Sometimes the best career move is a total change. That’s why, after five years working in predominantly quantitative research at Millward Brown, I moved westwards — from Warwick to Cardiff — to take up the newly created role of category manager within the Serious Food Company.

I was excited about working client side, but also about the opportunities to develop my role. At Serious Food I’m category manager for juices and smoothies, chilled soups and ready meals, and also desserts, which makes for a busy, varied and interesting life at work.

My role basically entails supporting the sales, marketing and new product development teams, by finding market gaps and opportunities, which I do using both sales data and bespoke market research.

Heart of category management

The basis of category management is obviously to understand the category, consumer and shopper. That’s why I have instigated numerous research projects, both quantitative and qualitative, but predominantly qual given the exploratory nature of identifying market gaps and consumer/shopper understanding.

We’ve done varied studies from specifics such as evaluating current packaging with a view to a redesign, to wider scale studies such as consumers’ understanding of the juice and smoothie category and how they shop it. I apply this thinking across our own brands and also those retailer own brands we produce. I like the challenge and variety of having two different view points — either our own brands, or that of working hand in hand with the retailer on their brands.

Serious Food was the first company to freshly squeeze orange juice, and to make both fruit and dairy smoothies. As a company, though, this doesn’t mean we think we know everything about the category, hence the exploratory work we undertook from the start.

We wanted to understand consumer need states before we decided on our next direction. I’d say we conduct a mixture of this type of research, and also research more finished ideas.

Simple is best

We always say that the simplest ideas are the best, so this may be an idea born out of research, or it may be a gap we identify from market data, and then create a product concept for, which we can then put in front of consumers.

The Serious Food Company brand was researched in depth — in terms of what it should stand for and what it should look like. We recognised a gap in the market for a high quality but grown-up brand of juices and smoothies, and have launched successfully in independents and London-based retailers.

Our desserts, launched in 2006, were based on one of the key trends in food and drink: indulgence. The concept tested well, but the whole idea required something of a leap of faith in that — with our price point — we really pushed the boundaries of the current desserts market at the time. Our desserts are now worth around £1m and have contributed 20% to the overall growth in this one category.

When it comes to research, and choosing an agency, cost is obviously an issue — there’s no getting away from budgets. However, it’s fair to say that there’s almost a standard industry cost for something like groups, so I tend to look for hidden costs. For example, I disregard agencies if they insist on adding a large additional sum for their travel and subsistence expenses. Who do they think they’re kidding? We all know the cost of a semi-decent hotel and dinner.

I like agencies that put real effort into their proposals, rather than regurgitating your brief back at you. This doesn’t just mean pretty looking proposals, this means proposals which show real understanding of your market, or your issues, or propose an innovative way of getting to the answers, or perhaps just have a suggested discussion guide in there.

Changing habits

Having just completed AQR’s Moderating Course, I will be looking at this much more closely in future. I know I’ve forced some terribly convoluted discussion guides on agencies in the past and they haven’t even quibbled. I’d be looking for them to rewrite it themselves and still manage to get all the issues covered.

I think as far as qual goes, you’re very much buying the person themselves, and trust is important. You’re buying their moderating and reporting skills. I don’t just want the researcher to be a good moderator; I also have to be able to envisage them presenting the results well to my internal clients.

It’s my role to make sure that the research we conduct addresses the issues we’re interested in, in the best way, and that these results then get actioned within the business. Occasionally this can be one of the most challenging things — convincing colleagues we need the research is already easier than when I arrived.

I also work really hard with the agencies to ensure that there is no room for doubt in any of the results. That way, I have a really strong case to argue internally, either for or against an idea. This is where my experience of presenting to ad agencies and criticising their ads comes in extremely handy — tact and diplomacy.

The future could hold anything for our brand. We’re looking for that next phase of development right now — and we’re open minded as to what that could be. I’ll continue to work with marketing, sales and NPD to develop each of the categories, which unfortunately means tasting juices, ready meals, soups and desserts. It’s a hard life, but someone’s got to do it.