How internal attitudes and beliefs can block consumer insight-led innovation

By Reach Brands

The large majority of businesses understand the great potential for consumer insight to signal or illuminate the pathway to a market redefining innovation. And many organisations are introducing new initiatives to ensure that their innovations are less R&D led and more consumer insight-driven. What is less understood is that it requires some fundamental shifts in the current patterns of belief and behaviour within the business. In fact, often the biggest saboteur to having a consumer insight-led innovation culture is often the business itself.

So what are the self-destructive behaviours to be aware of and how do you tackle them? I will walk you through them but first we need to look at why collecting consumer insight to fuel innovation has to be different to existing practices.

Businesses are drowning in information overload with the advent of the internet being faster, cheaper and there is lots more of it. They have data coming out of their ears. Just mining it properly and extracting its true value is a mammoth task in itself. However the majority of this consumer information is measurement data – who is buying or not buying, how often and where, what people think and believe about the brand, what they have been buying or absorbing and so on. All this information is very important in the development of the brand strategy but it does not feed or fuel innovation.

The traditional focus groups and surveys etc are non-starters as they rely on self reporting and memory – trying to recall what they did, why they did it, how it made them feel etc. For most people this is virtually impossible to get right. This is not because they are dumb but it is usually due to the task, product or brand just not being deemed important enough by the brain to store much detail about it, especially in the conscious mind. There is a great quote from the late David Ogilvy: “The trouble with market research is that people don’t think how they feel, they don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say.” Of course the tools of conventional market research (focus groups, one-on-one interviews etc) can be useful in pointing toward potential incremental innovations, but they will never lead to those rule and game-changing, paradigm-shifting breakthroughs that leave us scratching our heads and wondering why nobody ever thought of them before.

So what is the answer? To study and work with people in their natural environments – where they live, work, shop and play. It is important to be interacting, partaking, observing and having lots of dialogue to uncover their real usage experiences, the actual conversations and interactions with others around a task or product and their beliefs and perceptions of brands and products at fixture or in use. This is how you get the truly valuable insights such as annoying features, product substitutions, unintended uses, product combining or family rituals around a task or with a product. The list is pretty endless and is all dependent on the type of tasks, products or brands that you are investigating. These are what we call the sparks for uncovering a deep consumer insight.

Many of our clients have already realised that digging for consumer insights to feed ideation is a completely different ball game. However what most don’t realise is the leap in organisational attitude and behavioral change that is required to ensure that truly fresh consumer insights are uncovered, really taken on board and made highly valuable to the business.

So what are the pitfalls to watch for and beliefs that will need to be cajoled or challenged?

1. Expect to be shaken up

Organisations don’t like change and challenge. They like facts, control, consistency. Digging for consumer insights that encourage innovation is designed to uncover information that the company does not already have. You are searching for those one or two nuggets that will crack open a huge boulder. However the usual company reaction to different information is like that of the body’s immune system: it’s foreign, it does not fit with what we currently know and understand. People internally tend to act like antibodies – trying to block unfriendly and uncomfortable information from coming in. At first, these new insights are likely to be seen as disruptive, because it is hard to process and requires a lot of rethinking of assumptions. Sometimes it will be disbelieved or even shouted down without any attempt to validate it.

The biggest attack can often come from the consumer insight team themselves. This is because it raises some obvious questions: “does this mean all previous research is wrong?” or “why did we not know this before?” Self-preservation kicks in and the consumer insight team is among those who attempt to pick holes in the findings and undermine the validity.

So it is vital that right from the very start expectations are managed and the possible consequences accepted. Shareholder engagement is also key. Everyone needs to know that they have to be open to think differently and the possibility of having the foundations of their current thinking shaken.

2. Where’s the validation?

Again the status quo is challenged because of the methodology that needs to be employed to illicit true and deeper consumer insight for those paradigm-shifting breakthroughs. It is cost prohibitive to undertake large numbers of deep dive consumer sessions to be even near statistically valid. Quite often this is used as a weapon against the findings (“But you only spent 3 hours with each of the 12 people”). What these commentators are forgetting is that it is not the point of the ‘research’. We don’t even like to call it that. Research operates on the principles of science: observation, hypothesis, prediction and testing. Digging for innovation insights operates in a different way: hypothesis, observation, participation, analysis and validation. The aim is for the deep digging to unearth some potential nuggets of insight that can then be validated by other research methods.

This can make some businesses uncomfortable, especially those that are very quant. orientated. The only solution is to manage internal expectations and make the process journey clear to all from the very start. In fact we encourage businesses to validate uncomfortable or different information. It helps to assess ROI of undertaking the deep dives and gives our clients real confidence in any future work we may be commissioned to undertake.

3. Bringing it alive

Because there needs to be total participant acceptance and trust of the facilitator it is impossible to have observers. This means that there is no way for marketing or research managers to see and listen to the consumer in action. We find that this is one of the biggest blockers to deep digging consumer dives. Marketing departments love focus groups as it is one of the few times that they can get close to their consumers. It seems to be one of their favourite parts of their role and thus they see very little wrong with it. They do not really understand its limitation or faults.

Thus it is very important that the findings are truly brought alive for the key stakeholders in the business. Videography, photography, voice recordings etc all work to help bring alive the consumer insights in a far more compelling and exciting way. The downside is the cost. However without it the sell-in, engagement and support for potentially highly exciting and valuable insights can fall on stony ground.

4. It takes a unique kind of individual

It is very likely that your current research providers will not be able to field the kind of highly creative and critical thinkers that game-changing innovation insight needs. It does take a very different kind of individual to mine and dig deep for hitherto uncovered consumer insights. It is these kind of individuals that businesses need to be seeking and/or a consultancy with that inherent philosophy. These types of people are extremely difficult to find as they have a lot of contrasting qualities:

  • They are both creative thinkers who can think outside the box. At the same time they are very analytical to be able to look at issues from all sides objectively, without jumping to conclusions too quickly;
  • They can simplify lots of complicated information down to its essence very quickly. Yet the complexity of an issue or problem excites them and turns them into little ferrets;
  • They have entrepreneurial blood and know how to create actionable results yet are too maverick to fit into the corporate world; and
  • They have to be chameleons and be able to read people quickly and easily yet also not be afraid to challenge and be provocative.

We find recruitment for our innovation insight digging roles very difficult indeed. They do not come from one discipline or skill set. Some have a background in anthropology, others are ex-strategic planners and some are from the field of innovation. It is all about finding that unique kind of brain so choose carefully.

5. It’s all about observation – it’s not

People often think that it is all a matter of observing and recording. And that is a serious misconception. Of course hawk-like observation is very important. But that is only for part of it. It is important to participate with the consumer. To use their brainpower and creative thinking ability and not treat them as guinea pigs in a laboratory. An atmosphere of teamwork is key and we try to make it feel very much like a partnership of us against the world.

Also we have a whole lot of tools and games that are designed to make consumers really think. To push them outside their comfort zones and open their eyes to potential possibilities. To really dig deep and help the consumers understand themselves, the session has to be made very interesting and fun. It makes people relax, forget that they are being ‘researched’ and really focus on creative problem solving and thinking.

6. Recruiting a different type of consumer

For most research the recruitment objective is atypical consumers for the brand or product (current, lapsed etc). However the same principle does not apply for innovation insight digging. Working with a few statistically average people is likely to result in pretty uninspiring insights.

Studies show that between 15%-20% of the population have good creative thinking ability. It is not linked to intelligence, social class, occupation etc. Finding consumers with minds that can think outside the box increases the probability of uncovering a deeper insight. They are more likely to see issues with current products and behaviours and may have already found their own make-do solution. And creative thinkers are much less likely to accept that the norm is necessarily the best or only way to do something.

There is also the principle of trying to recruit less loyal or non-brand/product fans. These consumers find it easier to be critical, have used a wider variety of products to achieve the same task or benefit and are more able to easily see improvements.

So hopefully you can now see that mining consumer insights for game-changing innovation is a very different kind of animal. The business really needs to understand what it is getting itself into. Just being aware of the potential pitfalls and challenges is 50% of the job done. The information in this article should help you to:

  1. Choose a good insight mining partner; and
  2. Understand the type of stakeholder engagement required.

We can’t promise it will be easy but what we do know is that it is worth it in the end. What is a market rule changing innovation worth to your business?

By Natalie Reed, Strategy Partner at Reach
Contact Natalie