The market research business is as old as markets themselves: for as long as there have been products, and consumers to buy them, people have been trying to find out how those consumers think. The last few years, however, have brought huge upheavals to this venerable industry, with the birth of social media driving rapid changes in consumer behaviour. Such seismic shifts in purchasing patterns have posed challenges: Tom Woodnutt and Richard Owen, of brand research agency Hall & Partners, note that ‘the research industry needs to evolve in order to weather the digital storm of change that threatens to engulf it’. But change can also bring opportunity, reinvigorating tired old market research practices and driving innovation.
Paradoxically, for some market research professionals the advent of the digital age has helped them to reconnect with one of the oldest and most fundamental tools in the industry’s toolkit. At the beginning of 2016, I attended a TEDx Talk by Craig Twyford, the director of consumer insights company Octopus Analytics. Twyford has a career’s worth of experience in market research, and has come to believe that the industry has forgotten a simple yet extremely important truth: ‘you have to watch people to understand them’. Traditional market research tends to fall back on the received wisdom that the best way to understand what consumers want is to ask them, often using focus groups or surveys. The flaw in this approach, as any good psychologist will tell you, is that people don’t always know what they want. And the gap between how consumers say they behave, and their behaviour in reality, can have disastrous consequences for market researchers.
Where do baked beans come in to all this? In his talk, Twyford cites the dwindling sales of this staple British snack food as a perfect example of the importance of people watching. When baked bean companies spoke to consumers to try and understand the reasons behind the decline, they received lots of insights to do with the high sugar content of baked beans that did little to boost sales. It was only by watching how consumers actually behaved in their own homes that the industry found the solution to its problem: people no longer consider canned foods a convenient snack food. A decade ago, people might head to their kitchen cupboards after work in search of a quick snack; today, we are far more likely to open the fridge and stick something in the microwave instead. When companies took this observational insight on board, the results spoke for themselves. Heinz’s baked bean Snap Pots- an alternative to canned beans which can be microwaved and stored in the fridge- claimed a 5.5% share of the baked bean market almost as soon as they were introduced, and were growing at a rate of 7% a year.
Twyford wanted to reintroduce people watching to market research, so in 2014 he launched JamJar Story, a consumer insights platform which pays consumers to upload fly-on-the-wall style videos of their everyday lives. The inspiration for JamJar Story came from the Mass Observation project- one of the greatest people watching projects of the past- but the platform itself would not have been possible without selfie culture and the innovations of social media. Camden Ford, JamJar Story’s CIO, credits social media for getting people ‘used to the idea of sharing their everyday activities and experiences’. Consumers are increasingly tech-savvy, and also more willing than ever to share their lives online. These cultural shifts present market researchers with a huge opportunity, making it possible to crowd-source rich, insightful data on how consumers engage with products in real life. It is this culture of digital sharing that makes JamJar Story’s ‘unique combination of quantitative and qualitative’ data possible, by giving it access to ‘a much larger sample size than typical qualitative studies, but combining this with observations that you would expect to see in smaller qualitative studies.’
While it may be tempting to see the ‘digital storm of change’ as a threat, innovative consumer insight start-ups like JamJar Story are instead using it as an opportunity to reconnect market research with its roots in people watching. Could this be the future of market research? Well, if baked beans are anything to go by, I think so.
Written by: Louise Carey