By David Howlett, Planning Director at MMR Research Worldwide

These days, whatever business you’re involved in, achieving success is harder. Markets are full of good products, good services, great branding and fantastic advertising. Our behaviours become established quite quickly when we make a purchase from a new category. So, conversely, getting someone to switch out of their normal pattern of buying takes a really strong nudge.

Think about it for a minute. If we did not become “habitual buyers” with limited repertoires then we’d probably spontaneously combust with the overwhelming choices that await us in the average supermarket, online store or even a fast food restaurant. We’re creatures of habit. Habits protect us. Marketers try to create these habits of course, but, sometimes they need to break them down so something new can be given a chance.

Good research can help marketers understand the opportunity by identifying insights that lead to the creativity and inspired thinking that can break through people’s protective shells. Think Google’s Chromebook range of computers that store nothing on their hard drives, but promise fast speed, simplicity, security and longevity. Quite a compelling range of benefits for people conditioned to fear the traditional laptop that works well on day one, then it’s all downhill. Stage 1 is pinpointing frustrations and opportunities.

Stage 2 is often about testing some early ideas with your target market. That’s concept testing in research speak. Traditional testing by asking people what they think about ideas and would they buy has its place still — but it’s not really getting beneath the surface deeply enough. It’s just too easy to get false positives as consumers in a research scenario are often willing to say yes, I’ll buy it, as the context is not actually forcing them to make that actual leap into the unknown. So, better concept testing will take account of the way people might not be completely transparent about their behaviours.

This is where research becomes a little bit like psychometric testing when we go for a new job. Interviews go some way to telling your future employer about you, but are we always the best witnesses to our own characters? I thought not. Well, it’s the same principle being used when we do research these days.

We try to infer the likely future behaviours rather than only ask people simply. In practice, this might involve using choice based research techniques which people answer rapidly, without too much cognitive processing. The consistency with which people choose certain answers (sometimes even the speed at which they answer online surveys) tells us what we need to know and we can then better predict what people will actually do, and it’s often different to what they are prepared to say to us explicitly.

At the stage of testing brands, concepts and products (stage 3) we also try to help brandowners link up their offer so that everything is in alignment. One of the things we’ve noticed over the years is how good products often fail even though they research better than ones they should be displacing! Very often it’s because there is a lack of consistency in the approach. It shows us that what people like (and say they like) is sometimes of secondary importance compared with how people feel about the functionality and the emotionality of that product.

Think Red Bull. Be honest with yourself. Did you really enjoy that first sip? Research tells us that when people experience the liquid (unbranded) for the first time they typically dislike it. But they rate it very highly for “tastes like it will keep me awake”; “it will help me party the night through”; it will help me drive home safely”; “it’s an adult drink”; “it’s a unique drink”; “it’s contemporary” etc. And they buy it. This consonance with brand promise is incredibly important and we call the science behind this Brandphonics®. It goes beyond liking.

Another principle of good research is letting the patterns come out of the data rather than just looking at the whole dataset in one hit. What’s the product that has the best chance of success — the one that scores 6 out of 10 with everyone or the one that scores 9 out of 10 with 10% and 4 out of 10 with the rest of the population? It’s the second one every time. The first one won’t cut the ice with anyone. That’s the benefit of segmentation.

Understand how the market views your product and you’ll easily know how to make choices.

Product developers, advertisers and brandowners often suggest research stifles their creativity. The fault there lies in the fact that research is all too often used at the later stages of the project when there’s so much momentum in the initiative that no-one can bear to hear the results. What we prefer is to work with the creatives through the process and to ensure people are all working on the same objectives. We create not just evaluate. And we get it right first time.