Mr. McKee

Sales & Marketing

Keeping Market Research in the Passenger Seat

By Steve McKee, President, McKee Wallwork Cleveland

Research can be a hotel marketer's best friend or his worst enemy. It all depends on who's driving. I'd like to offer six thoughts that will help you keep research from grabbing the wheel and sending your brand over a cliff.

There are things you can measure and things you can't. Don't mix them up.

How much do you love your wife? What's the value of poetry? What is a life worth? Ask most people these questions and you'll either get a funny look or a metaphysical discussion. Some things just can't be quantified. Yet in marketing we often act as if everything can.

To be sure, given the proper methodology you can measure a great deal of marketing-related activity, particularly past behavior. Things like purchase patterns and visit frequency are historical, concrete events that are subject only to the laws of forgetting (I may not remember how I heard of your hotel) and deceit (I may not want you to know that I saw your ad in my wife's Glamour magazine). But by and large they can be reliably tracked.

It's when we try to quantify the future that we get into trouble. Simon Clift, Chief Marketing Officer at Unilever, puts it this way: "Consumers are not able to predict how they will feel in the future. If you ask a housewife if you'd like to pay more for your car, have a very big car that's hard to park, uses an enormous amount of gas and that you can't fit in your garage, they would say no to all of those questions, and you'd predict there's no market for SUVs."

The same principle holds true in advertising concept testing. Scott Bedbury, former Worldwide Advertising Director at Nike, says: "We never pre-tested anything we did at Nike, none of the ads. Wieden (Dan Wieden, founder of Wieden & Kennedy) and I had an agreement that as long as our hearts beat, we would never pretest a word of copy. It makes you dull. It makes you predictable. It makes you safe."

Frank Maguire, one-time VP sales and marketing at VW, would agree. "Volkswagen of America doesn't pre-test ads. If we want to say who we are, we need to be risky." In fact, a few years ago General Motors used its sophisticated advertising testing system on a handful of VW ads. The Volkswagen commercials flunked under GM's process.

Just because you can't measure it doesn't mean it's not working.

A few years ago Advertising Age splashed a provocative headline across its cover: "Survey: Network TV Does Worst Job of Proving Advertising ROI." The study purported to show that "Media advertising does the worst job of any marketing discipline in proving return on investment and network TV is the worst of those media..."

The study was fielded among leading national advertisers - people who ought to know. But what, exactly, did it demonstrate? Not that network TV didn't work, simply that it was the hardest medium with which to prove ROI. That's a significant distinction.

If network TV didn't work we wouldn't have network TV, and it certainly wouldn't be the most glamorous form of advertising. As consumers - and as business people - we know that TV works in general because we know it works specifically -- on us. Few people will admit it but anyone who remembers "You deserve a break today" or knows what "The heartbeat of America" refers to can't deny it.

When was the last time you responded to a TV ad - or any form of advertising, for that matter? That, of course, depends on the meaning of the word "responded". It's easy to think of "response" strictly as a measurable action such as an inquiry or purchase. But there are many different ways consumers interface with ads.

Perhaps an ad prompts someone to get online and do some research about your hotel. Or maybe it simply made them pause for a moment and picture where your property is. Maybe it generated first-time awareness that wasn't there before, or caused someone to make up his mind to give you a try the next time he's in town. Maybe it just made her like your brand a little bit more. As Julie Roehm, former marketing communications director at Dodge puts it, "If I can get you to look at our spot on TV and it can make you smile and feel good about our brand, I've done my job on television."

The point is there is an entire spectrum of possible responses, from the concrete (web visits, phone inquiries, reservations) to the more abstract (preference, likeability, identification). And the higher-involvement the purchase decision the more likely a brand will need to generate a number of abstract responses before it sees anything concrete. Whether your brand is bought, sought or only thought about as a result of your advertising, if your message is on target it will always generate some form of response. Passing judgment based only on what's immediately and easily measurable is myopic.

The best research is the real world.

Two words: New Coke. Possibly the most pre-tested new product launch ever, New Coke nevertheless failed in the marketplace. The story has been told many times and there's no need to repeat it here, but basically what it came down to was that despite the taste tests Coke didn't anticipate the monstrous emotional backlash they would engender by replacing their original formula. They couldn't know it until it happened.

In science, research is only legitimate when all variables other than the one being tested are controlled. But in marketing research it's impossible to control all the variables, which means that there is a certain amount of error in every study. Where that error lies, and how significantly it affects the outcome, is always a mystery. That's what makes it so dangerous.

You would think the New Coke debacle would have taught Coke a lesson. Yet in 2001 the company yanked from the air a new campaign that had just gotten off the ground. Here's the account, as reported in The Wall Street Journal: "[Coke] initially tested themes and storyboards of some proposed Cliff Freeman commercials with 50 focus groups before making final commercials. Coke marketers found that the focus groups liked the idea of using humor. So they pushed ahead... The campaign was edgy - way too edgy in fact. Consumers wrote and called to complain that the ads didn't fit with the Coke they knew and loved; Coke bottlers and ad critics dismissed them as mean-spirited and they disappeared after airing for just a few weeks."

Have you ever done 50 focus groups for anything? That's a lot of research. Yet it was still wrong. If you want to test your ads, test them in the real world, with real people in a real context. There's simply no way to duplicate that in the lab.

People lie.

"I will never have a phone in my car." That's a direct quote from my wife, who also said she'd never use the Internet. Today she sent me a text message complaining that her email is down.

She didn't mean to lie. She's just not an early-adopter. And she can't predict how she will respond to new developments in the future. None of us can. The consulting firm Cap Gemini Ernst & Young did a study that found that less than 20% of consumers say TV advertising influences their car-buying decisions. Their conclusion? "We think manufacturers and their dealers are wasting money on broad-based TV advertising instead of a direct marketing approach."

Really? How exactly do people know what will influence them when they buy their next car? The truth is that automotive makes have developed strong identities through years and years of brand-building advertising. I would submit that nearly 100% of consumers' car-buying decisions are affected by TV advertising - perhaps not as simply as see-an-ad, buy-a-car, but certainly in forming their perceptions, preferences and biases for or against brands.

Dr. Robert Passikoff, Adjunct Associate Professor at NYU, put it eloquently: "You have to conduct research that reveals what people think, not what they say they think. To do this, you must slip behind their unconscious defenses with an indirect method that tells more about them than their alleged 'intentions.'" Or as I like to put it, you can't always go through the front door. Sometimes you have to sneak in a window to find out what people really think. No one ever asked for a microwave oven.

If you blindly follow the research, you'll lose.

  • Swedish Vodka? Can't happen. Vodka is Russian.

  • A bank in a supermarket? It just doesn't fit.

  • The Ford Taurus? Who would want a car shaped like an egg?

Research said all three of the above ideas would flop. All three radically reshaped their industries.

The late Akio Morita, founder of Sony, made the decision to launch the Walkman in spite of research showing people would never carry around a portable cassette player-after all, that's what transistor radios were for. He said, "A company whose strength lies in innovation does not wait for consumers to tell it what they want. The public does not know what is possible, but we do.'"

Remember Apple's famous Super Bowl commercial, "1984"? See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OYecfV3ubP8 The folks who let the research do the talking tried to kill that as well. Only a bold, last-minute decision got the spot that is widely regarded as the greatest commercial of all time on the air.

John Steel built his career at one of America's most notable agencies, Goodby Silverstein & Partners. He says, "I recently put together a reel of advertising from Goodby, Silverstein & Partners [including got milk?, Polaroid, Isuzu Rodeo, Norwegian Cruise Line and others] ...all were extremely effective in building the client's business. Yet all could easily have died in creative development research had consumer comments been listened to literally, creatives not been allowed to express their differing opinions, and the client in each case not had the courage to say, 'I hear what they are saying, but I will not change my mind about running this advertising as a result.'"

It takes fortitude to confront what the data says. Graphs and charts always look so official in Powerpoint. But Bob Pittman, former president of AOL and founder of MTV, puts it into context: "Staring at market data is like looking at a jigsaw puzzle. You have to figure out what the picture is. What does it all mean? It's not just a bunch of data. There's a message in there. Every time I get another data point I've added another piece to the jigsaw puzzle, and I'm closer to seeing the answer. And then, one day, the overall picture suddenly comes to me." Pittman makes the numbers work for him, not vice-versa.

The bottom line? Research is a compass, not a map-it can give you a sense of where you are but it can't tell you where to go. Bobby J. Calder, a Professor of Marketing at Northwestern University's Kellogg Graduate School of Management sums it up well: "It cannot be emphasized enough that data by itself is meaningless. There is no explanation inherent in data. Data can only help in finding an acceptable explanation. The truth is that data can be inspirational, but so can general experience and intuition."

Experience and intuition - valuable assets, and the more miles you've traveled as a marketer the more valuable they become. Research has its place, but if you're not careful it can steer you wrong. Measure to guide, don't measure to lead.

Steve McKee is the president of McKee Wallwork & Company, an integrated marketing firm with extensive experience in the travel and tourism industries that specializes in revitalizing stalled, stuck and stale brands. Mr. McKee is also the author of "When Growth Stalls: How it Happens, Why You're Stuck and What To Do About It", an award-winning business book now published in four languages, and "Power Branding: Leveraging the Success of the World's Best Brands". A marketing strategist for nearly thirty years, Mr. McKee has held executive positions at notable agencies including NW Ayer, Della Femina, and a division of McCann-Erickson Worldwide, and he wrote a popular Businessweek.com marketing advice column for more than a decade. Mr. McKee can be contacted at 505-314-7742 or smckee@mwcmail.com Extended Bio...

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