This is why I find research frustrating.

I might as well just state my case upfront.  I find most of the marketing research I’m exposed to massively frustrating.  It’s not because I don’t value research or that I see it as a handbrake on the creative process. My issue is that in most cases what I see is research that tries too hard to deliver significant insight.

The logic is simple.  As a marketer you undertake research with the goal of uncovering something substantial – something that delivers competitive advantage and value. No researcher wants to complete a research project and report that they didn’t uncover anything particularly interesting.  So no researcher ever does.

Those commissioning the research are looking for ‘insight’. But what if the research doesn’t yield an insight? The simple solution is to find a mildly interesting learning from the research and draw a grand conclusion from it. Which is why the majority of research ‘insights’ are nothing more than churched-up observations.

Which is what got me interested in a story headlined – “No comfort in comfort foods during tough economic times”.

On the surface it looks interesting, but closer investigation suggests that the sweeping, generalised conclusions being reported bear very little resemblance to the substance of the research.

This research supposedly demonstrates that, contrary to popular belief, during times of upheaval we don’t gravitate to the old and familiar, but instead show increased propensity to experiment and try new things.  I thought this was interesting. It certainly runs counter to my own experience.

It was referred to as the ‘comfort food fallacy’ effect. I imagined the research might highlight that during a period of significant personal upheaval (such as a goodly proportion of the western world is currently experiencing) we might find ourselves dismissing Macaroni Cheese like mother used to make in favour of, say, Black Cod with Fennel Chowder and Smoked Oyster Panzanella.

As a marketer I would find that interesting. More importantly, I would find that useful, the kind of insight that might guide my decision making and lead me down a path of new product development and marketing focus.

But that’s not what the research revealed at all. What the research actually tested was this:

‘In a prediction study, participants were told about a person who was described either as being in a very stable life situation or in the midst of many changes. Participants were then asked to predict whether this person would choose either a highly familiar or unfamiliar version of a similar snack (a very popular and well-liked American potato chip in familiar flavors or an unknown British potato “crisp” in exotic flavors like Camembert and Plum). Participants predicted that the stable person would choose the exotic unfamiliar crisp and the person in a state of change would choose the familiar chip. They explained their predictions by saying that the stable person would have more time and energy to try new things and the person experiencing change would be more interested in choosing a known or “sure thing” option. However, in a separate choice study, participants were asked to rate the level of change and upheaval in their own lives and then, in a later task, given the opportunity to choose either the familiar American chip or the unfamiliar British crisp. Opposite to the predictions, participants who were experiencing more change were less likely to choose the old familiar favorite and more likely to choose the new and unfamiliar option.’

The important point seems to be that they’re still eating chips.  To choose a camembert-flavoured chip over a potato chip does not suggest to me an overwhelming interest in experimentation and trying new things.  It certainly doesn’t suggest anything like a move away from comfort food or the extrapolated conclusion that during these challenging times there exists an unexpected societal embrace of significant behavioural change.  It doesn’t make a fallacy of the belief that people like comfort food in uncomfortable times.  These people are still eating chips and chips are still comfort food whether plain, plum or placenta flavoured.

(As a sideline, I was also amused that participants explained their prediction that the stable person would choose the exotic and unfamiliar crisp by noting that ‘the stable person would have more time and energy to try new things’.  Now, chips may be many things (tasty, moreish and devilishly bad for you being three) but they’re not really time-consuming or physically draining, are they?  I have never turned down an opportunity to sample a new chip on the basis that I simply couldn’t find a window in my diary or summon the physical reserves to attack a handful.)

The research went on.

“Wood’s study went beyond comfort foods and looked at “familiar anything.” When individuals in her study were in more upheaval, they were more likely to download an unfamiliar song or jog in a new park”.

They’re not exactly dramatic changes in behaviour, are they? Not really significant leaps into the unfamiliar. The same people are still listening to music and they’re still jogging.  The upheaval in their lives hasn’t caused them to swap their interest in music for weekend fox-hunting, or exchange their regular jog for evening crunk classes.

Again, my problem isn’t actually with the research.  It’s with the headlines used to summarise the research, the insight supposedly uncovered, and the conclusion therefore drawn.

“No comfort in comfort foods during tough economic times, study finds”

“Common connection between comfort food and crisis debunked”

“Comfort foods are not too comforting in poor economy”

Those conclusions are massive, completely unrealistic leaps from the evidence at hand. “Common connection between comfort food and crisis debunked” is the headline, but it’s not the reality.  They were still eating chips. Nothing was debunked.

My frustration is that you can just see how this unfolds.  Somewhere a marketing director is briefing her team. The product development team are being told to develop a product that reflects the average person’s desire to be much more experimental in times of hardship or stress (which was, of course, the insight from the research).  Then a brand manager will be told to develop a launch programme for this product, remembering that the research told us to focus on the fact that people don’t want comfort food during difficult times, but instead want to experiment.  Then an agency will get a brief to develop a campaign focused on the proven desire of people to embrace new things as a direct reaction to challenging times.

All of which is a massive leap from what the research actually highlighted, doomed to failure, likely to cost the business a lot of money, will probably get the agency fired, and all, absurdly, the direct result of someone choosing a camembert flavoured chip when in the presence of a researcher searching desperately for an insight.

And that’s why I find research frustrating.

This is why I find research frustrating.

One thought on “This is why I find research frustrating.

  1. I recently left my job as a qualitative researcher at one of the sector’s leading agencies. There were numerous reasons but a significant one was complete boredom with everything you describe.

    During my time there I consistently experienced something that I believe is called imposter syndrome, a sensation of not knowing what you are doing. I’m certain that this was not a consequence of ability but actually the capacity of colleagues to invent findings that lacked a logic path for me to follow. I argued many times for alternative perspectives or clear explanations of reasoning but few came that were fathomable.

    My particular organisation prided itself on the fact that something of the magic happened when the research data were thrown into the mixing bowl but too often the soufflé produced was so without structure that a carefully designed blow would have sent things crashing down. Believing in this dark art is simply not good enough, research needs to be accountable and reasonable.

    It brings me to what I believe are the pressures that research must contend with in the future. I won’t go into them all now but key to this discussion is the increasing research literacy of clients. Research agencies can no longer recommend a methodology of a handful of discussion groups then lazily run through them arguing their value followed by a secretive analysis process in which grains of evidence are built into great columns of argument. Quite often the justification for groups is that we need to see people face to face to assess their body language. If groups are so dependent on highly skilled interpretation then it is psychologists that should be conducting them, not anyone else. Besides, they yield only the broadest of checks or explorations into any subject (but that’s another comment with much already written).

    In summary, I absolutely agree that the role of research should not be overstated, researchers need to have confidence in what they have found and buyers need to pin less hope on what they might find, let’s all take a truth pill and start helping each other out.

    For some statistical myth debunking check out the more or less podcast from the BBC, you can get it direct through itunes or the BBC website

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