by Martin Stadler

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Stop crunching numbers. Start being smart.

I’m sure you know the saying “there are no stupid questions”. But to me, that’s only half of the truth. There might not be stupid questions, but there are definitely useless ones.

Traditional market and consumer research is focused on gathering data; the more the better. In my experience, corporations, especially large ones, tend to stick to this old paradigm, but the tons of pile charts and excel crosstabs produced are often useless to anyone in the company.

But there is one exception. Market research — the number one strategy to cover yourself from being held responsible for any failure. If the board or your direct superior is looking for who to blame, you’ll be safe. After all: “The research said it would work.”

From minimizing risk to maximizing relevance

While I can understand any company’s urge to minimize risk, market research only offers the illusion of doing so. No one can guarantee your success, no matter how many people you survey. Say farewell to the idea that commercial risk can be lowered in proportion to the amount of data gathered; information is not insight. Brand, product, and marketing executives are often drowned in useless information while trying to find out what matters, which is not only frustrating, but inefficient and costly.

So many companies I have consulted don’t utilize the knowledge they have as an organization. Many managers and employees don’t know what information is available, and, more importantly, what kind of information can really help them. It’s hard to perform when you don’t know what knowledge might be out there, and even worse when you don’t realize there are gaps in your knowledge that could be crucial for your brand’s success.

The good news? There’s a solution. The magic word is relevance, and it starts with a question: “What do I really need to know?”

Listen to your users

Brand intelligence means concentrating on what you really need to know in order to create a more relevant brand. It means understanding not only what people do, but why they do it. It’s aimed at revealing the underlying motives, emotional drivers, and barriers (ones that, in many cases, consumers aren’t even explicitly aware of).

Don’t annoy consumers with lengthy surveys about their behavior and their (alleged) preferences; the answers often differ considerably from reality. Not because people are dishonest, but because it’s just hard to tell. Motivations are intrinsic, and reflecting on your behavior and preferences isn’t the same as actually doing or feeling something.

Modern user-centric research methods, born out of Design Thinking, attempt to avoid this by providing a more natural setting. Want to find out how people really use your product in everyday life? Want to know what they think is cool and what sucks? Then think about cultural probes — basically, an interactive and haptic diary that’s fun and engaging to use.

Want to find out how people really experience your product or service? Consult them in the place where they normally use it and feel comfortable. Stay as close to their normal habit as possible, rather than online or in a synthetic studio.

If you want to know why people discuss your brand the way they do on social media, then engage them in a conversation on the respective channel. It’s easy, it doesn’t take long, and it’s also easy for users to participate — and in an environment they’d be in anyway.

You can find out more about our experiences with methods like these in two articles by my colleague Louise Fuglsang:

But all of this doesn’t mean that traditional research is useless. I would, however, like to encourage you to rethink how and when to use it. Identify what you need to know and then decide on the right method. Always keep in mind that understanding the motivations and barriers of your consumers will help you create greater relevance for your brand.

And good to know for your accounting: it doesn’t cost the earth to gather insights. Inviting five people for a co-creation workshop or chatting to the right online community can make all the difference. And yes, whenever it makes sense, enrich your insights with quantitative findings and make sure the combined information is made available to anyone in your organization who might need it–in a concise, clear, and easy to use way.

To sum up: stop covering your own back. Start covering your brand’s.

This article was originally published at, where you can find out more about what we do, who we are, and how we work.

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