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Reading consumers right

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Research cannot take the place of insights gleaned from observing people, say ad personalities.

Nirmal D. Menon

THERE is dire need for survey methods to gauge consumer insights. According to the advertising fraternity, when it comes to consumer insights it requires research as much as a photographer would need a can of varnish during his photo session.

The efficacy of research methods like mail surveys, quickie cards mailed to customers with their product and seeking their comments, dipsticks and hidden surveys to study market situation may definitely hold water, ad men believe. However, when it comes to gauging consumer insights they bet on the fact that consumer insights have largely been a function of plain observation and gut feel, and they gave "two hoots" about research.

"In my 23 years of experience, research has never been a part of understanding consumers insights or creative execution," says Piyush Pandey, Executive Chairman and National Creative Director, Ogilvy & Mather, jubilantly after his sixth-time-in-a-row Abby award for being the creative agency of the year.

At the Abby awards held last month, Ogilvy & Mather bagged the best continuing campaign for Fevicol and Hutch, besides 24 other awards. Though the Hutch network ad stood as a memorable one for essaying a great idea, the Fevicol campaign was thoroughly built on consumer insights: be it the Cannes award winner Fevicol bus or the recent rural-specific advertisements.

"The campaign was a true representation of observation method delivering consumer insights. When in school, we used to travel through Jaisalmer in the bus crushed between people and their trunks, and at times even their poultry. The insight was this strange human bonding. The ad clicked and the rest is history," says Prasoon Pandey of Corcoise Films, who shot the Fevicol ad.

Agencies use the quantitative and qualitative methodologies their research partners offer them, but more important than that is a process of direct consumer watch and intervention that they propagate.

The observational method of study is the richest tool around. It is first-hand, real and unintrusive. It is not prompt-dependent and therefore it is that much more consumer-real.

"Posing a questionnaire and seeking insights from customers is a futile process, as most of these responses are shallow," says Santosh Desai, President, McCann Erickson.

He illustrates the case with the Kinley example. When the consumer insights team set out to gather popular perceptions about water, they came across these mixed insights among the populace. Statements like `You cannot be sure of your water' or `one has to even pay for water these days' were phrases doing the rounds in the local market.

Against this pessimism, magnification of the insights revealed that besides being a thirst quencher, water refreshed people and was a part of essential etiquette or hospitality and faith. This deduction was based on cultural mapping adopted by the agency. So `Dushman ko bhi paani nahin manaa karte' (You don't refuse even an enemy water) and Ganga snaan (a dip in holy water) and Ganga havan (a ritual using holy water) raised water to ethereal heights.

"All these connotations only showed the strong faith people had in water, and thus was born the series of boond-boond mein vishwas campaigns," says Desai.

The advertising for the brand has been extremely well received and today is one of the highest recalled and most liked commercials. Market shares have galloped with gains in order of 8 per cent in three months in a market growing at 15 per cent. The current market share is around 28 per cent, Desai says.

Insights operate at three levels in advertising. The first is as part of the strategy and feeding into the client brief. This is classically the domain of the account planner. The insight at this stage is properly a part of the target audience understanding in terms of what motivates them, and why the brand's selling proposition would be of interest to them.

The second is as part of the creative idea. These insights are sharp and form the core of the approach by which the selling proposition is magnified. "In great creatives, the insight is the idea and the idea is the insight - there is an inseparable connection between the two," says Hamsini Shivkumar, Vice-President and Strategic Planning Director, JWT.

How does JWT unearth these insights? All people planning, account management and creative practise `insightfulness,' which is the habit of observing people around you, what they are up to, what they are talking about and what seems to be turning them on at the moment.

"Often to arrive at a strategy shaping insight, one that helps open new doors for the brand, we need to commission specific qualitative research to unearth a deep yet surprising take into the category or brand," says Hamsini. The planner initiates this after understanding the background of the brand and in conjunction with the client marketing team.

Insights for creative ideas and execution insights are mostly cracked by the creative teams - the planner and servicing team members may be part of the discussion and creative brainstorming that yields these insights.

However, the problem with Indian marketing is that these consumer insights remain restricted to the periodicity of the ad campaign or random nature of study undertaken by the consumer insight divisions of ad agencies.

One of the most effective conduits of information and the least utilised is the salesperson who pays a door-to-door visit through markets that the company targets. The front-end salesperson is the richest repository of market and consumer information, yet there are few known corporates which utilise them beyond their selling skills, and even if they use them the information gets misinterpreted as it reaches the top.

"To counter this, let the CEO step into the market with me. No filters. No mistakes. Just good hard work. And great first hand consumer insight!" says Harish Bijoor, CEO of Harish Bijoor Consults, a Bangalore-based marketing consultancy.

He illustrated this with an istance of accompanying for three whole days the CEO of a US supermarket chain wanting to study the Indian retail environment. They spent three days in Hyderabad, long 10-hour days just hanging out at one store.

"We watched hundreds of consumers. What they do. How they do. Where they do. With whom they do. What jargon they use. How their hands move. How their eyes move across the counters. What gets noticed," Bijoor says.

The other side to consumer insights are the popular perceptions of a particular product or brand. There are certain brands which are considered upmarket. Some carry trust throughout their product cycle. There are others which carry respect. Close-ended questionnaires or in-depth interviews can register the emotional aspect to the hilt. But they fail to register instinctive or behavioural reaction towards a brand.

Like in the case of Royal Enfield Bullets. Every time people heard the approaching thumping sound of the Bullet, they made way. It was a "quiet, respectful act." "We observed this behaviour of making way all over the country. And we used this simple behaviour for last year's campaign for the Bullet. The brand line was `Everybody makes way for the bullet,'" says Josy Paul, CEO, rmg david.

The creatives magnified this thought. In one case a bunch of wannabe thumpers stop in their tracks to let the Bullet pass. In another case, a railway gate attendant stops a train to let the Bullet pass. The campaign was highly noticed, Paul said.

A peek into the repository of Harish Bijoor Consults reveal out-of-the-ordinary insights on women's wardrobes: The age of every garment in a woman's cupboard can be determined. Where she stacks her big things, her special things and her small things can also be identified. Every woman's wardrobe has at least two unlucky gaments that are kept in the cupboard, but never worn. Forty two per cent of garments in a woman's cupboard are not worn at all (meaning worn only once in three years or so)!

The mantra as Bijoor suggests: Stop making consumers verbalise. Just watch and study! When consumers verbalise, they get politically correct. And this forms part of the market research diagnostics output. Such an output, at best, is junk!

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated April 14, 2005)
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