenty more wonderful examples but, like many marketers, whilst I have read and watched all sorts of fantastic pieces of research over the past six months, there are only so many which you can keep going back to.
To some extent this represents the challenge which the research industry has had during 2020. On the one hand, there has never been a greater need for robust data and insightful interpretation but, on the other, many of us were so busy either trying to keep the lights that, as an industry, we weren’t able to come together to champion the critical role research can play at times like these. Whilst there has been a lot of noise, am I not the only one who has lost their voice over the past few months?...
So where could/ should we play more of a role?
1. CHAMPION THE CAUSE
At the first hint of a downturn, it seems every advertising agency and brand manager is there quite rightly beating the drum as to why now is the time that brand spend should be protected. Strong brands invest in marketing rather than cut spend at this time and, longer term, reap the rewards. At the first hint of a recession, you can bet your bottom dollar (or indeed your advertising budget) that the senior planner from the agency will be sat in the office of the CMO (or on a Zoom call these days!) walking them through evidence from esteemed names from Harvard Business Review, McKinsey, Bain et al.
These case studies stretch back as far to Kelloggs in the Great Depression in the 1920’s through to Hyundai in the last financial crisis and the evidence is compelling – hold your nerve now and you’ll be reap the rewards for years to come.
Sadly, however, whilst there has never been a more crucial time to understand your customers and their changing habits, the research industry as a whole has been eerily quiet in this regard. The MRS Delphi Group produced an excellent report on the impact within the industry but, as is often the case with us research types, it felt like this was us focusing on issues within the industry (i.e. how agencies need to adapt to better meet their clients’ needs) rather than a broader statement championing the importance of businesses continuing to invest in research and insight.
The excellent work conducted a couple of years ago by MRS and GBRN provided some great frameworks for why/ how we should more systematically capture the ROI of customer insight projects and yet, if we’re honest, in the absence of many compelling case studies (in the public domain at least) which clearly show demonstrable ROI, it’s all too easy for CFO’s, who are struggling to maintain the bottom line, to see research budget as a luxury.
A look through the social profiles of all the key industry bodies (be it MRS, AURA, ESOMAR, IMA) shows we have done a great job of diagnosing the problem (ESOMAR estimate a 32% hit to research budgets in Europe) but have not done much to champion what would be different if investment was sustained.
2. CHALLENGE THE ILLUSION
So, if we are to be bolder and bang our drum a bit more, where could we have the biggest impact?
One of the biggest challenges that I see most marketing teams facing at the moment is the huge risk of projecting their own issues on to the population at large. Whilst we have all lived through lockdown, we have to recognise that the challenges that we have faced, be they financial, emotional or physical, are simply not representative of the population at large. Marketing Twitter in particular seems to be full of white, well off, middle-class marketers who confidently proclaim that we can all work from home from now on. Well, sorry to break it to you but for large swathes of the population this simply isn’t an option. Hunkering down from home and spending your time on Zoom on your MacBook Air hasn’t been everyone’s lockdown experience.
The excellent work by House 51 and Reach Solutions showed just quite how out of touch we can be as a profession. If ever there was a time for the research industry to step forward and championing breaking down this illusion of empathy, now is it. The risk otherwise is that the post Covid cocoons many senior managers are currently living in will become the physical equivalent of the social media echo chambers we have been observing for so long.
Luckily there are so many great tools available to us now to enable us to witness life through the eyes of a whole range of diverse communities without breaking the bank. Whilst the face to face qualitative industry is understandably under immense pressure, there is nothing to prevent us still obtaining rich qualitative insights.
3. CLARITY ON EVIDENCE
On this one I am more than happy to steal with pride from the MRS. Evidence Matters has long been a mantra of our industry body but the misuse and selective reporting of data seems to be characterising 2020 as much as the virus itself.
If anything, the pandemic has brought into sharp focus the challenges many businesses face with data availability. When data is available widely and at relatively low latency, it’s much easier to grab a number and run with it than to question the validity of the number. Nowhere is there a better example than the media’s current obsession with plotting a trendline of Coronavirus cases. In hospital tests at the time of the virus peak are happily plotted on the same trendline as tests captured from a mass, self selected sample. Worse still inferences are made about the direct link between these numbers are the far more worrying statistics of hospitalisations and fatalities.
Whilst, as a profession, we should clearly leave the medical conclusions to those qualified to do so, we should have a voice when it comes to data validity and representation. Whilst dodgy advertising messages drawn from a sample of 73 in a shampoo ad might be irritating, the consequences are far more severe when a media industry eager for clicks is mis-representing data and causing division or worse mass hysteria. Suzanne Lugthart wrote a fantastically challenging piece on what the government could learn from the first principles of market research but should we be more vocal as an industry on calling out where data is being mis-used or mis-represented?
The afore-mentioned REACT study really is a beacon of hope here – a robust study based on a properly structured sample. However, ironically it can also be a victim of the same challenges of many research projects - trying to land a more reasoned and nuanced message when stakeholders or the wider public at large may have already formed their opinions based on data which is faster but considerably looser. To use a potentially facile commercial analogy, why wait for the results of the brand health study when you can look at bottom of funnel measures such as search/ clicks at 15 minute latency?
We should be rightly proud as an industry of the fantastic work Ipsos are doing with Imperial College on this study but also think about the wider implications of how we can champion the importance of checking the validity and robustness of data. These themes were touched on in the (unfortunately Covid-disrupted) Impact 2020 conference but I’d love to see us play more of a role here.
So, as we head towards the end of what, let’s face it, has been an utterly shitty year, now is not the time for researchers to hide away. We have a critical role in both commercial and social research settings to ensure that the right data is being used in the right way to make the right decisions.