Where does quality come from?

It comes from…

  • ’Expertise’ — client or lay/consumer expertise (possibly latent)
  • Genuine innovation
  • Rigour and substance
  • Hard work and long haul
  • Proactive leadership
  • Past and enduring values

It doesn’t come from…

  • Simply the opinion of ‘people with (inexpert) opinions’
  • Novelty and line extension
  • Superficiality or mere style
  • Only fun and/or a quick fix
  • Being reactive or delivering only what is asked for
  • Just newness

Some recurrent themes emerged from the first three papers at this year’s Trends conference, debated in the pre-lunch workshop led by Mike Imms. It quickly became apparent that ‘quality’ is a slippery subject and that it is a lot easier to say what it is not than what it is, so above is a table that identifies some 'poles' of quality

Delegates were asked to decide what themes had captured their attention. If quality is being redefined — and our speakers certainly endorsed the hypothesis that it is — then the themes we had identified would be key issues for qualitative research to address.

So what did the Trends delegates come up with, and what ideas did they have for us all?

Quality is increasingly subjective

We should be thinking about how quality means different things to different people and different things to one person in different situations, making different choices. If there's no ‘expert, objective definition’ of quality from one category to the next, we should think about how choices are made and what rules and patterns people put in place to make decisions. Could it be that choosing a bank is similar to choosing shoes?

If quality is important to people, how is it important relative to other choice criteria? How does emotion come into it when everything's functionally similar? The open-ended nature of qual means it is, of course, uniquely placed to elicit these choice criteria and we have a huge tool box for exploring emotional issues. But who should we be talking to, and where?

Relevance matters more than difference

As Prof. Woudhuysen proposed, gone are the Porter and Drucker days of differentiation as a foundation to marketing. In its place, competing with similar products with similar levels of functionality, it is relevance that matters. If that's the case, we need to start from a different base and explore brands, concepts and innovations from the point of view of their fit with the lives, ideas and aspirations of the people who choose and use them.

But delegates thought that brands should look inwards at their own values and history as an anchor for relevance — as the Guardian and Observer did — in answering the call for relevance in innovation and not rely simply on the consumer to guide the way. That would mean ‘moderating the client’.

In this slippery world of quality, then, it becomes obvious that context is everything, from the way a product or brand is used, to the historical relationship people have with it, via all contact points in between.

Our industry gives us a unique ear-to-the-ground opportunity to identify early signs of new or changing behaviours and attitudes; as one team said, we have a rare chance to provide 'peripheral insights' from the edge of what's going on in front of us.

The issue of context raises challenges and ideas for us all to build on:

  • Looking at more use of ethnographic and observational techniques to see how people deal with their world and its brands, products and services

  • Listening to the ways in which people express their perceptions of their lifestyles and their choices, whether that means analysis and interpretation of blogs, the meaning of the ways in which people express themselves (e.g. in conversation vs. clothing vs. blogging vs. their credentials as a green consumer vs. their media, and so on)

  • Decoding what quality means in the rounder context of people's lives

Related to the ideas raised around context, we can better understand how people navigate and negotiate this world where there is so much stuff, be that products to buy in shops, shops themselves, media, leisure opportunities or whatever. Where do people turn to know the best ways to find reliable information, ideas and products? If there are no fixed determinants and rules for making good choices and finding 'quality' goods, services and experiences, how can we help clients set new guide rails for their customers?

Leadership is the only way

Finally, we arrive at the crucial issue of leadership; not only should we recognise leadership in our clients — and expect it of them — we should take a leadership role ourselves. The workshop highlighted the role we have to play in challenging clients towards better thinking, more thorough consideration of the ideas put into research. That way we could, as Graham Booth put it "give better answers rather than giving anodyne answers because we're looking at anodyne ideas".

Challenging ideas, careful thought, courage — a quality workshop indeed.