At Sterling Brands, all of our strategists are moderators, and so all of our moderators are strategists. We see this as a core point-of-difference and an essential approach for building strong, highly differentiated and actionable brands strategies.
1. Moderators moderate a discussion; strategists pursue a strategy
In research, we are looking for insights that allow us to make an intuitive leap to a really great and differentiated strategy.Â This is different than traditional research that looks for answers to a bunch of questions. Itâ€™s the difference between finishing the guide and delving deep into the strategic questions.
Only a strategist will use the guide as, well a guide, and let the discussion direct the exploratory.Â Strategists understand the business and marketing situation, the company or brand strengths and weaknesses, competitive advantage and landscape, and use it to direct and inspire the discussion.
2. We really get that consumers are not strategists
It is impossible, and not particularly wise, to expect consumers to tell you what to do when it comes to developing your brand strategy.Â They canâ€™t really look forward. They canâ€™t really think different. What they say and what they do are often two different things. And consumers simply donâ€™t think in terms of â€śstrategy,â€ť they think in terms of products on the shelf, ads on TV, headlines in magazines.
Our job is to gain insight on whatâ€™s really happening in their lives and how they think about the category, and apply it to the strategic discussion; itâ€™s about understanding the consumer and marketplace momentum and then attaching strategy to it. Itâ€™s judo (going with it), not karate (going against it). Judo lets us use consumers as consumers. And it works really well since that is what they are very good at.Â Karate assumes they can do our job of being a strategist. But weâ€™ve found time and time again, they canâ€™t.
3. Challenging weakly-held beliefs
Itâ€™s a tough marketplace these days. With so much clutter, the odds of getting noticed are low.Â Your competition is trying as hard as you are to find the â€śbig ahaâ€ť that will help them break-through, and they are likely doing the same research you are. So itâ€™s important that strategy is driven only by strongly-held beliefs, not lip service or top-of-mind points-of-view.
Any decent moderator in any kind of research will try to get to the â€śwhyâ€ť. But itâ€™s just not enough to ask a consumer â€śwhyâ€ť.Â Itâ€™s our role to challenge consumers â€“ what they say may or may not be a strongly-held belief. This is the only way weâ€™ll get real insights rather than just good answers.
Since â€śresearchâ€ť is essentially an unnatural act and forced environment for people, what they say or claim may simply not be that true. And even if itâ€™s totally true in the conference room, shop-a-long or home environment, it may not be true in real life.
It is our responsibility to be rigorous, understand how robust their points-of-views, needs, attitudes are.Â This takes a disciplined and firm, yet personable approach. If your â€śgutâ€ť says a consumer is handing you a lot of BS, call him/her on it.Â It something the consumer after 90 minutes seems to contradict something they said earlier, call him/her on it.Â Not in a way that is angry or defensive, but in a way that is curious and clever. To weed out the weakly-held beliefs and get to the strong ones that will help you break-through.
4. Ideas over words
Creating a strategy requires fully understanding the hypotheses that underlie it.Â To â€śvalidateâ€ť a strategy, we strive to deconstruct it into its constituent parts, and test the strength of each one.Â We do not believe validating â€śwordsâ€ť.Â We do not want consumers to get caught up in (either positively or negatively) language they will never see (because there is a big difference between communications and strategy).
We talk through ideas.Â Itâ€™s not – do they like this word or this statement or paragraph? Itâ€™s – do they like the idea behind a set of words, or even a conceptual idea?Â Is the idea relevant and meaningful? Does it feel different?Â We then translate the ideas into a set of actionable words for the use of the marketing organization.
In the world of research, thereâ€™s a lot of debate about leading respondents.Â Again, thatâ€™s the difference between words and ideas. As a strategist, if thereâ€™s a great idea dangling out there, throw it out there.Â Who cares if it didnâ€™t come up naturally?Â If itâ€™s a great idea (or not), talking about it is the only way youâ€™ll learn something. Letâ€™s push this further. Letâ€™s say the team is convinced there is a killer idea out there, but itâ€™s too new or too different for consumers to embrace right away.Â So, consumers always say â€śnoâ€ť to the idea. We say, push it a little. Help respondents understand it, show how it aligns with their life, encourage them to think â€śforwardâ€ť and â€śdifferent.â€ťÂ No report will say â€śconsumers LOVED this ideaâ€ť but your strategy will be much more robust based on the learning.
5. The importance of research within the organization
While we donâ€™t allow consumers to â€śvalidate languageâ€ť, we do recognize that a final strategy does live on paper, in a set of words. And in order for them to embrace and activate a strategy, the words do matter.Â So we suggest checking-in with the internal team to understand; do they â€śget itâ€ť? Does it inspire them? Does it tell them what to do, and what not to do? Is it focused enough, clear enough? Are they excited to own it?Â The best idea wonâ€™t work unless it can be well articulated to the people who have to do something with it.
This is especially important when the strategy will be activated by people other than the marketing team. Say, you are creating a new payment product that will be sold in the bankâ€™s retail environment. If the people in the branches donâ€™t understand and embrace the idea, then they wonâ€™t want or be able to sell it.
6. For the love of insight
The best insights come from a strategist who thinks research and positioning are fun. And because itâ€™s fun, the strategist is fully present and aware, engaged and curious.
Only if you are fully present can you hear what people are saying. Itâ€™s not enough to just listen. You listen to words, agreements, answers. You hear insights, contradictions, patterns, confusion, enthusiasm. If you are aware, you can gain a more holistic understanding of whatâ€™s happening in the research environment:
- What is body language telling you?
- What are the intonations in how respondents talk that might give you a more authentic response?
- How does the energy in your research space indicate consumer attitude?
Research is about human-to-human interaction, not a facilitator and a bunch of people being facilitated. The more engaged you are with them and what they are saying, the more they will open up. The more curious you are, the better you will explore and probe the subject. Â Â Ask her kidsâ€™ names at introductions, and use those names when you ask about being a mom or whether this new website is relevant to her family.Â Ask him where he wants to go on vacation someday, and bring it up when you talk about dreams and aspirations. Laugh when someone says something funny, be awed when someone says something (they think) is amazing.Â Be engaged with them, and theyâ€™ll engage with you. Demonstrate that you love what you are doing, and theyâ€™ll love it too.
The best people who do research are curious. About people, situations, ideas, thoughts, attitudes, products, categories. Even the most banal categories can be interesting if you really care about gaining rich and juicy insights.Â Itâ€™s about recapturing your innocence, not being afraid to ask why and how and explain this to me.Â Itâ€™s about assuming you know nothing, and desperately wanting to learn and understand.
Curiosity mightâ€™ve killed the cat, but it saved the strategy.
Sara Schor, EVP, Strategy