The post qualitative research era and predicting with accuracy what people really want

Data is the new oil - you’ve heard it a million times. True in the sense that it’s needed to make everything else work. True also in that the supply of is in the hands of relatively few undemocratic organisations and that spills are very messy.  

False in the sense that data is in near limitless supply and the majority of it is traded for free.

We like the definition of data as facts and statistics collected together to make the basis of reasoning and calculation.

BBL/P use data extensively to see things through our clients’ customers’ eyes and perspectives to see what they value and care about.

Data is the ‘technology’ we use to derive human-centred insights.

It’s remarkable now to look back on the time where representatives of supposed potential consumers were recruited and asked questions in “qualitative” groups - their responses  being moderated and reported on as close to objective fact. A huge industry turned a blind eye to bias, peer influence, laziness and a desire to impress others and display.

We struggle to understand why brands, agents, politicians, public policy makers and the rest were suspicious of data driven insights but happy to venerate the views of a group in Windsor or Walton-on-Thames.

Now we have better and better tools to refine data we have the more objective means to help brands make informed decisions modernise and innovate.

And the source of some of the most valuable insights is because George Orwell got it 180 degrees wrong.

We willingly carry a recording and reporting device everywhere we go and rather than resenting the intrusion, we are deeply upset when nobody responds to our latest transmission.

So long as that’s the case and we all carry on reviewing, forum-commentating and posting, then the refining tools will continue to produce hugely insightful guidance on what people are really thinking and doing.

Black Swan is a well known example. The AI tools they have developed have been guiding innovation at Unilever and Pepsi for some time now, filtering fads from sustainable trends. A job they did for Lipton involved analysing 36 million conversations about posh tea.

Being customer centric used to mean dedicated to the discovery of new and better ways of telling people what to think and buy.  

We should be delighted that now it means smarter ways to listen.

Signals Analytics take multiple data points - sentiment, market sales data, competitor analysis (for example using Natural Language Processing to analyse company announcements). The system identifies market gaps and tracks performance after launch.

Zappi provide polling at a fraction of the time and cost of the established (and now disrupted players such as Bain Capital’s Kantar), VoxPopMe can also play a role in providing fast feedback from mobiles - hugely popular in gaining both internal commitment and to make audiences relatable.

The list of start-ups providing tech driven alternatives to the traditional research industry is endless but Streetbees is worth a mention. Their Human Impact Tracker - HIT - has been a useful source of insight since the pandemic began at a global scale and reporting on new health routines, changing media consumption and so on.

These and many other new tools are here but not yet widely distributed.

You can tell that because global brands are constantly caught off-guard by fleet-footed new market entrants which they often spend over the odds to acquire.

Dollar Shave Club (Unilever), Seedlip non-alcoholic gin (Diageo), Dermologica (Unilever), Sipsmith Gin (Suntory) and many more.

Unilever spent over £9bn on 19 ‘bolt-on’ acquisitions 2015-2020 at an average price of 3.5-4 times revenues (Bain), which gets us thinking that there might be more cost effective innovation alternatives.

We’d argue that it’s important that a faster and less costly approach to innovation is found.

There are plenty of examples of rapid innovation provoked by the necessity of Covid. We all saw the “what used to take us years took us days when it was all or nothing…” articles back in March & April.

But as firms start to return to “normal” how much will bad habits and big meetings return? How quickly will the “two pizza team” become four (clever Amazon rule - Google if you don’t know it. You’re welcome).

Before Covid, Bain were forecasting that FMCG businesses would grow 2% vs a market expectation of 5% - the trend is clearly towards the disruptors and innovators.

The technology to make sense and draw insight from the data is developing every day. Consumers’ habit of leaving data trails that can be spotted from space is an entrenched behaviour.

Therefore, the opportunity to discover insights in data that feed strategy and leads to ideas and prototyping has never been greater.

For big global CPG brands we’re willing to bet that using the new tools alongside a business like BBL/P will cost less and get to market at scale faster than letting a start-up do it and sell themselves at a significant multiple.

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