Skip to content

Five techniques on borrowed time

They were new and sexy once – but now these research techniques deserve a decent burial
Throw away the ladder and retain both your brand distinction and your personal sanity
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

Every now and again, doing what I do for a living, I am compelled to become reacquainted with, and asked if I will please work with, a research technique I thought had long since died of embarrassment. I give voice to my ifs and buts, of course, but generally relent in the name of team harmony or because a research company has already been commissioned that only does things one way.

Well, if I had my way – chance would be a fine thing – here are five techniques I’d be happy never to clap eyes on again.

1. Consumer co-creation

Like so much in marketing, co-creation is a tactic that can work serendipitously, here and there as chance allows, but becomes an artifice when pursued with earnest deliberation within the confines of four walls. Consumers quite rightly end up wondering why the brand doesn’t use its own experts to solve the arcane dilemmas shared with them.

Following an awkward session recently, I checked to see if any respected brands still claim to use structured co-creation and noted that Ikea does. But only a bit. To explore add-ons to current designs. It is not the kind of methodology that would have provided the innovation to get Ikea going in the first place, since consumers had no idea that such a thing as flat-pack furniture could exist. They wouldn’t have come up with the meatballs, either.

I am with the late Steve Jobs on this one: “It is not the job of consumers to know what they want.” Your brand needs to stay well ahead of them, if it is to stay ahead of competitors.

2. Need-state segmentation

Why do you always end up with six segments? Why are they always about the same size? Why can’t we acknowledge that people might have more than one need and get a bit of messy overlapping in there? And why would you want to confine yourself to one slice of the pie in the first place?

Consumers have needs, of course, along with wants and desires and wild consumption fantasies, and we should do all we can to understand them. But who added the term ‘state’, as though that gives it more permanence and heft, and who determined they should sit there on a PowerPoint chart arranged like a sulky half-grapefruit? It’s an artifice. Stay clear.

3. Consumer attitudinal segmentation

Agency planners love this one, as it gives them a chance to show off nuance and sophistication. They would never be so crude as to segment by economic or demographic data, but use research to identify attitudinal niches they claim have more fit with the brand. It is still segmentation, though, and you still have to ask yourself why the brand couldn’t target wider – maybe, heaven forbid, shooting for the mass.

The late Professor Peter Doyle’s ‘five criteria’ framework for segmentation is a useful corrective. It forces advocates to face fundamental but sobering criteria for success, such as whether the segment is big enough to profitably exploit – often it isn’t – and whether the segment can be reached in media without overlap – often it can’t.

The giveaway that an agency or brand team has got too besotted by attitudinal segmentation is when the various consumer groupings get given jaunty names: ‘mildly messy moms’, ‘home haven hunters’, ‘disorganised divas’. Aside from addressing rounded human beings as though they existed only in the consumption dimension, it renders them immutable, as if they couldn’t be one thing on a Wednesday and another at the weekend.

Give your target consumer an attitudinal name and you will stop seeing the person inside, I promise you.

4. Laddering

Where do I start? Well, at the bottom of the ladder, maybe, where researchers ask simple questions about what people look for in a brand or category. And get simple answers, rooted in performance or price or pleasure, or other basic requirements.

But the researcher isn’t really interested in that and is never going to stop there. So, they go on to ask our industry’s most impertinent question: ‘And why does that matter?’

From there they climb the ladder, iterating that question with implausible persistence, as consumers struggle to articulate the reasons for their reasons, dragged ever further away from the facts of the product or service being researched. And where does it end? At the top of the ladder, in the airy nirvana of self-actualisation, sharing the same conceptual space as every other brand in the universe. Your brand story may have been rooted in sturdy claims and competencies, but it will henceforth be about ‘confidence’, or ‘freedom’ or, worse, saving the planet.

There was a planner at one of Unilever’s big agencies a few years back who got nicknamed Dr Feelgood because no matter what brand he worked on – shampoo, detergent, stock cube – he always laddered up to ‘feel good about self’. The result was creative teams tearing their hair out and doing ads where the consumer would abruptly start dancing in the kitchen or doing hopscotch in the street to externalise just how great they were feeling inside.

Let that be a warning. Throw away the ladder and retain both your brand distinction and your personal sanity.

5. Brand archetypes

White number 5 on black background

So, you learn that your brand is the ‘magician’ (and so very many are). What are you supposed to do with that? No, I haven’t a clue either.

These techniques had their moment in the spotlight. They were new and sexy and thought-provoking once. But they’ve been found wanting and now deserve a decent burial. Meanwhile, the fundamentals haven’t changed. We need to understand people and the context of their lives, anticipate their needs and innovate ways to serve them better and please them more.

It isn’t remotely new, and the observational disciplines required to achieve it may not seem particularly sexy. But get it right and it is the very best part of what we marketers do for a living.