Category Archives: research

Common Sense is killing business

“For every complex problem there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong”.

This slightly bastardized quote from H.L. Mencken comes as close as anything to explaining a lot of the world we live in, at a time where rapidity trumps solidity, and every day we hear calls for acts of “simple common sense” from politics to business.

While politics occasionally manages to resist this form of populism, business culture seems to instead have taken up an attitude of “act first, think later” in an effort to be lean, agile and to give customers and shareholders what they want every quarter.

Nowhere has this process been more enthusiastically embodied than in marketing departments.

Just as marketing became more complicated, with more competition across categories, more platform and distribution options, more media clutter, fewer barriers to entry and more opportunities to juggle, we started looking for a shortcut to make sense of it all: The One Answer that would have changed the rules of the game forever and bestowed success upon those who embraced it.

We discovered loyalty and thought that the future of marketing would be about communities of superfans; we saw branded content and decided that we should all be publishers; technology made us think that every brand should be a hacker-mashupper-remixer; and when social media emerged we concluded that we all had to join the conversation, crowdsource our brand and revel in a future where people would engage with us, become evangelists of our brand and eventually, possibly, buy our products.

The one thing we haven’t asked ourselves enough is: why?

Right at a time of increased complexity when critical thinking would have been more important than ever, we decided to suspend it altogether and replace it with clichés. We did this over and over across blogs, conferences and tweets, until clichés became conventional wisdom and conventional wisdom became common sense.

Common sense has its own way of reinforcing itself: it sounds reasonable, everyone is doing it, so it can’t possibly be wrong, can it?

It can, at least if we bother to take a look at the real world outside our conjectures.

Brands failing

Brands in 4 out of 5 categories are seen as increasingly homogenous, with 80% of brand buyers knowing little or nothing about them. (Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science, 2012). According to the 2013 “Meaningful Brands” worldwide survey by Havas Media, people wouldn’t care if 73% of the brands disappeared. And we’re talking about major brands that a global advertising network keeps track of.

These are today’s facts, and facts are stubborn things. We can’t treat them as someone else’s problem, and keep doing things the same way because we have deadlines to meet and expectations to conform with.

It’s time to stop chasing common sense shortcuts because, quite simply, they don’t work. Shortcuts mix cause and effect, and generate assumptions that are proven wrong by reality.

Common marketing sense states that since loyal customers are already sold on your products, they’re an easy source of growth: the truth is that in most categories loyal customers are already spending as much as they can, and growth generally comes from acquiring completely new customers.

Common marketing sense says that you have to convince people of something first in order for them to take action, whereas in many cases it is changing people’s actions that changes their mind.

The more we understand human behaviour, the more we realize that it’s way too complex to grasp it just with common sense. Add the potential for reengineering pretty much anything that the digital age provides, and you’ll see how we need more than shortcuts.


Remember when we used to ask questions about everything?

It’s time for something different. It’s time for un-common sense.

Un-common sense means not taking anything for granted and instead starting questioning our assumptions, large and small.

It means once again learning to ask: why? Just like we did when we were children, but with the skills and insight we have developed over the years.

It means taking a step back, looking at the bigger picture, and knowing that what we’re seeing is not the way things are meant to be, but just the way things are until someone acts otherwise.

Un-common sense marketing requires time, talent and an uncompromising effort in everything every one of us does. If professional pride is not a reason enough to do it, here’s another one: according to a survey by Fournaise Group, 80% of CEOs don’t trust their CMOs and accuse them of losing sight of the real job, while 91% of them trust their CFOs. The professional background of most CEOs is further evidence of this.

Acknowledging that the challenges faced by marketing are at least as complex as the intricacies of international corporate accounting and much closer to the people who directly influence the business, and that they should be approach with sophisticated, inspired, clever uncommon sense, can go a long way towards regaining that trust.

P.S. Not only was no lemming hurt in the production of this post: they don’t really follow one another into oblivion. Neither should marketers.

(A version of this post was first published in The Business Times (Singapore), 16 July 2014, page 22)

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Crack for nerds (or, the hidden correlations of everything)

I love how sometimes A+B=C, and then all hell breaks loose. Case in point:

A: Google knows everything


B: Google has the talent, tools and will to make sense of that knowledge


C: Google Correlate.

What was born as Google Flu Trends is now a holistic tool that lets people discover all sorts of unexpected correlations.

Have a go at it, maybe starting the intuitive and pleasantly childish “Search by drawing“. But watch out: it’s seriously addictive!

Here is what I discovered while I should have been busy doing something else:

Yet more evidence than Blackberry is dying

I started by drawing a simple curve that would grow steadily from 2005, peak in 2010 and then collapse:

Google Correlate returned the 10 most-correlated search queries. 4 of them are about Blackberry.

The Diaspora that never was

Remember Diaspora, the open-source social network that was born to address the widespread (?) concern over privacy and offer us an alternative to the corporate, intruding, profit-driven Facebook?

Well, this is a curve drawn to peak late in 2011 and then disappear back into oblivion:

And here are the 10 most correlated search results.

It shouldn’t come as a big surprise, but it seems that Facebook won our love back.

Have fun drawing your own curves, while I’ll be busy finding out everything about “sesural genda phool”…

(hat tip:  Joan Arensman)

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Does advertising even work?

(This is the third, much delayed, and last post in a series comparing political and brand communication)

Let’s get to what really matters: does political advertising work? And what can it teach us when it comes to brands?

Last things first: it can teach us a lot. Firstly, it’s a stress test: political campaigns are the most sophisticated form of persuasive communication. Secondly, we have more and better data: very few marketing organizations put as much effort and resources into research as campaigns do; those who do are not as consistent, regularly varying methodology, scope and object of the research depending on quarterly marketing plans; finally, the very few companies with a consistent record of research that allows for historical comparison tend to keep their results confidential. (Data from political campaigns is widely available because it comes partly from academic institutions and partly from organizations that tend to dismantle after one or few political cycles.)

So, back to the original question: does political advertising even work? Or are the billion+ dollars that are going to be spent in a presidential year just a huge waste to keep the networks happy and the pundits employed?


John Sides at George Washington University has summed up decades of scientific research to show what advertising has been proven to do and what it has not, in 6 points. (I dream of the day when Millward Brown will produce something this insightful, concise and solid). Here is what he found out, followed by my considerations on what it means for brands.

1. Campaign ads matter more when the candidates are unfamiliar

Not so surprisingly, we are more influenced by ads when we haven’t had a chance to formulate our own opinion on candidates. As time goes by, one of our many cognitive biases makes us more receptive to information that reinforces our opinion and less to that which would challenge it.

2. Campaign ads matter more when a candidate can outspend the opponent

Again, not such an original finding, but one we should take into account more: no matter how much we like the idea of underdogs defeating established leaders with smart tactics, share of voice still carries a huge weight.

3. Campaign ads can matter, but not for long

Folks in Madison Avenue and DC can recall every detail of an advertising campaign for years, but the truth is that regular people are exposed to an amazing amount of information every day, and even the stickiest ad won’t have a long-lasting effect. According to Sides’s study, “the effects of television advertising appear to last no more than a week”.

4. Negative ads work, except when they don’t

While negative ads are more easily recalled and can generate intense debate, there is no conclusive evidence that they can win votes.

5. Campaign ads don’t really affect turnout

This is easy to understand once we take a healthy distance from the Madison Avenue mindset: something you see on tv today, no matter how brilliant, is unlikely to make you get up and go to a polling station a few days or weeks from now. Direct communication on election day, whether door-to-door or over the phone, is much more effective, and exponentially more so when coming from sone you have a personal relationship with.

6. There is no secret sauce. Really.

Are successful ads about policy or a candidate’s biography? Should they raise fear or hope? Are stats and numbers interesting or boring? Like with so many other things in life, it depends. If there was a silver bullet, both candidates would be firing it at each other, and that would most likely neutralize its effect. But the truth is, there is no shortcut. It’s all about doing the right ad for the right objective at the right time, as defined by our talent and experience, and then hope that it works.


So what about brands?

There are clearly some major differences, the most significant being that brands don’t have the same amount of public exposure as political candidates: you don’t see Nike v Adidas televised debates in college campuses (no matter how fun that’d be…), and there is no army of reporters documenting their every move. Because of this, advertising is comparatively more important in shaping their image. (Although a case could be made for those brands that are often at the center of news stories, such as banks.)

However, John Side’s research does raise some questions worth thinking about:

1. If ads are more effective when brands are mostly unknown, should we really buy into the idea of lightning many fires and only investing in those that gain traction, or will it be too late by then to make the brand what we want it to be?

2.  If the effects of advertising disappears after a week, should we only produce ads that are engineered to deliver a tangible call-to-action to take the relationship further (eg. buy a product, enter into a loyalty program, download a widget) as opposed to mere brand-building?

3. Should we stop pretending that advertising alone can drive people to retail, and start taking the “lead a horse to water” metaphor more literally?

4. Finally, as none of this is particularly controversial, why are we not doing it?

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Complicating market research: why it’s broken, how you can fix it

Now in planner-friendly presentation format.

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Complicating marketing: market research (2/2)

If exploratory research is what you do when you don’t know what to do, confirmatory research is what you do when you think you know what to do. And if the former was broken, the latter is completely shattered in pieces.
Part of this is because the premises of both branches of research are the same, and so are the problems: people don’t know what they want today and tomorrow, are inclined to lie, and to make things worse they’re also unable to assess what they’re willing to do. Eg.: “Who cares about an MP3 player? It’s so wrong! It’s so stupid!” (Macrumors Web Forum, October 2001)

Part of if however has to do with tools: we don’t let them experience the real thing we’re going to talk about, opting instead for a blunt surrogate, whether it’s a product concept or an ad storyboard (or the embarrassment we force upon ourselves when probing the reaction to a website offering only a poorly-designed jpeg); and part has to do with us: we don’t spend enough time figuring out what we really want to understand, and opting instead for a standard set of widely accepted (thus probably insignificant) KPIs.

The bottom line is, we don’t know what we’re asking people that wouldn’t know what to tell us about something that we’re not giving them.

Problems in exploratory research could be addressed via diversification; in the case of confirmatory research, the key is preciseness. Here are some tips:

  1. Refine your audience. Do your homework, and find out exactly who are the key target consumers that will be buying your product at launch. And then refine it further to find out who key influencers are going to be. Any mainstream, “Joe public” target is the hardest to convert, because they’re defined by the lack of any meaningful attribute to leverage on.
  2. Improve your inputs. Forget storyboards if you’re testing an advertising campaign. Forget positioning statements if you’re testing a product. Make them “feel” what your product is going to be like, rather than telling them what it is exactly. Get an actor that feels like your brand to tell them a story, use physical analogies to give them a sense of the experience…
  3. Invisibility still applies. Even more than exploratory research, confirmatory research should be invisible. Don’t ask when you can show; don’t show when you can simulate; don’t simulate when they can experience.
  4. Define project-specific objectives. “Purchase intent” is too vague an objective: investigate what kind of behaviour you need to put in place if you’re to increase sales, and then evalute against that objective. Also, steer away from industry-standard objectives: if you’re selling toilet paper, do you really care about “online buzz”? When was the last time you bought toilet paper because you were “engaged in a conversation” around it? If you’re a luxury brand, increasing your “brand for me” ranking could do more harm than good to your equity.
  5. Regularly re-evaluate your KPIs. Over time every performance indicator becomes insignificant, as actions are going to be designed to address the formal indicator, rather than the substantial goal that it is meant to represent. Make sure that the metrics serve the work, instead of the other way around.
  6. Look into standard deviation. “Lies, damned lies and statistics” applies to a superficial approach to figures: look deeper. An average rating of 7/10 could be a mediocre result if everyone gives you a 7 that is not nearly good enough to stand out from the crowd, or a very promising combination of most people rating you 5 and a a good amount of them rating you 10. Unless you’re Calgonit, you don’t need to be everyone’s best friend: being loved by a fraction of your market is really a more profitable and safer option than being “taken into consideration”by a majority of it.
  7. Don’t ask consumers to fix it. There’s a reason why people spend money to go to the cinema (or at least used to before piracy came along): they recognize that the stories told by Hollywood are better than those they could tell themselves. If you think that superficial thoughts from random consumers can be more effective than what your creative agency came up with, there’s only one thing to do: fire your creative agency!
  8. Be clever! Again, there’s no way around this. If you think that you don’t have the time or skills for a well-designed research, let someone else do it. If you think that your company can’t deal with this level of complexity, it’s time to quit your job and move somewhere else.

Confirmatory research is like a compass: it’s not going to tell you where you should go, nor what road you should take to get there. All it does is telling you if you’re heading in that direction.

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Complicating marketing: market research (1/2)

BBH has recently embarked on a much-needed and much-welcome crusade against what they labeled as Wind Tunnel Marketing, emphasizing how consumer research makes innovation and differentiation less likely to happen.

So, is research bad?

As always, it’s a complicated matter. Let’s distinguish between exploratory research (that will be discussed in this post) and confirmatory research (that will follow in the next one). Let’s define exploratory research as what you do when you don’t know what to do, whether we’re talking about a product launch, an advertising strategy or virtually any business issue. In this case turning to your users sounds like a good idea, but:

  • People don’t know what they will want in the future: as Henry Ford put it, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse”. And you can’t blame them for that: figuring out the future of your industry is your job, you shouldn’t ask them to do it for you.
  • People don’t know what they want today: “Consumers’ ability to discriminate and make consistent preferences is low, and lower that they believe it is” (P. Raghubir, “The sense and nonsense of consumer product testing”)
  • People lie: according to a survey that we run when I was working on a toiletries brand, consumers replaced their toothbrush once a month. If that were true, we could have all retired and moved to Florida. (However, lies themselves can be quite insightful…)

All in all, we’re asking consumers to look at our life and make it easier, while we should be looking at their life and make it better.

Having said this, exploratory research can still be incredibly valid and valuable, and here are some tips to make it work:

  • Diversify your methodology: when a fellow planner from my Publicis days was working on a beer brand, he knew that if he used focus groups he wouldn’t have gotten many actionable insights from a bunch of teens locked into an office and put under scrutiny by an adult moderator. So he opted instead for ethnographic research, going out with them for a few weekends in a row (yes, advertising can be a tough job!) and observing group dynamics first hand. What he got out of it was a promising insight that no competitors had been working on yet, and that led to a campaign that didn’t look like a buddy com or a soft-porn.
  • Diversify your participants: don’t just talk to current users v non-users; talk to former users of your product; to recent adopters; talk to the distributors and the influencers; talk to those who designed it and built it; to the person who came up with the idea for it. There’s a wealth of interesting insights behind a product, and all of them could be inspiring, provided that they can generate a human response.
  • Look for unexpected analogies: people wouldn’t know how they’d react to the change that you’re about to bring in your industry, but they might have experienced something similar in a very different environment. For instance, there are similarities between mobile phones and politics; or between The Economist and a toilet cleaner. (No offense intended for either of them!)
  • Diversify your inputs: It’s hard to be imaginative while questioned by a stranger amidst other strangers, in an estranged environments. Use stories and objects (people think better with their hands) to stimulate the imagination and whenever possible take them out of that brain-annihilating cage that is a focus group room!
  • Probe for more: don’t take the “what” into account, ask the “why”, and then again. And then again. If we asked a car manufacturer what’s good about his car, we wouldn’t be happy with “it’s got four wheels, and it takes you places”. We would keep probing, until something revealing comes out: maybe it’s safer than the last car he was driving with his family, maybe he was determined to make it look un-German… So why do we accept shallow answers when it comes to consumer research? (And yes, we do that more often that not)
  • Don’t care about what people say. Just like jazz, research is about the silences and the notes not played. A certain facial expression, a hesitation or a word not pronounced are more insightful than what people are willing to share.
  • Be invisible. Just like technology, the best research is invisible. Don’t ask, if you can simulate; don’t simulate, if you can make it happen for real.
  • Be clever. You have to be real f%&ing clever to make research work! If you think you don’t understand people, let someone else do it. If you think your research partners are less than world-star brilliant, fire them.

Exploratory research is a bit like jazz and technology, but very much like cars: if you know where you want to go, it can take you there faster and show you landscapes you wouldn’t have seen otherwise. But it can also take you to the middle of nowhere, or even worse get you killed. If you’re not a good driver, you shouldn’t be given the keys.

To be continued with confirmatory research...
Further reading here and here and especially here.
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