A timeless masterclass
The qualitative industry owes a great debt to Stephen King a debt that is both intellectual and financial. You can think of this book (A Master Class in Brand Planning The Timeless Works of Stephen King) as a bank statement which gives you a massive credit balance. But unlike a bank statement it is hugely readable and inspiring.
The 1970s saw a tectonic shift in the way brand owners thought about their brand assets largely down to the thinking and ideas of a handful of people and Stephen King was arguably the most important. The impact on the UK qualitative industry was equally dramatic. As I wrote in a 1999 MRS Conference paper on the history of qualitative research in the UK:
<i>Perhaps the most significant influence on demand for qualitative market research in the late '70s was the emergence of Account Planning in UK ad agencies.
Major developments in qualitative research came about in the early 1980s as a result of.. Changing views of marketing clients and especially requirements of Account Planners who wished to achieve a more sophisticated understanding of consumers' relationships with brands. </i>
So if you've got a job in qual looking at brands today then you should give thanks to Stephen King every time you get a pay slip.
This book brings together 20 of his most influential papers written between 1967 and 1985, but in two vital respects it is very much a book for 2008. Firstly, King's ideas are bang up to date. I set myself the task of writing this review without using the word Oprescient' to describe his thinking but you can't because that's exactly what his ideas were. Secondly, the editors (Judie Lannon and Merry Baskin) have persuaded some of the greatest and good-est of today's great and good to re-review each of King's pieces and describe their relevance to today's brand environment.
While all 20 papers are worth reading, I have picked two from the first two sections (ostensibly about the discipline of Account Planning) as having special relevance for AQR members. They both give a clear sense of vision and purpose for anyone whose work involves helping clients manage and develop brands.
<li>What is a brand?
Introduction by Rita Clifton, Interbrand
A very clear, well argued description of what brands are; how both organisations and consumers benefit from brands; what makes brands successful plus a pithy Obrief' to researchers about their role and contribution to sharper brand development.
<li>Improving Advertising Decisions
Introduction by William Eccleshare, BBDO
Based on an MRS seminar paper, this includes King's famous framework describing marketing planning and the roles for research at each stage of the planning cycle. He was talking specifically about advertising planning cycles but the principles and model apply equally well to almost any business, marketing or product planning cycle.
Three seminal papers
More specifically for those whose research projects involve any aspect of testing and developing advertising, there are three seminal papers to read before ever picking up a concept board or animatic.
<li>What can pre-testing do?
Introduction by Paul Feldwick
<li>Practical Progress from a Theory of Advertising
Introduction by Simon Clemmow
<li>Can research evaluate the creative content of advertising?
Introduction by Mike Hall
If I had to highlight papers from Part III, two that can change the way qualitative researchers think about their work and the contribution they can make to clients business are:
<li>Applying research to decision-making
Introduction by Kevin Maclean
Introduction by David Smith
Almost all of the issues still hotly debated by researchers today are addressed in these papers in spookily relevant and lucid ways. Finally Part IV is an accessible crammer for brands in a broader and changing business context covering such diverse but relevant factors as the rise of the corporate brand, brands in non-fmcg organisations and brands in an era of powerful retailers.
An easy read
Reading the book is terribly easy as well as informative. Stephen King was a model of brevity and clarity he consistently pulls off the trick of having wise, imaginative and intelligent ideas while also writing entertainingly and memorably. Quite apart from anything else, in this respect King's writings act as a role model for qualitative researchers preparing debriefs and reports, on just how to convey intellectually rigorous and often complex thoughts in accessible, engaging, clear and concise ways.
So is this book perfect? Well, not quite. The fmcg foundations of the thinking are quite overt in a context where classic fmcg brands marketing is not the dominant driver of demand for qual today. And King is a disciple and advocate of theory and rigour (combined with creativity of thought) but I have a nagging sense that some clients and practitioners today place more value on novelty, quirkiness and drama. Much as I may tut-tut at this, if that's what clients want, then that's what the market is right to offer.
Last but not least, the editors have accomplished three Herculean tasks in bringing this book to us. Firstly, physically finding the original papers (from a pre-computer age), secondly, getting clearance for their use from a variety of copyright holders (always a nightmare) and finally, organising the line-up of the contributors (like herding cats). It puts us in their debt too.
This is probably the best £20 you'll spend in 2008.
This article was first published in InBrief magazine, March 2008
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2008