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December 14, 2018

Market research sorts the wood from the trees

I’m a fan of market research. I don’t understand how anyone in a market-driven economy would think of conducting business without it.

I’m also a vocal critic of poorly conducted, templated studies that are sometimes conducted by research companies who are short on cash or ethic. Those outlying businesses that have quasi-professional names, and Powerpoint templates with ‘insert client name here’ in them.

Fortunately in Africa we now have professional research associations that combine the best of global and local. But their standards tend to make their members tariffs quite pricey. And African business still has low tolerance when research costs are discussed – all too often we ditch a project or postpone it. Worse still, we commission research but pressure the provider to screw down his costs. In my experience, screwing down research costs screws up the delivery. And the key things research has to deliver are insights – information that can be acted on to improve customer preference and purchase.

Scrimping on research is not an African problem. Many of the companies who come to do business here are surprisingly lax when considering research in their marketing mix. For a fraction of the amount of money they spend with lawyers and bankers and on hiring sometimes quite spurious local expertise, they could start their business with a research reality check. Will this business idea (that works so brilliantly and evidently addresses a fundamental human need in Belgium) actually press any consumer buttons in Africa?

I’m increasingly involved in advising Foreign Direct Investors, and every project provides new insights. Some of these can prevent a costly and public failure – we’ve seen this in telecoms, and in beer where brand X thinks it is sufficient to say ‘we’re famous and now we’re here’.

Other insights can dramatically improve adoption rates. If you discover that consumers are happy to access your brand via SMS, but website is a step too far, you can deprioritise your investment in digital even though your head office in Baltimore mandates it.

How people react to brand names, indeed how they pronounce them, can be quite unexpected. And consumer tastes change very quickly. Twenty years ago in Africa many brand or business names began with Ken, or Zam, or Tan or Ug.

Ten years ago we had a riot of nomenclature related to mobile telephony. M- this and M- that. More recently we’ve had a lot of e- and i-names (e’s got no idea and neither have i!).

But consumers are already looking for fresh trends in brand names. In a recent project I saw a name that was abstract - but that consumers felt might connote a friendly family-based business -outperform all others. Of course, if you don’t use research you’d never find that out.

How people react to logo colours and designs delivers even more insights. In focus group discussions colours that reflect that category norm (e.g. blue and green for banks) are warmly received at first because they are familiar. But when shown other pallettes, respondents may quickly tell you that they are actually bored with blue and green and that can open a wider conversation about being bored with bank services!

The good news is that our more modern research companies are now finding ways to use technology to make more research more immediate, more relaxed, and more accountable. As I write this I am bouncing my way to the Ngorogoro Crater in Tanzania, to set up a guest research pilot for one of East Africa’s leading safari brands. We need to understand the route to purchase for luxury travellers. When they think of safari, where do they start? Who helps them along the way, and which sources of information do they use? Are they aware of safari brands or simply destinations?

We’re researching people on holiday, so we have to be non-intrusive. Using a phone-based app, and with their permission, our lodge hosts and guides can hold an informal chat with them based on a handful of simple, open questions. When the conversation ends, the host simply taps in some information that helps us to classify the type of guest, and the app transmits the recording back to the research company for transcription and analysis.

So that’s a new, clever way to get essential insights, straight from the zebra’s mouth.

Chris Harrison has 30 years experience of marketing and advertising, most of them spent in Africa. He leads the African operations of The Brand Inside, an international company that helps organisations to deliver their brands and strategies through their people.

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