Market Research should do more to challenge brands’ self-obsession

Another day, another pulled ad campaign. This time it was the National Lottery and British Athletics. Their #represent campaign wanted to capture the spirit of positivity surrounding the World Athletics championships – and of course, use this to promote the role the National Lottery has in supporting our athletes.

So far so good, but in true Boaty McBoat face style, some members of the British Public had their own ideas. The campaign was overtaken by profanity and quickly pulled.

What went wrong?

Mark Ritson wrote a good critique of this yesterday. In a nutshell, he said that:

“A National Lottery Twitter campaign has been hijacked by trolls, but marketers would have seen it coming if they weren’t so absorbed in their fantasies of ‘brand love’.”

In his article, he calls for more people in brands to remember market orientation.

“You remember market orientation? It’s the core concept of marketing and can be neatly summarised with the mantra: ‘You are not the consumer’.”

But this is hard. In the words of Kurt Cobain “I don’t care what you think unless it is about me.” Our natural tendency is for self-obsession. Thankfully, the interaction we have with others and the need to work together curbs most of these natural inclinations (that’s in part how socialisation works).

However, most brands work in silos, existing in their own echo chambers. They’re simply not exposed to other brands in the way that people are to each other. They don’t socialise like individuals do, so their narcissistic tendencies run free.

Market Research is partly to blame. It’s complicit in perpetuating these fantasies.

You need to check yourself

Brands need a team (or at least someone) with the courage and credibility to provide a much-needed reality check.  

But, it’s hard to get this, when you ask all of the questions – and this is how most Market Research operates. Brands and their agencies decide what they want to know and then set a bunch of questions to get the answers they want to hear. They then pay people to tell them the answers to the questions they want to ask.

Can you see the problem with this? None of it helps challenge internal pre-perceptions of what ‘consumers’ are like. Instead, we get more rarefied views on our own world perception.

We have a situation where most Market Research reinforces rather than challenges brand self-obsession.

What to do?

The idea of market orientation – you’re not the consumer – demands we look for sources of insight that will help us challenge our biases. This calls for data that’s been created well away from a Market Research experiment.

There are two interesting routes to go down.

  • First, you can use Google search and trend data to understand what thousands of people really search for. Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is a pioneer in this field and has written about how this data can shine new light on a number of questions (see ‘The Cost of Racial Animus on a Black Candidate: Evidence Using Google Data’ for a good example).
  • The second option is social data. The social conversation is about people, not brands (sorry if that’s news, but we’ve found that brands tend to be mentioned by no more than 1-2% of people in any ‘normal’ social conversation ). It’s a great source of natural data about people. But it needs the right approach or you’ll just get a load of information – not insight. An effective technique is Social Learning, which combines qualitative research with the data collection of social listening to understand what people really mean in the things they create and share on social. It’s a technique which has been used to challenge and inspire campaign development, marketing planning and service improvement.

Time for a revolution?

Yes and no. Traditional Market Research has its flaws but still has a place in making informed decisions.

But, we really do need a new voice in the room. Brands need to be socialised, they need to be constantly reminded that the love they feel for themselves is irrelevant to almost everybody else.

People love their lives, their friends, their families, their home. As Mark puts it when talking about the #represent campaign.

“What you get instead is a sudden reality shot from the real, cynical and entirely moronic world of the consumer. They don’t care about athletics. Or uniting with athletes. They really only care about having a laugh and being a dickhead.”

If you want to appeal to people, then perhaps it’s time to pull up a chair and invite a new voice into the room?

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