I once worked in an organization headed by someone who wasn’t very supportive of what he called “general” consumer research—meaning research that wasn’t focused on optimizing a specific piece of execution or against a very precise business question. I agreed with him from the perspective of always needing clear research objectives and actions to be taken, but thought only doing research against specific products or projects was a bit short-sighted. He certainly wasn’t the only person in my career who preferred to turn to market research only to answer a specific project question, but that’s kind of like taking a single drinking glass to the well every time you’re thirsty.
Before going further, let me take a minute to define “foundational research” so we’re all on the same page. The scope of foundational research is across an entire industry, market, category or consumer group(s) and includes understanding things like: habits & practices, unmet needs, attitudes, beliefs and values, category drivers and motivations, consumer segmentation and profiling, and more. And now, I would like to offer 3 arguments in support of investing resources against foundational research in your organization.
1. Foundational research is a well of information you can draw from over and over again.
A robust category fundamentals study can yield myriad analyses and reports for multiple business objectives and if conducted on a semi-regular basis can replace many other, smaller studies. I was once part designing a comprehensive global skin care category fundamentals study, which was expensive and time consuming, but we put a rigorous analysis plan in place in advance to extract every drop of learning from that research. As a result, from a single study, we derived multiple high-impact business analyses across multiple segments and even developed a new global consumer framework that had huge strategic impact. We went back to that same study over and over again for specific project questions, ultimately saving both time and money.
Qualitative foundational research can also be a “giving tree” of learning, especially when you use ethnographic techniques and storytelling. Specifically, doing in-context interviews with your target consumer segments and observing them performing a task and the environment it happens in or tell you a story about how an interaction with a product or service impacted her life. For example, two segments might say feeding their family healthy food is important, but one takes you to a farmer’s market on a shop-a-long and the other goes straight to the packaged food aisle in her local grocery store. Understanding those two definitions of “healthy” in a tangible way can lead to distinct insights for both groups. These are images, observations and stories you can go back to again and again when designing a new product or marketing campaign or trying to sell a project to upper management or investors.
2. Foundational research helps identify issues and opportunities and where to focus.
By deeply understanding your customers and what’s most important to them, you can get ahead of possible pitfalls and beat competition to the punch. If you identify an issue or opportunity in foundational research, you know where to dive deeper. For example, foundational research might reveal a disconnect in what you think your brand stands for and how customers perceive it, which might lead to a dedicated brand re-positioning project or new advertising campaign to address. Quantitative foundational research in particular can provide a broad picture of your market/category landscape to help shape and prioritize future research plans.
Early in my career, I was working on a declining category within beauty products and our charge was to figure out why and how to reverse the trend. We did extensive qualitative research and coupled that with data from existing quantitative research as well as in-market results (sales/shares) to define distinct market segments, each with its own targeted marketing strategy and recommended product innovation pipeline. This foundational learning allowed senior management to make strategic positioning and investment choices that not only reversed the decline, but actually turned the product segment into a growth engine for the brand within a very short period.
3. Foundational research helps you develop deeper understanding of your customers so you can create on their behalf.
For me, one of the primary objectives of foundational research, especially qualitative, is to get to know your target customer so well that you actually develop a gut level feel for what will resonate with him or her. This is of course important for running a current business, but absolutely essential for future innovation. Steve Jobs famously remarked, “Get closer than ever to your customers. So close that you tell them what they need well before they realize it themselves.” This, in a nutshell, is the objective of consumer research for innovation—not to ask customers what the answer is, but to deeply understand their needs, and empathize with them, so you can design a solution to delight them. If you take the time to lay a strong foundation of consumer understanding, it allows you to ultimately move faster by not having to research every small question along the way (ideally, the entire business core team would share in this learning to enable quicker consensus building).
When I was working on an “aging in place” project focused on technology that would help keep seniors living independently longer, I had the opportunity to interview lots of seniors in their own homes, in community centers, and in assisted living facilities. We did talk specifically about health and technology, but just as importantly, I also got to hear their personal stories and understand what was most important to them in their lives. We talked spoke with formal and informal caregivers (family, neighbors, etc.) to get a more holistic picture of their needs from multiple perspectives. It was that foundational understanding that that helped us define the requirements of an ideal product/service and evaluate multiple potential technology platforms.
Laying a strong foundation is the first step in any building project, including brands and companies. Investing in foundational research up front can provide a valuable resource for current and future business questions, a clear picture of the most important issues and opportunities to focus on, and a deep understanding of your customers so you can design to delight them.
Sarah Faulkner, Principal, Faulkner Strategic Consulting