So sang the Rolling Stones (and in their 70s, maybe it’s not any more – after all, who doesn’t think Keith Richards died years ago?). If we are to identify trends in marketing research from social media, then doing research “faster” has overtaken “better” and “cheaper” as an indicator of quality. I’m wondering whether we don’t place too much emphasis on the speed of a project. As the Roman historian Livy was fond of saying, “All things will be clear and distinct to the man who does not hurry; haste is blind and improvident.”
So let’s look at why marketing research needs to be done quickly and whether speed is really needed – here’s my laundry list:
- Senior executives want an answer quickly.
- Retailers have a deadline you’re trying to meet.
- Your business is not performing like you expected it to perform.
- You need to preempt a competitive action.
- There is a catastrophe with your product – think the Tylenol scare of 1982 (for those of you of a certain age), salmonella and e coli alerts, or the key ingredient you use in your product has been linked to cancer.
The last entry is fairly obvious as to why research is needed and needed quickly. You need to understand how widespread the awareness of the problem is and how damaging it might be to your business. Speed is of the essence – you need a reaction to the problem and you probably have a range of options that need to be evaluated very quickly. At Burke, where I had just started, it was all hands on deck for Tylenol’s problem and we were able to determine which options would have an immediate positive impact (safety seals, which were very uncommon in those days).
Despite our advances in competitive intelligence, we mostly find out what’s about to happen with the competition when they announce it. For CPG products, that usually means their sales force has given retailers a sell sheet, whether it be for a new product, a price increase, revised packaging, and so forth. This gives you about a 6-8 week time frame in which to react, meaning you only have a few weeks to decide what your reaction will be. We’ve done a number of virtual reality studies where we simulate the competitive action and tested a number of options for blunting that action. Still, it’s a 3-4 week process to decide the range of reactions, run the study, analyze the data, and choose a winner. Yet, assuming you have come up with a winner, it’s enough time to minimize your exposure.
Now we come to the less compelling reasons to do research quickly. You’ve taken a marketing action and it’s not performing as you’d like. Perhaps an ad campaign isn’t increasing sales or your new package isn’t flying off the shelf – worse, perhaps sales are declining. First, if you had done good research to start with, you should know what to expect – it’s rare that we see the opposite of what we expect happen. Second, it takes some time to damage your franchise; if you’ve spent 3-4 months hurting it, you’re unlikely to turn it around in a week. And it’s unlikely you’ll know that you’ve hurt the franchise in less than a few months for most products. Third, it’s unlikely that we would do something so stupid as to kill a franchise that quickly, although I guess it’s possible.
Most large retailers have their annual category reviews scheduled in advance – often the same calendar is used year in and year out. Knowing that you want to propose a change to the category, it’s not hard to work backwards and schedule your research accordingly. Yes, surprises happen. We’re doing a study right now where our client just found out about a major change the retailer is planning and they have two months to prepare. While this probably happens more than we’d like, mostly things happen on a schedule, and lack of preparation on marketing’s part should not create an emergency on research’s part.
Finally, we come to executives wanting a fast answer. I’ve written often that I don’t think marketers and senior executives are nearly as stupid, myopic, and attention-disordered as we researchers often portray them to be. I also think they don’t actually need the research as fast as they often say they do. Sometimes a deadline is arbitrarily set just to keep a project moving; that usually means there’s some flexibility to that time line. Sometimes a deadline is created without considering the length of time a research project may take. And yes, sometimes a deadline that is too tight to do things well is set because someone wants to appear on-the-ball to management.
Nothing turns on a dime in most of our businesses, and any decision that’s going to be made takes time to execute. While I’m not advocating for research that takes months to conduct, the need to have answers quickly is often over-played in our industry. Let’s listen to Livy and not be blind and improvident.