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Conversation with Campaign – The state and evolution of market research during the crisis – by Shyam Sunder

By Shyam Sunder, Strategic Marketing Consultant 

(from left): Himanshu Vashishtha, Shyam Sunder, Dhanya Jerry, Dina El Sehrawy

I was fortunate to cut my teeth in the world of brand management whilst building several FMCG brands during the formative years of my advertising career in India. From packaged teas to edible oil to detergents to food to personal care, it was a rich learning experience working with both multinational and home-grown brands and taking on the might of Unilever & P&G. One feature that was consistent was market research, a practice religiously followed however big or small the business may be. Having worked across sectors, I am of the opinion that the role and value of research is best felt in the FMCG sector, with almost every important action on product, pricing, packaging, placement and promotion dependent on deep consumer understanding and response. 

When I moved from advertising to marketing and to the Middle East, it was only a natural instinct to continue to act on research. And, having worked in family-run businesses, it was hard to challenge the ‘collective wisdom’ of the founders and board members and evangelise the value of first-hand knowledge of customers through professional research. And when I was given the mantle of managing the marketing of the largest fashion retailer in the region  – Centrepoint, with a clear task to rebrand and reposition the brand, I put my foot down and insisted on a research-led strategy. My passion and conviction seemed to have worked, thus ushering in the largest consumer study and perhaps one of the first in fashion retail marketing in the region. Seeing the benefits, the discipline became a regular practice by us for every significant strategy or action, quickly adopted by businesses across the group. 

During this stint I was fortunate to have worked with several research agencies, big and small, international and local, and with some of the best minds, three of whom are featured in this panel: 

Dina El Sehrawy, Executive Director, Head of Kantar Qualitiative, UAE, Levant & Lower Gulf 

Dhanya Jerry, Research Director at IPSOS MENA

Himanshu Vashishtha, CEO, SixthFactor Consulting

It was important to bring forth this media-shy industry and ‘in the background’ professionals to the fore and discuss how research is impacting businesses in the region along with trends and changes observed during the current crisis. The big role of technology, the uncertainty and fluidity in consumer behaviour forcing new sectors to consider research and the initial lull followed by the sharp increase in investments during H1 2020 have been most revealing. Here are the three big questions posed and their responses: 

The industry must have undergone changes in the manner research is done with customers, with social distancing norms in the recent past. While quantitative research has embraced digital feedback methods, qualitative, especially focus groups, thrive in the physical space. How have you learned to cope and adapt during this pandemic? Is there a better methodology to understand deep consumer insights on brand perceptions, beliefs, barriers and affinity? 

Dina: In its heyday, the focus group – and the idea of connecting with consumers – was truly revolutionary. Unfortunately, qualitative research can still be synonymously confused with ‘the focus group’. This historical and stereotypical view is reductionist. It connotes that Qual is boxed and small, with limited frame of reference. The reality it is far richer and bigger than that. 

Qualitative research is about finding human truths and human understanding in any data source. In a new era, we maintain human centricity while recognising all channels of human connection to gauge far deeper understanding. Qual is no longer about ‘asking questions’, but ‘finding answers’.  We regularly do that without ever uttering a single question – through increasing use of implicit techniques, deploying social media analytics, applying semiotics at scale, neuroscience, in-context techniques and so on.  We certainly evolved far from the traditional focus group.

Kantar Qual has been deploying online methods for over a decade – reflecting the shifting consumer demand drivers and the steady migration online. We had been transforming to be more method-agnostic, more tech-enabled, more multisource and scientific in our approach. Covid-19 has been a great catalyst in helping clients adopt digital research methods more widely.

We responded extremely well to the pandemic. Our strategy of being a tech-enabled business meant all Qual clients were 100 per cent online in less than 10 days. Thanks to our clients and team, since then we conducted more than 1,000 digital research activities across more than regional markets – some of which are notoriously challenging from a digital infrastructure POV.

The wider industry in our region is still grappling with the distinction between digitisation and digital transformation.

The wider industry in our region is still grappling with the distinction between digitisation and digital transformation. Many clients are still learning to talk digital marketing right (vs. marketing in a digital age). The same applies to consumer research. It isn’t about migrating the good old focus group online – which we have! It’s about thriving and expediting many innovations we have been incubating. An example is Kantar’s deployment of conversational AI methods, or fusing the power of analytics and qual. We recently deployed the region’s first Arabic-speaking research chatbot, which allow us to do ‘qual at scale’ in virtually no time. We have also launched a series of agile, quick-turnaround initiatives that have really helped guide our clients through the chaos (e.g. the Chatterbus, a Qual omnibus).

Dhanya: The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the world in more ways than one. While it shook up the traditional players in the research industry, it turned out to be a clear opportunity for Ipsos. As the custodians of the largest proprietary online panels across the region, we were far ahead of the curve in terms of adopting online quantitative and qualitative methodologies in sync with the transition mandated by the pandemic norms. This enabled us to adapt faster – with qualitative interaction enriched with video conferencing methodologies, online communities and smart phone apps. Even large-scale client workshops were effectively managed through online platforms. Our online consumer connect programmes empowered our clients in understanding their consumers and their homebound lifestyles better. With Ipsos’s social media listening insights powered by Synthesio, we have been able to provide clients with foresight on evolving consumer sentiments, new trends and habits in relation to their categories resulting from the pandemic.

Himanshu: The research industry overall has been under a lot of pressure and that is because it failed to evolve at the required pace. The leaders, including me, in my earlier avatar, as leader of the largest global firm in the region, are too focused on short term bottom lines. Covid-19 has accelerated the need for change, and my prediction is market research as we have known it is dead.

Covid-19 has accelerated the need for change, and my prediction is market research as we have known it is dead.

There are three great things that are happening, creating a perfect storm that will help the market research companies (at least some of them) evolve onto the next phase and others will shut down. Firstly, there is rapid development in artificial intelligence applications. Secondly, there is tons of data being generated on social media from the consumers spontaneously. And thirdly, a lot of outside players are addressing the answers for our clients.

At SixthFactor, we have been at the forefront setting up the first neurolab in the region. We have a cultural centre that uses ‘thick data’ to understand trends by combining it with social intelligence – as we like to call insights from social media conversations. This is the new form of qualitative, which will be faster, more comprehensive and more efficient.

Specifically, in the Covid-19 context the methodologies have evolved seamlessly in the form of digital ethnographies and playgroups and are giving better and more in-depth understanding vs traditional depth interviews and focus groups. They allow for a longer and deeper understanding of our consumers. This allows for respondents to be with us for a period of time so we get a context of their choice over a period of time, and it enables us to reduce the acquiescence bias – the ‘say-do gap’

 

What’s the single biggest challenge and learning the pandemic has brought for your business? What are the key changes witnessed globally? How has it impacted your agency and its services regionally? Also, what’s the impact on investments?

Dhanya: One of the key outcomes of the pandemic was uncertainty for our clients and consumers alike. Products and services that were part of everyday life became less relevant and new categories and behaviours evolved. As insight partners our agility and flexibility to adapt and adopt became our key in-market differentiator. We updated our narratives in line with the evolving client priorities to effectively target the opportunities they presented.

Globally we relooked at the way we look at research by overcoming the traditional boundaries – for example, Ipsos Signals communication provided a weekly update to our clients locally and globally on the changing consumer sentiments and behaviour; Ipsos Mori in UK, along with Imperial College, is leading a major program for the Department for Health and Social Care to track the progress of Covid 19 across England; Ipsos CX is partnering with clients to evaluate Covid-19 health compliance protocols; Ipsos Creative Labs enabled clients to improve their communication stories with real time insights; and Ipsos Innovation developed and delivered on contactless product testing protocols. 

With the advent of the pandemic, a good majority of our clients trimmed their marketing and advertising spends and the research industry also took the hit in terms of lower spends that became the norm for Q2. During that phase we also witnessed dramatic behaviour changes in consumer consumption, shopping and spending. It has become increasingly evident that these consumer behaviours are here to stay as the new normal. The evolving consumer has presented the marketer with new opportunities resulting in the revival of consumer insights spends that we have been witnessing from the start of H2 of 2020.

Himanshu: Personally, I was a bit worried about the thousands of workers in different fields and research organisations, including freelancers. The amount of job losses was heartbreaking. While we are growing in this period, so could manage with no salary and job cuts, the bigger agenda for us was to upskill the field companies and the thousands of freelance professionals who support various research agencies to adapt to the new world. I do wish we as an industry do more of this in the coming months.

I think the uncertainty of business that our clients are faced with has been the biggest fallout of the pandemic. Business questions remain and consumer insights stay relevant, but the uncertainty has meant clients pushing their decisions down the road and operating in a business as usual to see this through. Our message to clients has always been that uncertain times call for more decisive actions. We have helped work through their challenges through a Covid-19 business decision-making framework that has been extremely well received. We conducted a number of workshops to help them with their decision making and that only accelerated their business and ours.

We as an organisation are enabling clients to create capabilities to get constant business intelligence. What helped us really in this period was the client’s openness and appetite for new-age solutions, and it really helped us to accelerate these solutions much faster across a wider set of clients. This has helped us strengthen the position as the leading innovative solution provider for marketing intelligence.

Dina: There have been what feels like infinite learnings over the past few months. On a personal front, the biggest learning is how awesome it is to operate in a diverse team within an enabling culture. Diversity and trust have always fueled our creativity and agility; and the pandemic brought us closer. I learn a lot from the Kantar team’s ability to build each other up technically and intellectually, and look out for each other’s emotional wellbeing. It has been instrumental to our resilience and response in-market. From an insights point of view, there is so much we are learning through applying a behavioural economics lens to anticipate future scenarios or understand the stickiness of newly developed consumer behaviours as we adapt to the new normal.

The biggest challenge for all businesses is the double whammy of a global pandemic coinciding with an unprecedented global economic recession. There is impeding concern around contracting economies, consumer frugality and job insecurity, like those of 1930s Great Depression. We see consumers in some markets, especially those that went into extended lockdown, becoming more discerning about wants vs. needs; luxury vs. necessity. There is more prudence, conscious consumption, evolving definitions of value, new ‘hacks’ and trade-offs they are making.  Businesses that lose touch with consumers are losing relevance and share faster than ever. It is fascinating to understand these changes and the strategic implications for our clients’ growth and business prospects.

Our strategy remains as it was pre-pandemic. We are a tech-based research consultancy that seeks to ‘Understand People and Inspire Growth’. It was true pre-pandemic and it is true today.  Undoubtedly, Covid-19 has expedited much digital transformation and the fruition of pipeline innovations we have been incubating.

 

The region is dominated by large family-run businesses that traditionally have been shy of research. At the same time, the multinational brands, especially in FMCG have replicated their best global practices here. Are there any significant changes in clients profile in the past two years? If so, which are the new sectors are emerging? 

Himanshu: We are seeing the fastest growth in our technology vertical with clients like Google contributing to a significant portion of our global revenues. However, revenues have grown across all verticals – FMCG, Automotive, Finance, to name a few – with double digits year on year for the past three years. In the last few years, we have seen the culture of information-based decision making at all “family-run business” we have interacted with. This is just the nature of this market now vs. the previous decade. Overall, the clients today need a more robust system of ongoing consumer intelligence. And we have created tools and platforms using the technology, AI, big data and internal data to provide the same. The biggest change we have is the need for full consultative solutions – where it is not just about providing information but enabling clients to convert it into the right business decisions.

Dina: It has never been a more important time to understand the consumer. The speed, complexity and direction of change is disruptive to clients’ business as usual. The consumer is increasingly sophisticated and demanding, with fragmented loyalties and attention. It means even the most experienced marketers can no longer rely on their gut feel or previous experience alone to drive marketing impact. No one can afford to operate in the dark. Especially, as businesses become more careful with spend, there is a lot to lose if it’s not spent right. More importantly, the pandemic is presenting a plethora of strategic opportunities for those who able to spot and seize them first.  Businesses that are too slow to respond become their competitors’ source of business. 

Kantar has a healthy client portfolio mix of local, regional and international clients across various sectors. We also serve large family businesses. The biggest change observed over the past couple of years is the rise of fin-tech companies. A fundamental shift we’ve been witnessing is not only agility, but clients’ need to be more proactive and predictive, rather than reactive or retrospective. We are also seeing a growing interest from wel-established businesses in areas that were traditionally unexplored. It is a very exciting time!

Dhanya: Technology, eCommerce and Healthcare are the emerging sectors for the region, and the post-pandemic era is further propelling their pace of growth. In terms of consumer insights, there is an increased focus on Shopper Behaviour and its implications on the client’s marketing and trade strategies.

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