The Association for Qualitative Research
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Virtual washing line chats

The onset of parenthood shakes partners up physically, financially and mentally. Vicki Kateley describes why research is important at this stage

There can be few events or experiences in life when ­ no matter how much you aspire to them, do your research, and focus on achieving them ­ the reality hits you only as you are actually "in the moment". One, I imagine, is freefalling. Another, becoming a parent, is perhaps not dissimilar.

Bounty commissioned research that involved conducting lifestyle immersions among our parenting club members to reveal how this exciting lifestage can literally turn your world upside down.

Extended in-home interviews over a ten-day period exposed us to every aspect of family life. In addition, respondents recorded video diaries and we maintained ongoing touch points throughout, either face-to-face or by phone or email. Crucially we also met friends and family who were only too ready to clarify what was really going on in order to iron out any claimed or perceived behaviour.

Rollercoaster ride

Pregnancy and early motherhood is a rollercoaster ride of hormones and emotions. No matter how planned your pregnancy, having a baby makes you feel out of control: you have to get to know the new person in your life who can't move and can't talk and yet who dominates your every waking hour (and, of course, there are many such hours).

But what you can never anticipate is how you will also have to reacquaint yourself with so many other things; your own body, your partner, your attitudes towards your career, your relationships with friends, how you feel about the places you go, and the products you interact with.

Why does all this matter for market researchers or media planners and buyers who may not even have any nappies, wipes, or baby food brands as clients? It matters more than you might imagine.

Hormonal changes in pregnancy and early motherhood provoke a change in a woman's long-established brand repertoires including haircare, skincare, and clothing. Parents invest in their home before their family grows, cleaning and decorating, but now become mindful of the strength and toxicity of the products they are using. The automotive sector is another that benefits hugely as growing families need more space to travel with all their associated paraphernalia.

Of course, you do also need a certain amount of information about nappies and wipes too, especially as a first-time mum. Critically, all these decisions and purchases have to be made in a radically changed financial context, when families may drop to one income, and yet are embarking upon the spending spree of a lifetime.

We therefore find this female consumer at one of the most information and support-hungry times in her life, while coping simultaneously with a life that has changed beyond all recognition and facing tremendous physical and emotional distraction.

Given such a range of new and changing needs, she is more susceptible than she may have been for a long time to brand messaging and switching. The challenge for brands, however, is to offer the right product at the right time, through the right channel and with the right message in order to cut through the noise and earn their place in her new on-going repertoire.

In making all these new and evolving decisions, a mother becomes a media control freak. Cash strapped and time poor, she reads fewer magazines and newspapers and her TV viewing habits also change for the long-term. For the "digital native" mum, however, who has grown up with the internet most if not all of her life, online accounts for a proportionally larger share of her total media consumption. Fundamentally, at a time of heightened sensitivity and vulnerability, the internet also offers her invaluable anonymity.

The internet is well and truly woven into the fabric of family life. Laptops and wireless connections allow her to check emails while cooking, chat with other mums while playing with her children in the lounge, and search for product information instead of reading in bed. This, nevertheless, represents a challenge in itself for brands, as mum is multi-tasking while online, again making it more difficult for the relevant brand to get its message across.

Changing net usage

It is crucial therefore for brands to understand how the way in which the internet is used changes through the journey of pregnancy and into motherhood. The "nesting" pregnant mum who is on maternity leave before baby arrives will dedicate much time and attention to websites, enjoying having the time to explore, shop, and prepare.

She turns to the real and credible environment of forums and communities to find the advice and reassurances she might need from other women who are "just like me". "Word of Mum" is often the lingua franca, holding huge weight and significant potential to influence behaviour and shape brand perception.

This exploratory behaviour, however, does not last long and women soon bond with the sites that deliver for them. This is especially true once baby arrives, when internet usage becomes more time pressured and task-focused.

Living up to expectations

Women soon become organised, low tolerant surfers, who bond with and become loyal to tried and tested sites and communities, so relationships have to be built early. Having this insight means that Bounty can not only deliver effective client campaigns but also ensures we live up to members" expectations as a club.

Brands beware! Women still chat over the washing line, just as their mothers and grandmothers used to, only these days just because the washing line is virtual it doesn't mean it is any less influential.

 

Vicki Kateley
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2008