In all of our brand work, we begin with the customer. We strive to understand who they are, what they value, what brings them joy (and frustration), etc. This is what leads to exploration, discovery and big-idea generation. Knowing the customer well gives companies a competitive advantage.
At my agency, we often encourage our clients to invest time and resources into qualitative consumer research. However, many times, when companies hear “qualitative research,” they resist. They feel they can’t afford the time or money, or they think it’s inefficient and outdated. They want immediate, quantifiable results. Most often, clients believe that they, themselves, are the customer or they already know their customers really well. Therefore, they feel they don’t need to invest in qualitative research.
We have found that the most solid strategies and powerful creative campaigns are informed early on by insights that are gleaned from qualitative consumer research. And, though quantitative research has its role, it does not get into the psychology of the consumer. As our insights partner succinctly says, “Qualitative research unearths nuances that big data simply cannot.”
Here is why and how we use qualitative consumer research:
1. Learn the truth.
Even if you and your team are users or customers, you don’t have an objective, unbiased perspective. So, speak to consumers in the real world to understand how you’re perceived, both positively and negatively. Think of it this way: They’ll tell you things that your friends or family would likely never express.
2. Understand how you stand up to the competition.
Do you understand why someone chooses you or your competitor? Strive to answer this question in your qualitative research. Ask your customers why they choose your brand. It’s usually a complex mix of reasons and never one general thing like “good price” or “high quality.” In addition, you might learn that your competitors aren’t the obvious ones with the largest market share or biggest marketing budgets; they might be a lot of small brands popping up on social media.
3. Inform brand development.
In the early stages of brand development, qualitative consumer insights are what fuel discovery and idea generation for both brand strategy and communications. They directly inform the directional and foundational work that is key to developing a healthy, humanistic brand. Allow the insights you gain from your customers to inform how your brand markets to them.
4. Develop target personas.
You can also use qualitative insights to develop personas that help your organization focus on and understand who your target consumer is — their values, motivations and how they engage with your brand. Understanding their mindset complements any demographic information, such as age, zip code or income.
5. Confirm a hypothesis.
Consumer insights can validate or debunk a hypothesis, confirm a hunch, or settle an internal organizational debate. When you're analyzing your research, use your findings to help determine the right strategic positioning for your brand.
6. Innovate new products.
Look at your qualitative research as an opportunity to help you view your product or environment in an entirely new way. This can lead to product reinventions. Or, it can unearth entirely new creative territories, product opportunities and consumer segments.
So, how do you get started?
First, you need to understand the appropriate qualitative research format to move your brand forward. For example, if the topic is personal (e.g., if you're hoping to gain insights on a new style of undergarments your brand is releasing), you might conduct in-depth, one-on-one interviews with consumers.
Or, you might use webcam friendship groups if the research wouldn't be as personal for a customer to reveal. A wine client, for instance, wanted to uncover the social and emotional dynamics of drinking wine, so they used this approach. Retail shop-alongs are another method for understanding the customer journey. And, for projects where you want overall perceptions of a brand or a category, you might conduct more traditional focus groups.
If you have in-house expertise, you can consider the do-it-yourself approach and leverage digital tools for recruiting or conducting these interviews. Although there are benefits to this route, it can become time-consuming, and you could run the risk of your results being skewed by internal biases.
Because of this, some brands opt to engage with an experienced third party, especially if their organizations do not have the bandwidth, category experience or access to the target customer. If you choose this route, make sure you think of the company as a key strategic thought partner to your marketing team. And before partnering with anyone, ensure they will listen to your business's problem and are able to craft a right-sized research approach.
I believe consumer insights are critical to the discovery and exploratory stage of brand work — whether it’s the strategy, creative or product development. Knowing your consumer well is imperative to developing a meaningful brand that resonates with them.
The good news is that consumers are excited to participate. They genuinely appreciate when brands take the time to listen to what they have to say. In fact, in today’s world, they expect it.