Do you believe that what you do reflects ‘reality’? Do you feel that the research you conduct is a fair representation of things in the ‘real’ world?

I don’t. And it doesn’t worry me one little bit.

Is this is an irresponsible position to adopt? How does it help an industry that is striving to achieve the credibility that can get it ‘into the boardroom’ and have John Humphrys take it seriously over breakfast? Surely it’s madness to be saying: “reality doesn’t matter”.

First of all, let me define my terms. I’m not referring to exploratory studies, where going into the ‘real world’ environment can be helpful or even essential. I am thinking about development research, where the call to make qualitative research ‘closer to reality’ is becoming increasingly common.

There seem to be two main ways in which people want to see more ‘reality’ in development research. They either want to have stimulus material more highly finished so that it ‘better represents what the finished XYZ would be like in reality’, or to place the material ‘in a realistic context’, so that the consumer can encounter and appraise it in a way that is ‘closer to reality’.

In most cases, this desire is misguided. Let’s take the use of highly finished stimulus material. Finished executions always move on considerably from the creative ideas put into research, meaning that stimulus material can never represent reality, unless it is the finished product. Furthermore, researching more finished material runs the risk of giving erroneous results.

Misleading impressions

The more ‘finished’ the stimulus looks, the more consumers take it as finished material, responding to the executional elements rather than the idea. Key frames for TV ideas are usually terrible and animatics still worse, the introduction of movement furthering the misleading impression of ‘reality’. This is why, in cases where it is appropriate to the idea, my company avoids using key frames for TV advertising development and instead uses scripts or narratives.

Contrary to the gathering orthodoxy, our experience is that most consumers are adept at imagining scenarios from vividly written descriptions, and this helps creative ideas ‘live’ in research.

The best approach is to accept that stimulus material cannot represent reality and concentrate on trying to represent the idea clearly, rather than the ‘reality’ of its finished expression. After all, in development research we are not exploring the finished thing — we are researching the idea.

What about the desire to put stimulus material ‘in a real context’? I am sure that all researchers can give innumerable examples or this, but take the suggestion that pack concepts be researched in mocked up displays. Why do this? Is it to assess stand out?

Quite apart from the fact that you can’t assess impact qualitatively, such an approach takes no account of how the consumer browses the fixture in situ, which can have a major impact on response. Added to this, and just as important, the pack will never be displayed in this way in the real world anyway, so why try to pretend that it will?

Pub ‘reality’

In the past we have been asked to research beer advertising concepts in a pub because “it will get respondents in the right frame of mind”. Perhaps this would be fair enough if they only saw TV or print advertising when in the pub, but since when has this been the case?

Not only is the pursuit of ‘reality’ in development research largely a pointless endeavour, it can be positively harmful. Where it is done, it leads to an erroneous sense that the results are a better reflection of reality, which encourages people to treat the results as more reliable and definitive.

What is driving this call for more ‘reality’ in development research? I believe that it stems from a desire to make qualitative research more predictive. Let’s be clear about this: qualitative research is fundamentally non-predictive, and any attempt to construct it in a way that suggests it might be needs to be resisted.

So, if reality doesn’t matter, what on earth are we doing in qualitative development research?

Qualitative development research exists to help us think. The purpose is to experience the people who make choices within the relevant market processing brand and communication ideas within their own frames of reference.

This touches on the point where I think ‘reality’ is vital, and that’s in recruitment. Our respondents must genuinely be the right people, because the whole point is to get the perspective of people who live in the market rather than speculate about it.

Body language

What people tell us (verbally, through body language or through enabling techniques) helps us think about how the ideas might be working and to develop hypotheses that we can ‘test’ further. In this way, it helps us work out how the ideas function.

The brand team can see things they hadn’t before, recognise new opportunities, reappraise their instincts or understand why they felt something intuitively, thus enabling them to work with it more effectively. The team can then enhance ideas, take them in new directions, retrace their steps to find new departure points and, most importantly, find ways to make ideas better.

Of course, this thinking has to be applied in the real world. But the understanding of the real world will typically be derived from other sources. Research is one source, but typically research specifically designed to understand consumer behaviour ‘in reality’, for example: factors influencing brand choice at POP, ways in which TV is consumed in home.

Clients should be using this knowledge, plus their own experience of how consumers operate in their markets and their broader business understanding, as a context within which to think about what’s coming out of the development research.

Picture fragment

Our research can only provide clues as to the possible answer, which can only be arrived at by consideration of many other pieces of information — it’s one piece of a jigsaw, not the whole picture.

So, if you are involved in carrying out qualitative research to help clients develop new ideas for brands and communication, I would urge you to challenge the call for something ‘closer to reality’. Point out the fallacies and dangers of attempting to build more ‘reality’ into the process.

Defend the intellectual integrity of what you do and the commercial value of ideas and thought - which, incidentally, are becoming increasingly important as drivers of competitive advantage in the modern economy.

Be humble, too, in acknowledging the fact that ours is only one part of the jigsaw that the brand team has to assemble. You might find some clients don’t like to hear it but, ultimately, you may be surprised to find how such an approach builds your value and earns respect.