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_____________________[PRO] Research International :: super groups

Mavericks help to break new ground :: Research International involves most creative consumers to hatch innovative products and marketing campaigns for its clients.

Mavericks help to break new ground
By Alicia Clegg
Financial Times; Dec 13, 2002

Four young men and women crouch around a sheet of paper and pitch in their ideas. One takes a coloured pen and sketches a large umbrella. Five minutes later, the group's first design for an interactive retail kiosk has morphed into a circular weather-booth dispensing waterproof gear on one side and sun-block and shades on the other.

The participants are about to join a pool of UK consumers that the market research agency Research International set up last year to help its clients hatch innovative products and marketing campaigns. This is the last stage in a selection process that has tested the consumers' ability to think laterally and to invent. Next week they will be doing it for real, working alongside companies such as Unilever and Wella, in two-day workshops known as Super Groups.

Inviting creative and articulate consumers to evaluate concepts and perhaps contribute some suggestions of their own is not unusual in new product development work. But Super Group consumers go one step further; their primary role is to originate ideas rather than to respond to them.
Gayle Moberg, managing director of innovation at Research International UK, explains how Super Group consumers differ from the respondents used in focus groups. "The average consumer struggles to visualise how they would benefit from things that they haven't experienced. Super Group consumers are different; they love playing with ideas and making connections between things that seem un-related, to create something new."

While other agencies that screen for creativity content themselves with a few tasks and questions along the lines of "List a hundred things that you could do with a hedgehog", Research International's selection process is rigorous and extended. To begin with, the would-be Super Grouper writes a creative letter. Those who impress are interviewed by phone and in person. At the next stage they complete a personality inventory and sit a three-hour test of their verbal and visual creativity, developed at Stanford University by Professor E. Paul Torrance, a psychologist.

At the end of all this, successful applicants (about 20 per cent of the original applicants) take part in a day-long workshop where they are taught techniques for creative problem solving. Judged by any standards, this represents a big upfront investment. On top of this are the fees that the Super Groupers receive every time they participate in an event, and which Ms Moberg describes as "substantially more" than the rates paid to focus group participants. But does the return justify the additional expense?

Advocates claim that creative consumers challenge brand-owners to break new ground. When left to their own devices, corporations tend to limit themselves to tried and tested formats. This maximises profitability only in the short term and at the price of filling the shops with look-alike brands and unadventurous line extensions.

Alexandra Wren, European consumer insight manager for Lever Fabergé, the home and personal care division of Unilever, says that creative consumers offer a unique and liberating perspective. "They are divorced from the constraints of the business. They don't start from an industry viewpoint. For them everything is possible."

Mel Jennings, one of Research International's expanding pool of creative consumers, likens herself and her peers to hired mavericks. "We see things differently and encourage clients to go beyond the obvious by taking routes that they haven't considered before."

Clearly, client companies need to be confident that a Super Group is capable of producing ideas that are commercially viable as well as imaginative. However, achieving this balance is far from straightforward. To begin with there is the question of what parameters to impose. Then there is the issue of how to involve the client without limiting the scope for free thinking.

One device that Research International employs is to use props such as soft toys, funny hats and sweets in coloured wrappers to evoke the freedom of childhood. The serious point behind this is that it creates an environment in which people feel able to explore ideas and to experiment. Only after going through this process of free-form thinking does the group begin to judge the various options against commercial criteria. At a later stage, the concepts developed within Super Group are put through normal market research, such as focus groups, to gauge the reactions of mainstream consumers.

Other marketers have responded to Super Group with a mixture of interest and scepticism. Simon Sholl, planning and development director at the brand design consultancy SiebertHead, commends Research International for bringing discipline to an approach that others have only improvised. By contrast, Louise Southcott, managing director of Link Consumer Strategies, questions the policy of retaining recruits for an extended period, arguing: "The value of being a consumer is to be a consumer. If you train people and use them repeatedly they become something else."

The pros and cons of Research International's methods can be debated. What matters for clients in the UK, and in the other countries in which Super Group pools are being set up, is whether the approach will enable them to innovate and to differentiate their brands in ways that their customers will value.

It is too early to know whether the products dreamt up by creative consumers in the UK will succeed commercially. However, in the US, where the technique originated, Super Groups have notched up some significant innovations. One recent success was General Mills' Chex Morning Mix, a fruit and nut cereal, packed in single-serving pouches, that can be eaten with milk or nibbled as a snack. Another winning idea produced Country Cocktails, a range of beverages that allowed Brown-Forman Corporation to take its Jack Daniel's whiskey brand into the low alcohol pre-mixed drinks market.
Allowing creative consumers to take the lead may, if it is done well, inspire products that stand out from the crowd. But success is not guaranteed.

Achieving a pay-back from this relatively high-cost approach to innovation demands disciplined processes backed up by follow-on research among mainstream consumers. Otherwise, says
Mr Sholl, there is a danger of "ivory towering" ideas. "Having the same little band developing concepts in blissful ignorance of what people in the real market might actually buy" is the last thing any client would want.

One device that Research International employs is to use props such as soft toys, funny hats and sweets in coloured wrappers to evoke the freedom of childhood.

all the right things they're doing...

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