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Making a meal out of milk

Helen Passard, head of insight at Nestlé Nutrition UK&I, campaigns against analysis paralysis while dealing with a brand that most mothers will be familiar with: SMA.

Marketing research as a career: burning desire or serendipity?

It was more serendipity.

How did it happen?

I initially wanted to be a psychologist but a lot of my friends were doing business and psychology at university and they inspired me to get into business. After university I looked at the potential of HR, marketing and so on, but my first job was at Carlton Television in its market research team. It all went from there, basically. But I think I'm an inherently nosy person and therefore find the work fascinating and interesting. It's just an added bonus to be able to leverage that — hopefully — for some good business results.

Any regrets?

No, this is absolutely what I want to do. I've had opportunities in the past to move into marketing manager roles, and I don't want to do it. I love what I do.

Who or what has been the biggest influence on your work to date?

I don't really have a specific role model. I am very grateful that at several points in my career I have worked with people who saw that I had potential and wanted to nurture and grow it, so were happy to offer coaching. I think that's given me the confidence to be where I am today.

Any advice for those starting out in market research?

Having worked at a few big FMCG companies, they all say they invest in personal development but unfortunately it isn't always the case. If you want to progress quickly your development comes down to you. You've got to look after yourself and seek out opportunities.

How easy to juggle your life-work balance?

Not too difficult. When I worked at PepsiCo someone once said to me "it's only crisps". This has stuck in my mind ever since and I remind myself of it when things get pressurised. I love my job and it's really important to me to succeed, but it isn't life or death.

What's your biggest challenge to date in global terms? I'm thinking really in terms of keeping up to date, of just managing it on a sort of macro level.

Developing brand strategy and innovation that works for every market. A one size fits all approach rarely works, but neither is it practical or resource efficient to do it at a local level. I think the key is to nurture strong relationships between global and local teams as that optimises your chance of navigating the challenges.

iPhone or BlackBerry for work and play?

Neither. Well, I do have a BlackBerry for work but I am not a big fan. I have a Samsung Galaxy Siii as a personal phone, which I really love. I am one of the few people in the world who is not a big Apple fan — they are becoming too arrogant, which is not a trait I admire!

What prevents research partners in your experience from identifying and testing brand truths?

Because consumers don't express what they really think or feel! Humans are emotive beings that businesses wish made rational decisions. Most research asks consumers to verbalise (and therefore rationalise) their behaviour or opinions of brands, so you rarely get the truth.

And the solution?

If I had that I would be a very rich woman! I believe observation is a key tool — seeing consumers behave in their own world and on their terms. The skill is then in the interpretation of what you have seen to turn it into actionable insight — this is where agencies can stand out from the crowd and really add value to a business.

Do you think that marketing is at a crossroads?

The crossroads, to my mind, is still that old balancing act between creativity and commerciality. I've seen so many ideas dumped that people passionately believe in, have put so much work into and which feel right on so many levels — all because they don't deliver tangible results in, say, the first quarter of being out in the market.

How does this affect marketers in your eyes?

It's a real leadership challenge. Managing internal expectations and inspiring stakeholders to give ideas space and time to actually work. It helps if you also have an insight driven strategy behind your plans as well, to inspire confidence.

What are the dangers of having too much data on your brand?

Analysis paralysis! I don't conform to the stereotype with this, as I am often the person saying no to research. "Relevant" is the key word — too much data means you can't see your way through to the piece of information or insight that will help you make the right decision. Know what you want to know and why and don't get sidetracked. Sometimes we also just need to make decisions using our experience and common sense.

What's your career background?

I started at Carlton TV, but media wasn't really for me. I have then been lucky enough to work on some much loved and respected brands. My first client side role was at Cereal Partners, where the highlight was working on Cheerios. I then went to Pepsico and worked on Walkers Crisps. Diageo followed that, including Baileys, Gordon's, Pimm's and Guinness. Currently I work for Nestlé Nutrition, which recently acquired SMA from Pfizer.

Would you be able to give me an example of a brand learning from your time at Diageo?

They prioritise brand building and believe in emotional brand positioning. I was introduced to "cause marketing"; a brand standing for something that consumers really believe in/care about — that is how you can create a strong connection with your consumers.

What bit of research has rocked you in your socks?

When I joined the business I prioritised observational research as a way to really get to know mums. Through that I had the privilege to meet a lovely mum of a six month- old baby, who was amazing. While recalling what it was really like to be a new mum she was so open and honest and cried several times — I felt honoured to be getting such a window into her world. This, along with the rest of the mums we met, led to a whole new way of thinking within the business.

Finally, what wouldn't you leave home without?

Easy: ChapStick. That predates taking this job, but it's a Pfizer brand and I was over the moon to find that I could buy it for about 20p in the staff shop.


Helen Passard
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2013