The Association for Qualitative Research
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New Thinking Myths

The industry’s thirst for new thinking seems unquenchable, driven by its perceived ability to deliver business success. Caroline Whitehill sets out to debunk some of the myths in this area

A quick trawl of industry publications underlines the industry’s obsession with new thinking. It reveals phrases and headlines like ‘new market research’, ‘why is it when we know so much, that so many innovations fail?’, ‘how a new approach to research found key consumer insights for one of Australia’s largest food manufacturers’, and ‘a group of marketers have recently helped to develop a technique called memory morphing’. These give a sense of the industry’s urgency for change and improvement.

Behind all of this, of course, is increasing pressure on businesses for growth. Companies are demanding double-digit returns year-on-year in a commoditised world in which industries are converging and diverging, and people’s behaviours are changing.

In the world of marketing, this manifests itself in the challenge to differentiate, to innovate, and to reposition or rebrand. David Smith even asked in Research Magazine this autumn whether we were ‘A fantastic industry in search of a relaunch’? Businesses, marketers and researchers alike are all looking for the magic key that will unlock the door to renewed business success.

Myth 1: New thinking is new thinking

What marketers and researchers think of in today’s world as ‘new thinking’ is not, in fact, new thinking at all. Any successful entrepreneur will tell you that one of the secrets of his success is a customer focus. So, why do we insist that a customer focus is something that is unique to ‘research’ or something new?

A sector that is rooted in intuition, instinct and human understanding has been turned into an industry that has forgotten how to use these things. Perhaps ‘new thinking’ requires us to revert back to the ‘old thinking’ of successful entrepreneurs?

Myth 2: New thinking from new methodology

Qualitative research’s development can be traced back through the course of the 20th century and is well documented . It’s rooted in the human disciplines, particularly in anthropology.

Over the last century, sociologists, researchers and psychologists have shaped the thinking of today: the belief that the researcher’s role is one of an observer who would ‘present’ the story of the human as an example of objective truth; the importance of interpretation rather than pure presentation of facts, and the study of culture and trends, the fact that there is no single source of truth ‘out there’.

All of this thinking is very much present in the world of research today. It demonstrates that methodologies that might be newer to us, such as ethnography or a bricolage approach, are actually not new at all.

‘Qualitative research is defined by methodology, which today is synonymous with the depth interview and group discussion’ (1). Is new thinking a new methodology? Perhaps the problem of ‘new thinking’ lies in our obsession with methodology rather than the thinking itself and how it is ultimately used?

Myth 3: Insight comes ready packaged

Insight cannot be bought off the shelf. It has been defined as ‘seeing the same thing as everybody else but thinking something different’. This gets to the heart of what we need to do - rather than focusing on methodologies, we should consider exploring ways of thinking that can help us to think ‘something different’.

The following provides some ways of thinking creatively that can help:

  • How does the brand on the inside connect with the brand on the outside? Companies position brands and consumers interpret them. But the brand promise from the marketer is not always what is ‘received’ by the consumer. As researchers, we’re focused on the consumer (Customer Research, Consumer Insight, etc.), but we shouldn’t overlook what goes on inside the organisation.

An analysis of the gaps between brand promise and brand delivery can reveal valuable learning that has clear applicability. For example, the key stakeholders in a bank might say that their strength is their number of customers or retail outlets. From the outside, the customer only experiences the downside of this - the bureaucracy, the call centres and the fragmented communications. By recognising this, there are clear steps that a bank can take to start to become more customer-focused.

  • Revealing, not imposing, a brand’s positioning In today’s environment, brands like Consignia and Accenture have shown that a company or brand can’t re-express itself at will. A new positioning cannot be imposed after years of acting in a certain way. It must be authentic to the way the company thinks and how it acts far beyond the marketing department. Customer understanding can only gauge how the customer experiences the brand and ensure that a positioning is relevant but the positioning itself must come from the inside.

  • How do cultural currents affect attitude and behaviour? All of the most influential marketing taps into the cultural currents of the times. Coca-Cola’s ‘I’d like to teach the world to sing’ ad is a perfect example. Its cry for unity during the Vietnam War is still remembered almost 20 years later. Comparing the emerging cultural themes with the brand (from the inside and outside) will highlight discrepancies and opportunities.

To build on the bank example, the current cultural context is one of mistrust and let down with war, company scandals and political instability. The emerging trends are the 24hr lifestyle and the need for simplicity, honesty and integrity. The Internet banks have tapped into this with great success.

  • Finding a common language to express meaning Despite the many hours spent developing brand essences or positionings, they are often misinterpreted or misused beyond the team that developed them. Developing ways to communicate research findings and recommendations in an engaging way is as important as the findings themselves.

‘A brand is a metaphorical story that connects with something very deep - a fundamental human appreciation of mythology - companies that manifest this sensibility invoke something very powerful’ (2). Jon Howard-Spink’s 12 Archetype model has been developed on this belief. The use of story telling and characters from popular mythology to express a brand’s personality - for example, Virgin as Robin Hood - is a way of ensuring a common language both between consumers and marketers and across disciplines and geographies.

So, let’s not be too quick to jump on ‘new thinking’ at the expense of old, but focus our efforts on creative thinking that will lead to ‘new results’ rather than ‘old results’.

 

Caroline Hayter
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