BrainTrust Query: Getting Research Transformation to Stick

May 28, 2010

Commentary by Joel Rubinson, Chief Research Officer, The Advertising Research

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is an
excerpt from a current article from the Joel Rubinson on Marketing Research

At the ARF’s first Research Transformation super-council
meeting in early May, we heard a sobering factoid from McKinsey: 70 percent
of all transformation efforts fail. So, how do we make sure that our research
transformation initiative is a lasting metamorphosis rather than something
that reverts back to old beliefs and ways of working?

One of the great insights
from the meeting came from Gaurav Bhatnagar, assoc. partner at McKinsey, who
said that most transformation initiatives are impelled by an “oh sh*t” motivation
which, he noted, is not sustainable. As soon as things start getting a little
better, the sense of urgency diminishes to the point that the transformation
mandate loses its steam. So while this is a great way to create a call to action,
a transformation must also find the “oh
wow” for the whole organization.

The original motivator for the ARF research
transformation initiative was from an ARF meeting in July 2008 about listening
methods, which quickly became a discussion about how the research function
is not making the impact on organizations that it should be. At that meeting,
leaders said things like:

  • “We have lost the capacity to listen for the unexpected.”
  • “Surveys are torture.”
  • And the famous Kim Dedeker (then at P&G) remark, “Research as
    we know it will be on life support by 2012.”

Clearly, we had our “oh crap” call to action. To make our transformation
sustainable, we must find the “oh wow” and we need to find it for
the organization, not just for the research profession, to make our transformation
sustainable. Guarav also noted organizations don’t transform, unless people

Brand narratives should be about the “oh wow” and changing
the belief systems of people, meeting the McKinsey acid test for lasting transformations.
Here are selected passages from the research brand narrative created at the

  • Research used to be about the what (data), then about the so what? (analysis).
    Today, we go to the now what? (strategy, action), and we find ourselves accountable
    for the business results of what we recommend.
  • We need to create a new breed of “researcher”: inquisitive
    and courageous by nature; analytical by training. They are passionate about
    understanding consumers, translating insights into business opportunities,
    leveraging social sciences and analytic skills, and then using storytelling
    to communicate these insights in unforgettable ways.
  • While some decision makers may prefer to trust their own instinct, and
    some traditional researchers are more comfortable crunching numbers than
    “listening” to consumers, they are today’s minority and against great odds.
    We must understand that the big innovative successes will always be driven
    by human and market insights and that this is the new path forward.

Discussion Question: What will it take to transform consumer research to
meet today’s business needs? What needs to take place to create the “oh wow”
epiphanies to change belief systems at the c-level?

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8 Comments on "BrainTrust Query: Getting Research Transformation to Stick"

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Roger Saunders
11 years 11 months ago

Different people ‘listen’ to different drums. That is the case in the C-Suite, as well as at the front line.

In today’s competitive and uncertain retail environment, all have to be ‘listening’ to the consumer more closely than ever before. The incremental dollars generated leading up to and at the register, are the ones that will flow to a bottom line, and permit the ongoing investments needed to drive the business.

There are a good number of ways to ‘listen’ to the consumer, retailers AND manufacturers have to commit to taking the time to do it.

Mel Kleiman
11 years 11 months ago

It is not about the listening, research or need for action. It is all about the implementation.

If you want to transform any group from doing something one way to doing it another way, you need to change their behavior and this will not happen by just saying it is important. You need to take the following steps:

1. Identify the change that needs to take place.
2. Communicate the what, when, how, and why of the action you want.
3. Make it a priority of key value.
4. Reinforcement, reinforcement, reinforcement.
5. Hold the organization accountable for the change.
6. Measure results and continually improve the system.
7. Make change itself a core value. Companies are going to need to continually reinvent themselves in today’s world.

Raymond D. Jones
Raymond D. Jones
11 years 11 months ago

Successful transformation will require innovative methods, new age researchers, and knowledge-driven business executives.

Most of today’s popular research techniques were designed during the mass marketing era and have often been adapted to current needs with only moderate changes. We are still too wed to focus groups and broad scale surveys. We need to explore new methods to address today’s highly segmented markets and do more context-based research.

While research has come a long way, it still tends to be too descriptive rather than prescriptive with a focus on data rather than insights. Transformation depends on researchers that have a grasp of business problems and can extend information into insights and solutions.

Lastly, we need to gain the support of executive leadership in the value of knowledge as a strategic business tool and source of competitive advantage. We can only do that by demonstrating the value of insights and information to develop real business solutions.

Eliott Olson
Eliott Olson
11 years 11 months ago

Listening to the consumer is a mantra and a myth. Today’s average executives think that they are smart enough to manipulate the consumer, not give them what they want. As long as the executives are under the illusion that they can outsmart the consumer, they will continue with the pea and shell game and ignore what their customers really think. This can best be perceived in political research where the customer’s opinions are known but they are told to wait and see what’s in the bill when it is passed.

Marge Laney
11 years 11 months ago

Mel nails it. I will add the WIFM (what’s in it for me) for the frontline associate should be something more than it gives them more work and makes their boss more money. They need to be incentivized and rewarded in a tangible way or it just won’t work.

Devangshu Dutta
Devangshu Dutta
11 years 11 months ago
There are some fundamental points of disconnect that need to be addressed. Most research that is discredited is thrown out because it has not delivered genuinely usable business insight. At the crux is a mismatch between expectations and what is delivered. In some cases, the researcher team may have not taken the time to understand the client’s and the industry’s context. In others, the team just may not be of a caliber comparable to the client executives they are servicing. On the other hand, good research also needs clarity of objectives at the client end. This is the remaining part of discredited research: fuzzy questions will get fuzzy answers. Unfortunately, when it comes to the final presentation, the answers are evaluated, not the questions. The “golden rule” applies–he who has the gold (the client), rules. So, dear research consultant, even in these times of drought, before you rush headlong to sign up that contract, have the courage to focus the client and then to focus yourself. You’ll save yourself much trouble, and maybe even a… Read more »
Dr. Stephen Needel
11 years 11 months ago

There is an implicit assumption in this question that marketing research is not meeting the needs of management and that a transformation is needed. Remember that consultants like McKinsey make their money recommending transformation, whether one is needed or not.

Anyone who has an “oh ****” moment and decides to transform their research department has a bigger problem than the research department and deserves to have the transformation fail.

Get good researchers, get management to tell the researchers what they need to know, let the researchers go find out what they’ve been asked, and act on the information. Nobody has ever gone wrong with that simple formula.

Mark Johnson
Mark Johnson
11 years 11 months ago

What people report in a temporal moment is not necessarily representative of what they are thinking, or what they intend to do. They have a self-serving approach when responding.


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