It’s 8am on the 20th November 2013 and the morning of the John Brown Media Insight Breakfast at London’s exclusive Arts Club in Mayfair. Lured by the promise of new insight for marketing to the future fashion consumer, John Lewis, Oasis, and F&F rub shoulders with ASOS and H&M over coffee and a miniature Danish.

Hope + Anchor are nervous, but well prepared. With two months work neatly distilled into a 30-minute presentation, illustrated with some beautifully shot films of the future fashion consumer, we have a visual show worthy of such a sartorial crowd.

Just one small hiccup, as with five minutes to go, we cluster in the toilets to try and remove a child’s jammy fingerprints from our presenter’s leather skirt. More on that later... let’s start by going back to the beginning.

Life, the retail universe, and everything

John Brown Media was looking for some proprietary consumer insight. It wanted to wow existing clients and open doors for new business at its high profile insight event before Christmas 2013. The brief was packed with big questions about the future of retail. What’s next for the omnichannel shopper? How will SoLoMo (sociallocal- mobile), social commerce, and personalisation in real-time impact the retail landscape? And how will brands and retailers market to consumers in a world of apps, Blippar and augmented reality?

The future of retail is one of the most hotly debated subjects for brands, retailers, media owners, and their agencies. Finding fresh consumer insight to bring to the debate would be tricky. We needed an approach that would go beyond what consumers ‘think’ about the subject. Naturally, we looked to the qualitative toolkit for the creativity, subtlety and precision we needed for the job.

The best way to predict the future is to create it

We decided to approach this through one consumer group and category. We focused on tech-savvy millennial ladies, with a passion for fashion. Always on a fashion journey, they combine the power of social networking, showrooming, webrooming, and ordering 24/7, with speed and agility. If any consumers could help us map out an exciting future for retail, they could.

We kicked off with an extensive literature review of industry trends and future predictions. We then hatched a plan that would allow us to look deep into how consumer needs would be met by future changes to the fashion retail infrastructure and innovation. We set up a fashion blog to help us unearth fashion consumption needs. Our ladies recorded hours spent ‘basketeering’ online and buying new outfits in nightclubs at 2am.

We drew on John Brown Media’s expertise to help us envisage a future world of fashion retail that would stimulate, challenge and excite our consumers. We ran immersive workshops where our fashion loving ladies could interact with our future world of fashion through their phones and tablets.

Showcasing qualitative research

For John Brown Media, investing in consumer research is a new thing. To keep senior stakeholders invested in its importance to their future, we had to really make an impact and provide a tangible return. Here’s how.

We captivated the frow:
The breakfast event was a runaway success. A total of 60 fashion brands and retailers attended and the room was filled with a mix of John Brown’s existing and wish list clients. Client feedback told us the event had been a hit and that we had achieved our goal of positioning John Brown Media as thought-leaders in the future of fashion retail debate. This was backed-up when we saw the buzz it created on Twitter among the fashion community.

We changed the way John Brown thinks about its business:
From account management and new business, to editorial and creative, the research energised teams across John Brown’s business. Our fashion need states are at the forefront of its editorial calendars for brands such as John Lewis, F&F and Monsoon.

John Brown’s business has grown:
The research and breakfast event opened doors for John Brown to have follow-up meetings with a host of new clients. It is currently producing the first piece of work to come out of those meetings, which is billing three times the total cost of the research.

Research is now a top priority:
The business has opened its eyes to how richly insightful and highly strategic qualitative insight can be. In fact, John Brown’s CEO has commissioned a further fashion project in 2014, with a 50% budget increase.

Lessons learned

Be brave:
It would have been easy to dismiss this brief as unachievable. Faced with so many big questions, it was hard to focus. It took bravery to recommend leaving the macro questions to everyone else, and instead, come at this through one consumer group and sector.

Give your respondents a good time:
Our fashion ladies were fantastic. Passionate consumers, enthusiastic respondents, and fully committed to our project. They proffered great insights, humorous anecdotes, and helped us create exciting films of the research. We asked a lot of them but we made sure it was fun and rewarded them well with bundles of fashion content and a glamorous fashion shoot to star in. At the end of the workshops, they didn’t want to leave!

Qual can help predict the future:
We never expected our ladies to tell us what the future of fashion retail will look like, or how to market to them in this future world. So we formulated an approach to help us take their input and build a model for looking into the future. Our analytical approach helped us go beyond whether consumers liked, disliked, or misunderstood future ideas. Instead we focused on how future ideas matched with what they had revealed about what drives their fashion shopping behaviours.

You can’t clean a leather skirt with shoe polish:
Turns out shoe polish does not ‘clean’ jam from leather. Although, we can highly recommend Jo Malone moisturizing hand soap in ‘Wild Fig and Cassis’. Practical and smells pretty good too.