Life used to be so slow and easy.
When I was a marketing leader in the 1990s, everything was so easy…and much slower than today. The name of the game was to develop and produce the right piece of advertising. The ‘holy grail’ was to get a Well Above Normal score in copy testing. Then, the focus was to design the best media plan maximising the monthly GRP’s impact. In parallel, a couple of focus groups helped to unlock consumer insights to develop new innovative products. Quantitative research was instrumental in qualifying new concepts and estimating business potential. Add some PR and promotional budget…and we were building great brands! Engraved in stone, brand platforms were meant to last many years. Consumers were quite predictable. We could put them in a box for quite a long time. No digital transformation, no major concern about the future of our planet, no brand purpose. My internal consumer insights partners were leading the relationships with our contractors. We were buying well-rounded off the, shelf market research solutions. Yes, life was much slower and easier than today for brand builders, marketers, and innovators.
In the mid-2000s, when I started leading one of the largest global trend-forecasting consultancies, my insight-driven left brain was seriously challenged. Coming from a very analytical marketing culture, I suddenly realised that consumer insights were not the only source of innovation to imagine the future of a brand. Decrypting sociocultural, fashion, and design trends had become instrumental to understanding consumer emotions and to start building new kinds of experiences with brands and products. What was happening in the fashion arena had become a major source of inspiration for brands willing to go beyond functional benefits. Addressing needs was not enough to build brand preference. Brands really wanted to become Love Brands to create consumer desire. Suddenly, P&G created a global team of hundreds of
200 designers from scratch. Design, colours, materials, look & feel…were no longer semantics used by fashion stylists or electronic product designers. Marketers & innovators had to expand their market research toolbox to decipher not only unmet needs but also unarticulated desires. They had to start working with different talents: sociologists, semioticians, trend forecasters, “prospectivists”, designers, artists…But, even if a technology revolution was just about to change our lives, we were still able to picture what the next 3/5 years could look like.
Over the last ten years, the level of complexity has dramatically increased. After Millennials, GenZ has become a very complicated target to predict and decipher as they are showing many contradictory behaviours and attitudes, willing to save the planet daily (e.g. the second-hand fashion business is estimated to double at $250bn by 2026), but they keep on shopping at their favourite fast fashion retailers (Schein, Primark…). They are moving targets, and so are many other age groups that are now being defined by their lifestyle, their values…and no longer by where they are living, their yearly wage or their level of education.
In parallel, the digital and technological revolution has made social networks a very complex and fast-changing space to analyse. Forums, Google queries, photos, videos, user-generated content, and influencers’ posts have created a brand-new world. Newcomers like Tik Tok have completely disrupted the market in less than two years, seriously challenging Meta (ex FB). New AI / tech-driven solutions have been developed to cope with this huge volume of information (“infobesity”). Looking forward, even if Metaverse triggers many contradictory hopes, it will most likely be the next (r)evolution that will require new skills & new techniques to navigate it.
Brand Leaders, marketers, innovators, product developers, and market researchers have also had to deal with an increase in the pace of business, i.e. a fast-changing environment that requires much more responsive solutions and an agile mindset which can immediately sense new market dynamics and adjust brand building & marketing strategies. If it was still credible to claim that some forward-looking market research could help to set a 5-year vision ten years ago, unexpected events like COVID-19, inflation, and an energy crisis… have completely changed the way we are now dealing with our near future. “Winter is coming” is no longer a scary punch line from a TV series but a true fear in a world with less gas and where health concerns have dramatically become a central preoccupation alongside sustainable development. We are now hitting the wall, and the clock is ticking.
Changes and the market research industry
These dramatic and radical changes have had an impact on the market research industry and on researchers who look to help their clients to navigate the complexity of all new research techniques to understand their… complex consumers. Answers to these changes are no longer to sell one service but a comprehensive portfolio of solutions, to deliver less “key learnings slides” but more actionable guidelines to accelerate the decision-making process, to move from a solution provider to a true consultant stand with strong point of views, intuition and imagination.
Market researchers should, therefore, not be on-demand experts anymore. They must be real marketers and innovators’ partners working closely together every day to decrypt embryonic emerging signs before they become trends, to spot “anomalies” on social networks that could be evidence of major consumer shifts, to track brand equity strategic items to enable swift adjustment decisions, to fast-track innovation by informing the process with forward-looking insights & foresight, to have a deep understanding of a given product category at a time when a small invisible start-up can disrupt a business…All this takes a daily and ongoing effort - a true partnership.