Mission critical, not optional

“Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted,” say the textbooks, paraphrasing an ancient oriental strategist. As a former reconnaissance solder, I have some issues with this. I spent 15 years looking for the Russians… and they never came.
Chris Harrison
Chris Harrison

“Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted,” say the textbooks, paraphrasing an ancient oriental strategist. As a former reconnaissance solder, I have some issues with this. I spent 15 years looking for the Russians… and they never came.

Nonetheless, the thought that any commercial decision can be taken ‘based on the numbers’, or ‘what the sales force tell us’ or ‘ what my investment club thinks’ does ring alarm bells. For the simple reason that it completely ignores the role of the consumer in business success. And, as we know, businesses that ignore the consumer do not build lasting brands.

As I travel around Africa, it seems to me that business is making less, not more use of market research as we move forwards into the 21st Century. Indeed businesses are entering new markets or new categories with the insouciance of the Lagos taxi driver – who launches his passengers into the traffic stream, and then looks over his shoulder at the trumpet of protesting horns.

I can think of two or three reasons for this bad habit. Firstly, successive recessions in Africa have pushed marketing investment down, and market research seems strangely difficult to justify to a hatchet man from headquarters. This is ironic when research is used to justify so much else in life.

Secondly, among faster growing businesses in Africa there is an emerging arrogance towards opinions that do not coincide with those of the big boss. And there are some very big bosses now (especially in Banking, Airlines and Telecoms), whose personal brands often dwarf those of their companies. Now, no big boss is going to want to be told that, are they? But for the good of shareholders, perhaps they should be.

Thirdly, and despite the fact that I have good and learned friends in market research, I really don’t think that the industry has helped itself.

Firstly, value-for-money perceptions have been damaged by the oft-justified suspicion that some research companies just do not do the legwork, and instead pocket fat cheques for ghost fieldworkers.

Secondly, market researchers seem to equate volume with value, and consequently produce huge reports that are endlessly discursive, and PowerPoint presentations, which make decrypting the Enigma code, seem like a cinch.

I think they picked up this habit from the NGO sector, which loves a debate … and indeed anything that will prolong a project until the next funding round. But in a commercial world, where management attention span now competes unfavourably with that of the goldfish, this seems like a poor strategy.

And, linked to this, is the unwillingness or inability of weak market researchers to offer properly justified actionable recommendations.

 For example, I have sat in countless presentations where researchers have recommended lowering brand price, because consumers seek greater affordability. This is arrant nonsense. The whole point of having a brand is so you can control and defend its price point.

As Henry Ford famously said: “ If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

But let’s return to the positive. Good market research can intimate likely consumer behaviour. It can test brand positionings, expressed as statements and concept boards. Personally I think there is little point in pre-testing advertising ideas per se. If you have the positioning right, you have to trust to the expertise of the Ad Agency to dramatise that effectively, and then measure consumer reaction after the campaign has run. And most importantly of all, it can measure performance objectively- and that is in the interest of the shareholders.

For example, today I leaned from the latest TGI study, provided to me by Consumer Insights, that in the 3rd quarter of this year Zain’s share of mobile users continues to decline (to 9%), Safaricom’s to grow (to 69 per cent), and that for the first time we have signs of a new contender in Orange (4 per cent). That’s a useful nugget of knowledge, isn’t it?

Let me end with news of the best Market Research project of all time, announced on global news channels last week.

The Kenya Government is tendering for a Research Company to measure the number of gay people in the country. Now, as homosexuality is a criminal offence, carrying a sentence of up to 18 years, I have a feeling that respondents will be …recalcitrant.

So, anyone of an entrepreneurial frame of mind should tender for this project immediately – secure in the knowledge that no expectation of results means no requirement to provide a real service.

Wake me up when we reach Utopia.

Chris Harrison is Chairman, Young & Rubicam Brands Africa


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