Joseph ettore remembers the moment when the value of market research truly hit home. The chief executive officer of Ames Department Stores was sitting behind a glass panel, listening to women in a focus group discuss their favorite stores. One woman said Wal-Mart was her first choice, Ames, her second. But then she reported that she visited Wal-Mart once a month, while frequenting Ames five times a month. She loved Wal-Mart's selection, but she didn't always have time to go there. At Ames, she said, she could be in and out in minutes.
"I'm sitting behind that screen," says Ettore, "and I'm thinking, 'Man, let me be your second-favorite store!'"
Understanding the consumer is Ettore's mantra, and it's what he credits with revitalizing Ames. He must be on to something: The company's stock prices have risen more than 700 percent since Ettore took the helm in 1994. Buying patterns, transactional data -the CEO's enthusiasm for the arcana of statistics would make most number-crunchers swoon.
Indeed, the last decade hasn't been an easy one for the folks in research. They've seen their departments, their budgets, their very raisons d'etre scrutinized within an inch of their lives by CEOs with X-ray vision when it comes to numbers they can't use.
And it's not as if the expectations of data analysis have been diminishing. In addition to the standard methodologies, new consumer information is pouring in at mind-bending speeds from scanners and price club tapes, syndicated reports, and the Internet- and in breathtaking detail. The good news is, no one is better poised to jump on that technological wave and ride with it than the qualitators and quantifiers in research. No longer brushed off as back-corridor stat collectors, today's researchers are the premier intelligence agents in a business world increasingly preoccupied with consumer information. After all, who else really knows what to do with all of this stuff?
"If you go back 15 or 20 years, people were looking for data," says Donald Schultz, professor of integrated marketing at Northwestern University. "Today, the problem is not: 'how do we get more data?' It's: 'how do we manage it?'"
Corporate thought-leaders are paying attention as well as they scramble to redefine, even reinvent, the role of research in these fiercely competitive times. In the past three years, the market research departments at both the Campbell Soup Company and Ocean Spray Cranberries have been redubbed Consumer Insight. At Ralston-Purina, the new name is Information Management. And at Procter & Gamble, the Department of Consumer Market and Knowledge was christened early this year.
"They still gather data and crunch numbers," says Thomas Bullock, president and CEO of Ocean Spray. "But I don't want them to deliver information as much as insights."
Terry Lay, president of Lee Apparel Company, agrees that the role of research is crucial because the market is so segmented. Gone are the days when the entire family happily donned the same brand of blue jeans. Now, he says, products and advertising messages must be tailored to specific age and social groups, and doing that means understanding in minute detail the lifestyles of the consumers being targeted.
But Lay cautions that if companies are to stay nimble, they can't weigh themselves down with too much data. "We have to be willing to take risks and move quickly because consumers move quickly and they are exposed to more choices," he says.
That's a sentiment echoed by Ocean Spray's Bullock, who says he has seen the product-development cycle of his company cut in half in the past five years. "At one time an 18-month or 20-month cycle was a fast, efficient cycle. Now it has to happen in eight to nine months," he says. "Everyone is able to compete faster and they can copy faster, so you have to have the next thing."
That kind of pressure increases for technology companies, where products have outrageously short life spans, says Robert Herbold, chief operating officer of Microsoft and former head of advertising and marketing for Procter & Gamble. "There are times when you'd love to look at a problem and study it thoroughly, and you just don't have the time. You do the research that you think gives you good insights...and then you move."
Market research is not a substitute for good judgment, adds Bullock. "The risk is that rather than making a decision, people will want to go back and research again. But you need to stop at some point. That's the job of Consumer Insight: to know when they've gone far enough."
This year's finalists and semifinalists in the Advertising Research Foundation's David Ogilvy Research Awards all know something about that. After all, they didn't make it this far on their looks alone. Every year, teams of researchers and advertising creatives are presented with those nagging little scenarios-a fading brand name, a declining demographic consumer group, a new product launch-and they're given the directive from above: "Make it work." Herewith, a look at the campaigns and the intelligence agents who delivered.