“You’re fired!”. You may or may not be familiar with this catchphrase — but given The Apprentice is one of the most successful global reality TV franchises to hit our screens it is likely that you are. The premise of the show is ‘The Ultimate Job Interview’, with candidates competing to be hired by one of the country’s famous business magnates. The 10-week process is task based and designed to test the candidates’ skills.

But what, you might be wondering, has this to do with research? Well, this show could be used as the basis for a brand new and innovative qualitative research methodology. Which is exactly what Northstar and Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) did when together we completely re-imagined how to execute and disseminate target customer exploration.

JLR’s business objective

JLR has always placed great importance on target customer research as a means of exploring its current and potential customer base and sharpening its product and marketing strategy. In this instance, target customer research was especially critical because it was looking to develop a vehicle to enter an embryonic category — worth £220bn — for the first time and, as such, had minimal insight into its global target customer. Insight management within a company of JLR’s size — it has around 37,000 employees — can, however, be challenging. Not only does insight have to reach far and wide, it must engage many disparate silos with differing sensitivities (e.g. from engineers, to designers to marketers).

Typically within JLR, target customer insight is conducted as one or two-day ethnographies and then communicated to the business through high production quality 50-minute documentaries. The consumer insights team was worried that, while this method is incredibly effective, fatigue might set in, which encouraged them to look for a fresh new way to tell customer stories. So, in this brief, insight management was elevated to a top-level objective alongside the core research objective.

Searching for the perfect format

With the research and insight communication objective on equal footing, it made sense to start investigating formats where the method for gathering insight could also be the medium for sharing it. After investigating many TV shows, we decided on The Apprentice because it doesn’t just benefit from being reality TV — great for exposing true personality traits — but it’s also a gameshow, enabling us to take advantage of everything gamification has to offer.

For our participants, the known exaggerated personalities and dog-eat-dog environment would act as the ultimate projective technique, giving them license to be their true selves without fear of judgement. For our clients, knowing The Apprentice is as much about the contestants’ ‘colourful’ characters as it is about who wins the tasks, it’s as much a people-watching exercise as it is a contest.

How did we do it?

Northstar recruited 12 candidates in each of JLR’s three key markets for this new vehicle segment (UK, US and Germany), splitting them into three teams of four participants based on age cohorts. Over the course of two days, the three teams in each market competed on three different tasks designed to reveal key target customer insight, plus their hopes for this new vehicle segment. One task, for example, was for each team to come up with a superhero who best represented who they were as a group (as they were split into millennials, generation x and baby boomers). They came up with its super powers, nemesis, costume, packaging, etc.

After each one, they pitched to ‘Sir Geld’ — a character we created akin to ‘Lord Alan Sugar’ (played by an actor) — as well as his trusted advisors, consisting of the key Northstar project team and a member of JLR’s Global Customer Insight team. At the end of the two days, one candidate was crowned as JLR’s ultimate target customer.

Once all the markets were complete, we worked with our production partner — The Moment — to create three 15-minute episodes and three teasers. Each episode followed the completion of one task and the edit carefully balanced communicating necessary insight while ensuring that there was enough entertaining content.

There was a lot involved in designing, executing and editing the three 15-minute episodes and on many occasions, as researchers, we were out of our comfort zones. We wrote scripts, auditioned bilingual actors, developed characters and backstories, created theme tunes, sourced boardroom tables and hired illustrators to name just a few of our ‘non-research’ responsibilities. We also faced many challenges along the way, not least ensuring that we were creating a fun experience for our participants and an entertaining TV show for our clients, but that at the same time we never lost sight of the insight at the heart of it all.

We are proud to say the result was game-changing. Firstly, we have never seen such levels of participant engagement — in each market we were repeatedly thanked for giving contestants the opportunity to take part in an amazing and unique experience — which is saying something given the 10-hour days! Secondly, it was a great success in engaging a wide audience and disseminating insight across JLR — our three 15-minute episodes have been viewed over 2,500 times in the business. This is around three times more than previous target customer documentaries.