Research on a Shoestring

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In Bissell's case, it wasn't just the product that worked, but also the strategy behind it — which cost less than $1,500 to develop.

The Memo

This is a story about how research on one product helped improve sales for a company's sibling products. In 1997, when Mark Bissell returned to the United States from a trip to Europe, he brought with him a new item for his home-cleaning products company. The CEO of the Grand Rapids, Michigan-based Bissell Inc. brought home the Steam Gun, an elongated cleaning device that resembled a hand-held vacuum cleaner.

“The CEO said to the marketing director, ‘We've signed a letter of intent on the product. Now you figure out a way to market it,’� recalls Erich Pagel, Bissell's marketing research director. Pagel was charged with figuring out how U.S. consumers would respond to the cleaning machine. And, he had to do so in one month, with a miniscule budget for research.

The Discovery

With resources so tight, it became clear to Pagel that a full-scale research project, complete with focus groups, travel costs, and a quantitative study, would be out of the question. He would have to roll up his sleeves and handle it all himself.

Pagel reached deep into his research toolbox and decided to launch an ethnographic research study. Ethnographic research is a form of qualitative research that uses observational techniques developed by anthropologists to study consumer groups. Ethnographic techniques are based on real-world observations, such as spending the day with customers or watching them interact with your product.

Bissell executives knew that women with children tended to buy the company's products. The question was: How could Pagel identify a sample to study? For answers, he turned to his local Parent Teacher Association in Grand Rapids. For a donation of $1,500, Pagel gave a presentation to the PTA and distributed the product to the 20 people who were interested in giving the Steam Gun a test drive. He gave them a diary to keep track of their experiences with the Steam Gun over the course of two to three weeks. Pagel later followed up with in-home visits, where he watched the PTA mothers interact with the product.

He quickly discovered that the product's name would present a problem. For one thing, unlike Europeans, American consumers are enamored of cleaning with chemicals. “U.S. consumers don't care about chemical-free cleaning,� he explains.

In fact, the PTA mothers often asked how they could use it with chemicals. Cleaning with mere hot water would take some convincing and explaining. The name was also a problem for another reason: When parents pressed their children into service with the household chores, the kids would “arm� themselves with the Steam Gun and threaten to blast their siblings. One loving sibling exchange included a memorable “Freeze, or I'll melt your face off!� Not exactly a product use that Bissell wanted to encourage.

Company executives also discovered that the machine appealed to consumers who were serious about house cleaning. They used the Steam Gun to blast the grime in small, hard-to-reach places, like the caulking between the kitchen sink and the counter, and the soap scum in shower and tub crevices. An additional finding: The many brush attachments that the product came with were confusing to consumers; color coding would help.

The Tactics

Based on these findings, Bissell first changed the name of the Steam Gun to Steam N' Clean. Then, company executives hired Guthy Renker in Palm Desert, California, which produced an infomercial that featured women cleaning hard-to-reach places in the home. Voice-overs stressed the value of super-hot steam to clean all of your household's filth away. The infomercial ran for three years on a wide range of cable networks, ranging from HGTV to the Comedy Channel.

The Payoff

The product had a successful launch through direct response television, says Pagel, and sold well through early 2000, which was Bissell's life expectancy for Steam N' Clean. Although Pagel could not say exactly how many units of the Steam N' Clean sold in total, he points out that when the Steam N' Clean moved to retail, it retained its placement in 2,100 Kmarts around the country for two years. The mass retailer doesn't keep products that are slow to sell on its shelves for more than a few months, he notes.

Further, Pagel says that the lessons they learned from the Steam N' Clean will help the company compete in the steam category, which he believes will be the next “big idea� in floor cleaning. Not a bad result for a market research effort that cost $1,500 and took just four weeks.

But even more importantly, Pagel says he's been able to use shoestring ethnographic techniques to add value to more resource-rich products. For instance, when the company needed to boost sales of Bissell's ProHeat Deep Cleaner, an upright steam cleaner, he added in-house visits to a battery of traditional focus groups — and he had Bissell employees conducting the interviews. Through the in-house work, the team discovered that some people unnecessarily boiled water before placing it in the steam cleaner. Others forgot how to use the machine, given that most people don't steam clean their carpet regularly. Armed with these findings, Bissell slapped the company's 800 number and Web site address onto new machines, and added the owner's manual to Bissell's Web site. The result: The Deep Cleaner, which has slipped to the No. 2 spot in the steam-cleaner category, vaulted back to No. 1 within a year.

At a presentation at this past February's Ethnographic/Observational Research Conference in New York City, Pagel pointed out that shoestring ethnography isn't for every project. Observational research can be do-it-yourself if business risk is relatively low, if it's a category that the marketer knows well, and if there are few differences across markets or regions. But marketers shouldn't “try this at home� if they're investigating a brand-new category, or require special access to a customer, say, at a store.

What the Experts Say

“That's a great way to go on a budget,� says John Winsor, founder of Radar Communication, a Boulder, Colorado-based firm that specializes in observational research. “This kind of research is all about listening and getting people out from behind their desks. For $1,500, it's the best way to get a quick read on a market — better than traditional qualitative or quantitative could ever do for the money.�

Winsor says one way that Bissell could have gotten even more bang out of its limited bucks would have been to spend more time on its recruiting process. A simple search that would have screened for moms that were early adopters or strong influencers on their friends, for example, might have yielded richer findings, he says.

On the other hand, what Bissell did in this case was powerful on its own merits. “People have this impression that research has to be really expensive,� Winsor says. “But it's not about the research. It's about the listening. Anything you can do to get your team outside the box and outside the walls of the company, you should do.� Given the price that Bissell paid for its perspective, there's little doubt that it was worth the effort.



Steam N' Clean


Bissell, Inc., Grand

Rapids, Michigan


Guthy Renker, Palm

Desert, California

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