ABC's of Market Research: Tools of the Trade

On this trip, Cate and I will be visiting a variety of cities--from Beijing to Bangkok, Cairo to Dubai, London to Mumbai--to do market research for a top global brand.

We’ll be talking to people with a variety of different jobs to understand what they think about work and working, what’s differentiating about what our client offers, and how this varies from place to place and job to job.

It’s fascinating—the best part of our own jobs—and part of a venerable tradition that goes back to Studs Terkel’s masterpiece Working. Not every employer does this, but it’s hard to develop a credible brand without this sort of qualitative insight. And it leads to breakthrough insights like these that have transformed advertising and our understanding of consumer behavior for more than 50 years.

The tools of the trade are simple. I always record my sessions on video. I used to use a microcassette recorder but I now use this compact Sony HD camera.

It holds 12 hours of video and downloads easily to my laptop. It’s not important to get a great picture, just to be able to see who made which comment, so this flexible tripod lets me position the camera in just about any room configuration—even to tie it to a flipchart if I need to.

I always have a backup, a digital tape recorder. And I usually forget it, so I’ve bought a small collection of them. My favorite, also a Sony, is this one, because it also plugs directly into my USB port. I try to take notes myself, but having a digital file means I can also send the file off to transcription if I need a record of the session.

For the sessions themselves, it’s important to break the ice—and to keep breaking it. That means getting people up out of their chairs, get them interactive, and give them things to do. The challenge is doing this in a way that’s repeatable and works from culture to culture. So I use interactive collateral like maps, images, and words.

I like to give participants props like these little aluminum chess pieces—they’re nice to handle and show up well in film—and allow participants to interact directly with the collateral.

Before and after focus groups, Cate and I conduct field ethnography—a kind of market research that tries to understand the life of the workforce before and after work. We want to understand:
  • Where they live.
  • What they do.
  • Where they do it.
  • What they enjoy.
Too much market research stops when the focus group does. That’s a huge mistake. It’s nearly impossible to bring back useful insights without walking a mile—or a few—in the footsteps of the people you’re trying to understand.

That’s why the most important market research tools are still a notepad, a pen, a good pair of walking shoes—and today, the indispensible flip video camera:

Makes me wonder why clients don’t require agency pitch teams—or at least the brand lead—to share both their client lists and their passports.

This post brought to you by Evviva Brands (, the world's brand shop for people brands.

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