The Association for Qualitative Research
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Charting a changing world

Dotti Töllner describes how this year’s Trends Day did, indeed, live up to its billing and ‘Push the Boundaries’

The day featured a broad framework of talks on how our world has changed. William Higham kicked off, making his point about the classical concept of age-related segmentation becoming less relevant. In contrasting the generations of the rebellious baby boomers and professional youth from ‘Generation X’ with today’s ‘old young’ generation of the ‘Millenials’ he argued that rebellion, self expression or social responsibility today are more a question of attitude than of age.

Being a fifty something backpacker is not unusual as backpacking was invented by this same generation in the 1960s. Traditional ideas — such as old equals conservative — seem outdated when the silver surfers are taking over Facebook and 40-somethings are buying more CDs than teenagers. As researchers, this means we may have to question further our thinking about the whole area of segmentation, even entertaining the notion of combining what look like completely disparate groups who may have important shared attitudes and behaviours.

Oliver James’s presentation of his latest book, Affluenza, confronted us with the worrying mental state of the English speaking societies. According to James, there is a significantly higher occurrence of mental illnesses and depression there than in mainland Europe.

Confusing wants for needs

The dominant pattern of social comparison in the Anglo-Saxon world exacerbates this state, as does the confusion of wants for needs and the greater emphasis on extrinsic rather than intrinsic values. This all furthers mental illness and depression. As an industry James asked us to be more active in social criticism. According to him, UK society needs it. What a relief to be German.

Barbara Fraczak-Rudnicka took us on a guided tour of the development of Poland from an almost marketing-free zone with a centrally planned economy to a free-market democracy with a fast emerging brand and advertising culture. Many things sounded familiar from post-Wall Berlin.

Today’s Poles have already become demanding consumers. Overall, the talk was a good reminder of the differences between consumers who grew up in a branded world and those who were inducted to it via a crash course.

Sarah Davis’s provocative piece challenged our attitude towards the virtual world. Taking into account that more than 50 million people a week from almost all age groups are making their way into virtual worlds it is definitely too big to ignore.

She showed us that virtual life should not scare us away. Complex virtual worlds such as Secondlife are an extension of reality rather than a sphere without any connection to it. It is an exciting realm in which to express one’s personality and dishonesty is as much or as little an issue as in the ‘real’ world, where we may meet the same respondent only with different professions in each group.

She challenged us to get involved and to develop more creative and insightful uses for virtual worlds than merely recruiting via Facebook or conducting groups in Secondlife. A good wake-up call.

Nick Southgate outed himself as the (only) planner without a blog. Given that most planners spend more time in the plannersphere than at their desk, could this be called a mission statement? He explained a planner’s love affair with blogging as partly being due to their role leaving little room for ‘personal glory’, since the current product (aka campaign) always involves the whole agency team. A blog, though, becomes their personal ‘product’ and can enhance individual profiles.

Qual: a reality check

Younger planners, those who have grown up with the internet, find bouncing ideas around with their pals online very beneficial. Nick argues, however, that pal-to-pal feedback cannot replace the hard but honest consumer inspection that qual research has to offer to ideas and storyboards. That’s why research needs to be valued for what it is: a reality check and never an idea killing tool.

Dr Miriam Catterall from Queen’s University Management School, Belfast, challenged us researchers with an update on hot topics in academia. She gave a stimulating talk on her work in constrained consumption and provided some food for thought on the subject of customer co-creation. It was quite reassuring to find that the main issues didn’t seem to differ too much from those currently top of mind in commercial research.

Sean Pillot de Chenecey (alias Captain Crikey) offered us his personal mix of hot topics, favourite reads and observations. This included the pros of downsizing from London to Brighton, some anecdotes about today’s boring youth and Paris Hilton singing along to ‘American Idiot’ in front of a camera. Very amusing. If I ever move to Britain I’ll have to check out life in Brighton.

Provocative questions

The rest of the afternoon was dedicated to group discussions around different topics arising from the sessions. Provocative questions concerning the role of research in the age of blogging, the future of Generation X and the development of new co-creation methodologies, etc., were given out to eight tables and discussed. Sharing ideas in the group felt great, even if the feedback from the tables at the end was probably a little brief.

So was it worth spending half a day on the delayed Easyjet air bridge from Berlin? Yes! Overall it was the right mix of good food for mind and body. We met lots of lovely people and were stimulated by some great talks and exchanges of ideas in the interactive sessions as well as over some colourful cocktails later on.


Doerte Toellner
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