Tom Keighley

Transexual focus groups and burgers: market researcher reveals

“We do work for clients who want to find out about stuff,” says Jon Priest, CEO of market research firm SPA Future Thinking.

SPA Future Thinking are the seventh largest outfit in the UK market research market, employing about 150 people. Jon estimates the market to be worth around £3.5bn.

The company grew from a merger organised by private equity firm Next Wave Partners, who joined SPA and another market research firm, Future Thinking.

Along the way, the company has acquired smaller research firms to add to their service offering.

The strategy has extended the company’s specialisms, across FMCG, telecoms, media, public sector, utilities, transport, automotive and retail.

So, what is market research? Jon suggests it is a type of ‘early-warning’ process, which enables firms to gauge the likely reception of new products, behaviour of the customer base and ultimately what he refers to as “consumer due diligence.” It’s about minimising risk and optimising results.

“We get a good written brief from the client, giving us background to the problem and secondary information, which details what they are experiencing - a fall in sales for instance. Then they will say, we want you to do some market research,” says Jon.

“In reality this could be one of a million types of market research, they aren’t quite sure yet. Sometimes clients are experienced market research buyers and they can hypothesise as to what the problem is.”

Briefs can be very focussed, or expansive. For instance, Jon suggests a hypothetical question: “attention spans are getting shorter because of technology.”

This would fall under a broader “strategic thinking” realm, one which requires exploratory research to inform thinking.

Jon continues: “Take TV. Viewing is not the family, communal activity it once was. Aside from perhaps the X-factor, the advent of mobile devices and tablets mean TV viewing in the home is now much more disparate. That type of insight comes from a longitudinal evaluation of how behaviour is changing over time.”

Sometimes the research can span new areas of thinking, and academic expertise is called upon. Neuroscience, behavioural economics, social exchange theory and semiotics can all play their part in breaking down the path to consumer choice.

“Some of the most interesting things are often the most banal. You come across clients who think they know a lot about their clients,” says Jon.

“Take for instance an unnamed burger restaurant who spend millions and millions of pounds a year developing their menu boards so they are attractive, eye-catching and encourage the consumer to buy more.

“They want to know how people make their decisions, particularly the late-night customers who might have had a few drinks. You can ask people what they think, or you can equip people with little fish-eye cameras to wear on their lapel for a few days. That takes a photograph of everything that consumers sees with their eyes, every 30 seconds, and stores it on a remote server.

“We can cut a short digital film, based on a select number of people visiting these establishments after 9pm, and see how they decide from the menu board. The truth is, they don’t decide from the menu board but look to see what is available in the hot tray - what’s good to go.

“That’s probably not what they would say if they were asked. And that might be at odds with what a typical restaurant might be doing.

“They’re unlikely to be keeping their big-ticket items drying out on the hot plate only to be thrown away, but we would argue that if that’s the decision point, they’re probably better stacking them up.”

It’s exactly this type of insight that can cut across received wisdom. Jon also points to another typical brief for a women’s magazine.

The challenge is to profile what a ‘typical’ women’s magazine reader is like. Jon suggests that in this instance a focus group would deliver various tired generalisations and platitudes.

Groups, he suggests, find it difficult to capture the subtle nuances of what makes them who they are.

Jon continues: “If you do a focus group with transexuals who are learning to be women in the moment and haven’t been socialised to be women over 30 years of their life, you get a richness of data on the nuances. For instance, the way women walk, the way they hold a cigarette and so on.

“It’s quite a controversial technique but we did it to illustrate a point. If you really want to get detail that people are unable to articulate after living their life without noticing what they have become, you need to get someone who is living it consciously and is learning from scratch.

“You can take this far-out technique and apply it to gain a fresh perspective on an old area of wisdom.”

The company must adhere to a strict code of conduct, laid out by the Market Research Society. Currently, the code states that researchers can conduct their work with the view to converting the respondents to certain products or services.

Similarly firms like SPA Future Thinking cannot upset or disrupt respondents in the course of research. However, Jon highlights a school of thinking that advocates making the consumer uncomfortable in order to reveal behaviour that might not otherwise be apparent.

It’s all part of an industry that sits at the very core of selling, and maximsing profitability.

Jon suggests that SPA Future Thinking have secured enough of the UK market for the time being, and as 2013 dawns, the firm will point its attention towards new international opportunities in Dubai and Brazil.

In the business of market research this means the business model requires innate knowledge of customs, values, culture and language of that location, and the firm is empowered by tenants of this.

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