I read with great interest a recent interview with Harish Manwani, Chairman of Hindustan Unilever Ltd (HUL), one of India’s largest consumer marketing organisations. The feature spoke about how HUL’s employees have been asked to enhance home and shop visits to build consumer connect for sharper consumer insights. Manwani then says, “What we did with the launch of Dove, Tresemme and Knorr instant soups was through consumer insights. You will not get this by just sitting in office and reading market research reports.”

Manwani’s words are perhaps a clarion call for India’s growing breed of marketers. He is in effect asking all of us to go out into the marketplace, observe consumers first-hand and return with thoughtful observations which can open new doors for our businesses. I am a strong believer in his point of view. While market research reports undoubtedly have their value, there is really no substitute for observing consumers at the scene of action.

Some of the best brands worldwide endorse this “consumer observation” approach. Leading the pack is Apple, which famously does not believe in formal consumer research. Here is an illustration. Sir Jonathan Ive, Senior Vice-President of Design at Apple, describes his observations of people interacting with Mac Computers in an Apple store. He tells us about what he saw. “When people are looking at Macs in stores, they are drawn to them in a very physical way. They don’t mind moving them around or touching them.” From that observation grew the Apple design and product insight that you are seldom intimidated by something you can joyfully feel and touch. On the other hand, if you are intimidated by an object, you tend not to want to touch it at all.

A never before world Rama Bijapurkar, who was my Marketing Professor at business school, and is today one of India’s most reputed thought leaders on consumer behaviour, narrates many wonderful stories of what insightful consumer observations can yield. In her excellent new book, A Never Before World , which tracks the evolution of consumer India, she speaks about her observations at a meeting of a women’s self-help group she attended.

“At a self-help group meeting of an urban microfinance institution in Bangalore, I noticed that many women were taking loans to further their husbands’ small business – to help him buy a new autorickshaw or to get a more permanent space for hawking his goods, etc. I asked them whether they were worried about taking on the liability without having any say in how the business was to be run (by their husbands). Their reply would have done any venture capitalist proud. They said that if they were the source of the funding, they would definitely have a say in the business and would control use of the money.”

Now, that is certainly a unique consumer insight which microfinance institutions can leverage powerfully to market their products to this specific consumer segment.

Why people buy - or not In the diverse consumer businesses that I have been part of, over the past three decades – beverages, watches or jewellery – I have often found that observing people as shoppers is a great source of consumer insight. At kirana stores and at modern retail outlets, watching the shopping process is very interesting and virtually a treasure trove of information about consumer behaviour. Listening to the questions which consumers ask shopkeepers or store assistants is equally insightful.

My most recent experience of this was at a small ice-cream outlet in Mumbai. I watched some consumers at this kiosk, and was curious to understand how they chose the specific flavours of ice-cream which they eventually bought. (I bought a delicious fresh mango ice-cream cone that day.) A brief conversation with the shopkeeper, and thereafter with a couple of consumers, has given me excellent food for thought, and some very interesting directions that ice-cream vendors and other retailers can take to sell their product range.

Marketers will find very interesting examples of such observations in Paco Underhill’s wonderfully written book Why We Buy – The Science of Shopping . The book is based primarily on observing shoppers at the scene of action, which is the store. It applies the science of anthropology to shoppers and emerges with some amazing insights.

For instance, the book addresses the puzzle of why some products and displays catch consumer attention within the store, whereas others do not. It points out that some parts of retail stores, such as the parts closest to the entrance, are “dead zones” which consumers typically walk through without observing anything at all. Hence, any important product displays here would be completely wasted. If you are a keen marketer or student of marketing, I urge you to read this book.

Many marketing organisations take the view that consumer observation undertaken by their own team members is very time-consuming, whereas structured market research brings home the bacon far more quickly. My response: Our own consumer observations are not always a substitute for structured market research. On the other hand, observations contribute in two very valuable ways. First and foremost, they put marketers in touch with consumers directly, stoke their consumer curiosity and open up their “consumer third-eye”. Second, consumer observations have the potential to throw up interesting insights, because the marketer combines years of experience and judgement with what he has just seen or heard. Research agencies may not bring this multiplier effect to the table.

Yet another critique of consumer observations conducted by marketers is that they deliver data which lacks depth or rigour. Observations are generally exploratory in nature, and where they yield interesting insights, these can always be researched systematically and in greater depth at a later stage. Yet it is important to progress every method that can bring us new discoveries about our consumers, and direct first-hand consumer observation is certainly a useful route to achieving this goal.

Organisations may wish to structure this practice of observation as some simple advice to employees on what and how to observe, how best to interact with consumers and shopkeepers and how to keep note of the results. There is also merit in a small team conducting these consumer observations together, rather than individually – so that different perspectives are brought to bear, and discussions on what has been observed are also quickly conducted and assimilated. A gender balanced team also helps, because men and women often tend to look at these observations through refreshingly different lenses.

The Holy Grail Eventually, the holy grail we should aim for is that every serious marketer should become an expert in the fine art of consumer observation. Wherever he travels, he should develop the curiosity and the ability to insightfully observe people in their consumption and shopping environments and think of what these observations mean to the business or brand he is associated with, or what entirely new opportunities they can potentially create.

The writer is author of Tata Log: Eight Modern Stories from a Timeless Institution. These are his personal views. >bhatharish@hotmail.com

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