Market Research in the Age of Uncertainty

I recently spoke at the Insight Intelligence conference in London on market research in the age of uncertainty. The irony is, as I write this short article, we have just had a general election in the UK which returned a hung parliament – the electorate’s way of saying they are uncertain. A perfect illustration of the theme of the conference.

Here are some of the key considerations I shared, starting with a light-hearted quote borrowed from Woody Allen, that great American film maker and comedian. The more observant of you will note how I slightly adjusted his words and replaced ‘mankind’ with ‘market research’, but either would work I think.

“More than any other time in history, Mankind Market Research faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly”

This quote is both funny and apt as it describes some of the pessimism surrounding market research as we know it. We don’t know which way to turn. We are in a state of flux – sometimes with a silent “L” – and we sit in the shadow of the future.

Maybe I am a rational optimist, but I don’t think we have anything to really worry about. Understanding the human condition and what drives sentiment, attitude and behaviour is, if anything, a greater challenge today than it has ever been. We know more but understand less. Let’s face it: Brexit, Trump, North Korea, The Great British Bake Off and Kim Kardashian are not easy to understand.

Understanding change is critical in an uncertain world. Often, historical context, expressed in the following quotes that illustrate how we all think we live in similar times.






With the right historical context, nothing seems really new. Basically, we are trying to understand people and that is never easy. Blaise Pascal the 17C French philosopher makes this abundantly clear:

“What a Chimera is man! What a novelty, a monster, a chaos, a contradiction, a prodigy! Judge of all things, an imbecile worm; repository of truth, and sewer of error and doubt; the glory and scum of the universe.”

Some things don’t change, do they?

I think MRX is focusing too much in the wrong place. An obsession with behavioural economics and neuroscience is, I think, leading us in a rather blinkered direction. Looking inside our heads is not the only place to look and find insight.

I listened to a podcast with Daniel Glazer, the neuroscientist, who when asked what FMRI scans mean, said something like, “we have no idea”. “So, what do you do?” the interviewer asked. “We ask direct questions!” said Daniel. I thought this was fascinating especially as, no doubt, he used direct questions.

Dial forward to today, and the mantra of most companies today is, ‘we put the consumer first’. In fact, paralleling the growth of ecommerce, many consumer manufacturers are selling direct to the consumer. They are obsessed with consumer understanding.

So where should we look? Much of what humans think and decide happens between brains. It’s a collective phenomenon. It’s what the author, Matt Ridley, called a “declaration of interdependence”. I believe this is the place to look for real understanding of social animals like us.

Although Yogi Berra said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future”, I believe MRX has a very bright future as synthesiser and psychologist of what makes people tick. A bricolage for the future.

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Now Arriving: Gen Z

Millennials, millennials, millennials – so many of our clients are focused on Millennials and how to adapt their marketing strategies to this evolving consumer group. What characterizes them? How are they different? What drives them? As we complete each study and I think we’ve exhausted the conversation, we find ourselves once again pulled into the Millennial vortex. But don’t look now – here comes Gen Z. We have just released our first study on this group, whose habits, thoughts, emotions and more will be keeping marketers up at night next. So why is it important to keep examining a group in context? Why can’t we broad stroke and make blanket statements about consumer groups or generations, and just be done with it?

8 Truths About Gen Z  Download our NEW infographic now

That’s the question posed in this WSJ article. Usually generations are defined by their similar birth years, with spans of 20 years. But often these are fuzzy in setting definitions. Typically, academics and researchers look at ‘generations’ to identify the distinct group’s characteristics which, through comparison with previous generations, serve to measure social and cultural change. But this approach misses the nuances within and between the groups. And the nuances are where the marketing opportunity exists.

Our new Gen Z study looks into the factors driving Gen Z behavior – the fears, concerns, influencers and even the heroes that define this group. We compare and contrast Gen Z and Millennials, both of whom live in a mobile-centric world but view their increasingly, technology- and data-driven existence differently. So just when you thought you had mastered Millennials, it’s time to get to know the new kids on the block. Isn’t Marketing fun? Sure does keep us on our toes!

Gen Z Infographic

Got a Premium Brand? Here’s How to Win Over Consumers in China.

National Geographic’s 2014 Greendex found that consumer attitudes about sustainability and the urgency of climate change are shifting, although rather slowly. The 2014 study finds half of consumers surveyed are anxious about climate change’s negative impact. Chinese consumers were among a group (along with Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and India) that displayed greater willingness to modify habits that affect the environment – while those from more affluent countries didn’t appear to feel as threatened by the impact of a changing climate.

It might sound strange, but could this yearning to do better in terms of sustainability and the environment represent a marketing opportunity for brands in China? We think so.

Interestingly, in our recent, unrelated global study on Premium positioning, we discovered some unique associations that Chinese consumers had with the Premium theme. Using our creative verbalization and visualization techniques, Chinese consumers were the only ones who associated environmentally-friendly, natural and healthy with Premium.

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What comes to mind when Chinese consumers think about Premium? Unlike obvious associations such as ‘special reward’ or ‘VIP treatment’ in the other markets, in China we saw strong visual associations around  natural, simple, health, good for them, and environmentally friendly. Using our engaging eCollageTM technique to express their Premium associations pictorially, Chinese consumers more frequently chose images that represented nature. And while gold and silk were among the top materials that signal premium across all markets, the Chinese were more likely to associate other materials found in nature like wood, cotton and diamonds.

Top words that are similar to Premium according to Chinese consumers include environmentally-friendly, natural, safe and dependable. Safe and dependable were notable word choices, considering recent food and product safety stories in the news.

To learn more about how Premium played out in China, and across the other markets in our study, or to learn about specific brands associated with Premium by category, download our Wooing The Premium Consumer white paper now.

Are Consumers Growing Sour on Sugar and Sweet on Stevia?

Fat. Carbs. High Fructose Corn Syrup. And now sugar. All nutritional villains in the consumers’ eyes.  In response to this mounting concern, food manufacturers and grocers are taking steps to decrease the amount of sugar in their products.

Some soda manufacturers, having already replaced high fructose corn syrup with regular sugar in some brands, are now vowing to reduce overall sugar content in others. Some are experimenting with sugar and stevia combinations. Supermarket chain Wegman’s is taking steps to reduce added sugar in its store brand products including yogurts, sauces and bakery items. Most recently, General Mills announced it was cutting sugar content by reformulating its Yoplait line of presweetened yogurts.

Why the scramble? Are consumers that concerned about their sugar intake? And what are the acceptable sweetener alternatives? According to our latest Buzzpoll it seems that consumers do care about what goes into their body – 65% specifically mentioned their concern about their sugar intake. Nine out of 10 said they read nutrition labels, with over half reporting that it’s to learn about sugar content.  The majority are willing to use artificial sweeteners or to try natural alternatives to sugar. Over a third are concerned about artificial sweeteners in their beverages. And a large majority said they’d have a positive opinion of a brand that used natural sweeteners rather than an artificial one.

To learn more about how consumers use nutritional info to make food decisions, the sugar substitutes they’re sweet on, and the ones that worry them, click here to see our infographic, Simple & Sweeteners.

Stay tuned for another new infographic coming out soon where we’ll show you findings from our latest Millennials and Nutrition study. HINT: sugar is mentioned there, too!

Millennials + Sustainability

These days, it seems like everyone’s jumped onto the ‘going green’ bandwagon. Fast fashion retailer H&M is offering its customers a coupon for 15% off their next purchase every time they bring in a bag of used clothing to any store. In Sweden, McDonald’s launched a campaign in which you receive a free burger or cheeseburger for every 10 empty beer cans you bring in; 40 cans gets you a Big Mac. In further promotion of the campaign, McDonald’s has even installed billboards that double as trash bags for those walking by to easily pull off and fill with all their cans. What do these campaigns and earth-friendly initiatives have in common? They’re all aimed at Millennials.

Having recently become the largest generation group in the country, Millennials are the ones shopping at fast fashion stores and they used to be McDonald’s key customer base, until recently. This month, McDonald’s reported their biggest decline since 2003 and also found that diners between the ages of 19 to 21 have gone down by 12.9% since the start of 2011. The fast food chain has admitted that its latest campaign was an attempt to reach out to the Millennial generation, specifically the young music festival attendees in Sweden.

But, the question remains: are these efforts to appeal to the Millennial generation through green initiatives working? Millennials may say that they place a high value on issues such as social responsibility and sustainability, but are they actually following through on that? Or maybe it’s the campaigns that need to change – are companies able to effectively communicate their green initiatives to their Millennial consumers? When it comes to these topics, what are their perceptions? When it comes down to making a purchase, do they really care about companies being committed to sustainability?

We will be exploring several of these questions in our upcoming webinar in which we do a deep dive comparing Millennial, Boomer and Gen X perceptions on the word Sustainability. If your brand is tackling the challenge of increasing the connection consumers have with sustainability, check out our latest webinar.

Sneak Peek: What’s in Your Backpack for Back-to-School?

Back-to-school sales are everywhere and it’s got me reminiscing for the days when I was a student. Back in 1994, I was just starting to maneuver my way through high school as a Freshman. Now, 20 years later I have a daughter who’s starting Pre-K at a new elementary school. In just 3 weeks time! We haven’t received any supplies checklists as of yet, but I know I should pick a few things up. But, what to get? After performing a quick search for ‘back-to-school’, I came across an appropriate article that highlights the differences in prices from 20 years ago to today. Backpacks, lunch boxes, notebooks. Some of the price differences are staggering. So far I’ve only purchased a lunch box and it cost $32, which is a few price points above the average listed in the article. Here’s a few highlights:

With all the back-to-school hoopla happening all over the country, we decided to take a look at how consumers were spending during retail’s second largest spending event of the year. We found that consumers on average will spend $336.17 and that consumers in the Northeast and Southern parts of the U.S. spend more than their counterparts in the West and Midwest. Stay tuned for our full infographic in which we’ll look at where consumers shop, what brands they look for and how they prefer to hear about Back-to-School promotions. For more information on our Back-to-School study and infographic, email us.



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Minimalism is the New Luxury

There’s a new saying sweeping the nation, “Not Owning Stuff is the New Owning Stuff”. Sounds ironic, doesn’t it? But yes, apparently it’s true; minimalism is now considered the new luxury. Minimalism has always been an idea touted by anti-consumerists, but more recently your average person has joined in as well. From people selling most of their belongings and moving into tiny homes to people not buying homes at all, the idea of ownership is becoming something less and less desirable. In particular, among Millennials, the pay-as-you-live lifestyle is gaining a lot of traction which is seen by the popping up of companies like Netflix, Zipcar and Rent the Runway which allow you to rent movies, cars and even dresses whenever the need arises. People are realizing that we really don’t need all the stuff we want, and it’s actually more enjoyable to live a lighter lifestyle. Especially after the Great Recession when many people had to give up their homes, cars, and some, their entire lifestyles, the advantage of having “less to lose” is obvious.

It’s still funny though to hear minimalism being referred to as a type of luxury. But it immediately brought to mind a study we did in which we explored the different dimensions of “Luxury”. When we first prompted respondents with the word, the first thing that came to mind was the idea of money. On the surface, luxury is defined as richness, opulence, and owning plenty of material things. However, after using eCollage, it became clear that there was another, deeper dimension of the word. One strong emergent theme was that of opportunity, showing that luxury can also be defined as the freedom to do what you want, when you want. In reality, something that is considered luxurious does not have to be insanely expensive, rather it can be something free. What does matter though is that it is not something that can be easily obtained.

With this new understanding of the word, it suddenly becomes clear how minimalism can be considered a luxury. Most would admit that it was very hard to give up their material possessions at first. However, once they dove into the lifestyle, many experienced a freeing feeling of not being tied down to “stuff” which goes hand-in-hand with the deeper definition of luxury we found. So, how about you? Are you ready to try out this new lifestyle trend of minimalism?

For more information on our Exploring Luxury study, click here.

Let The Consumer In

I recently read an article that resonated with me.  It covered the idea of including the consumer in the brand storytelling process so that the resulting brand message is not only compelling, but also meaningfully aligned with the consumer’s values.  I felt that the article actually sets the bar for anyone involved in the business of engaging consumers, including those of us in Market Research.

In our increasingly connected, digitally-disrupted world, authenticity is the order of the day.  Consumers are seeking transparent and more meaningful relationships with brands.  One way of achieving that relationship is through insight development.   The techniques brands use to dialogue with consumers,should be engaging, approachable and easy to understand, ones that welcome consumers into an authentic co-creation process.   Traditional marketing approaches that position marketers as all-knowing are out of step in an open environment where empowered consumers, who given the right tools and inspiring techniques, will thoughtfully and profoundly express both their obvious and latent thoughts, feelings, behaviors and attitudes.  Get out of the way, and allow them to tell you about the product or brand that they will loyally support.

This article reminded me of a recent study we conducted in which we utilized our online social forum, Hive. By allowing respondents access to our unique and engaging tools like eCollage within the confines of Hive, we were able to get twice as much verbal playback as standard open-ends alone. Our Exploring Pet Ownership study revealed non-verbal thoughts and emotions by completing ‘a day in the life’ exercise through their online collages. Respondents also participated in photo sharing, blogs, product name ideation and generating ideas for the next development in pet products. The insights collected provided marketers with directions for product positioning and potential white space for new products or line extensions.

As I reflect on my first year with BuzzBack, I think about what an exciting time it is to be in Consumer Insights.  It’s rewarding to see the breakthroughs we make by providing creative, image-based and engaging tools to consumers who are increasingly willing to return the authenticity favor, by openly sharing and collaborating.

For more information on our Exploring Pet Ownership study or our other Hive studies, click here.

Harvesting Data

I’m constantly reading online tech publications and ogling over new gadgets, like the one that will let me control my locks at home from my iPhone or the one that will allow me to hold all my credit cards in one. And just today while reading FastCompany I came across a new device that, while maybe totally unrelated to my life and a little less tech-geek-chic, I thought it was a great example of novel ways in which all kinds of businesses are collecting data from places that many of us don’t imagine to be very “plugged in”.

It is called the Silent Herdsman, and it is a sensor that cows wear to monitor their body temperature to help predict when they come into heat. Why do farmers care? Well if farmers can accurately tell when their cows are in heat, they can increase the probability of getting these cows pregnant. Cows only produce milk for 7 months after giving birth, so it is important for dairy farmers to keep this cycle going so their production is maximized. So essentially this allows the farmer to keep production high and remove some of the guessing out of the game. Perhaps this device could also evolve to detect illness in livestock, or even disease.

So what’s the point? Why is this relevant to Marketing, Research, or Data Science? The point is, data exists in every facet of our lives – and our customers’ lives – not just in the obvious places (the internet, our phones…). This data is just waiting to be harvested and can improve our efficiency and effectiveness in all kinds of environments, from the boardroom all the way to the barn. And that’s no bull.