Why We Don't Do Market Research
by Shabnam Gideon
An important part of our process at Focus Lab is explaining our work to each new client: what each piece is, why we do it, what the outcome should be, how to use it, etc. Sometimes we’re asked to explain work we don’t do, or rather why we don’t do some particular exercise or process.
“Market research” falls into that latter category. It’s true: Focus Lab does not do focus groups. This question can come up in sales conversations, and sometimes even after a project is in motion. Our response has always been the same, though our reasons may have evolved over the years.
To be clear, we DO research, lots of it, into your company and brand, audience, landscape, competitors, and more. But there’s a difference between the research we do and market research.
To explain why we don’t do (or even necessarily recommend) market research in the branding context, it’ll be helpful to explore some definitions.
At its core, “market research” is tied to the marketing function of an organization, which is related to but wholly separate from an organization's brand.
Branding, on the other hand, is a precursor to marketing. It’s the proactive effort of a company to distill and crystallize its brand: who that company is, why it exists, what it looks and sounds like, etc. It considers audience, and calls attention to its own inherent characteristics that appeal to audience, but it does not change itself to suit audience or market.
Marketing and market research look at how customers behave in a given market situation, and at general market trends. By nature, it’s a reactive sort of study; marketing uses information about audience behavior to determine how to communicate your brand to whom and when, and to figure out how you might want to create or modify a product or its appearance to suit an audience. As soon as we act as a response to audience or market, we’ve left the realm of branding and entered that of marketing.
Marketing focuses on the sale, on the singular moments of convincing a customer to make a purchase. Branding is every impression, moment, and feeling that drew that customer into your orbit in the first place.
TL;DR: Brand is the pull, marketing is the push. Brand is the offer, marketing is the promotion of that offer.
Now that we have an understanding of the difference, it becomes clear why market research doesn’t have a place in a pure branding effort.
Let’s explore some additional reasons why market research doesn’t factor into the creation of a brand:
1. A brand is about what’s within, not what’s without.
Brand strategy and direction is about what’s true for a brand, not what we think people will like or even what we think people think of us. When we seek approval from outside the organization, we relinquish ownership of our brand and hand over our power to voices that don’t understand our vision, again risking inauthenticity by being truer to others than we are to ourselves.
Market research and marketing are wholly separate from an organization's brand because they’re tied to an outside source.
Brands move people, envelop them, because of the way they make them feel, not because of what they do or how many boxes they check.
2. Market research tends to ask individuals to look at just a single piece of a brand experience.
This research has to pick a focal point, and that point tends to be narrow enough that any audience response won’t consider the whole of the brand and thus is an inaccurate predictor of brand success. Using this type of input risks diluting the brand work and misguiding decision-making.
In addition, consumers are smarter than companies give them credit for. Paid-for feedback is inherently different from real-world feedback, which tends to be based more on emotion than we’d all like to think but is more accurate in the larger picture. Not only is the data from paid feedback less viable, but if you build a brand based on the needs of a focus group, there’s a good chance your brand outcomes will backfire with your whole audience because of the resulting inauthenticity.
Also, focus groups tend to give unreliable data when it comes to your positioning and what will make you stand out. Ask a paid consumer group what appeals to them in your space, and you’re likely to learn that they tend toward the clichés that make your competition blend together. A thorough competitive analysis (more on that below) is a better way to evaluate the ways you might differentiate yourself from your competitors. Done well, you learn how to differentiate intentionally, versus doing so just for the sake of being different (which will almost certainly backfire with your audience).
3. Similarly, market research can lead you into the “design by committee” trap
“Design by committee” is when design decisions are made based on a multitude of competing inputs, typically resulting in a diluted and pale brand experience. This many users like red, so you go with red. And these other users hate squares, so you get rid of all the block shapes.
This type of input is helpful when understanding why an existing product does or doesn’t work. In those cases, you get useful input because that group has an informed frame of reference based on experience.
But asking a user group to help define or forecast a direction usually just identifies the least offensive and most familiar and comfortable options (red and not squares). Their frame of reference is incomplete because they don’t have a current experience of your brand, and so they gravitate toward what they know and think they like.
Yet in branding, choosing safety over self-assuredness and truth is rarely the path to greatness and renown. If we give our direction-setting power over to others, we lose the ability to stand on our own.
Consider Nike. In 1971, the swoosh meant nothing to no one. Plenty of people saw it and thought, “So what?” Now, 50 years later, we can see how time has imbued that simple mark with years of brand-building associations. Brand questions like these aren’t solved in minutes by asking a friend what they like. They’re solved over time, and in concert with so many other aspects of a brand.
4. No matter how much you want it, there is no certainty in branding.
But neither is there in marketing, or in advertising, or in love, or in baseball. The need for “research” and “insights” are often another attempt at our very human need for certainty.
Branding is both a science and an art. A brand, comprised of visual and verbal components, is a creative output guided by rational inquiry.
Through that inquiry we can and do learn all we can about you, your audience, your competition, what sets you apart and more. Yet as soon as we dig into audience we begin to deal with the complexities of human social, psychological, behavioral, and economic tendencies, and the science becomes less clear and far less certain. Plus, at the end of the day, we’d like to think we’re all rational beings making entirely rational decisions, but that’s just not how we work.
What’s my point? Market research literally cannot give you the answers to branding questions. But we’re here for the conversation about the intersection of the science and the art, just say the word.
A Note About The World of Tech Today
The competition in the world of tech today is intense. This level of intensity and the number of options in the market affect both the companies and the consumer.
When organizations innovate based strictly on traditional market research and trends, they risk the possibility that by the time the research is implemented, the insights are no longer accurate. The audience has moved on or their needs have changed. The saturation points in tech have made focus group-style feedback less reliable because if consumers don’t feel connected to your brand, they 100% can find someone else doing what you're doing, and you'll never know the difference.
Remember, people look to brands for meaning, not the other way around.
What You Can and Should Expect
So what kind of research do we do?
With regard to the customer, we do audience research. We look at your audiences, point persons/buyers/end users, their needs, their demographics, and the motivations and behaviors that shape their decision-making. We use this information to give us a wide angle view into how a brand might appeal to and add value for the audience. Our aim is to create a brand that will resonate with your target in a way that draws them to you rationally but also emotionally and psychologically.
If you have reports from your customer experience teams, or other qualitative or quantitative customer research on audience perception and/or needs analysis, we’ll take a look at that, too.
We of course do other direct research in the service of brand strategy: research into you and your company and industry, competitive landscape analysis, positioning research and strategy, and more depending on scope. We also stay apprised of design and brand trends so that we can apply or avoid those depending on your goals and the strategy of your brand.
And our method delivers results.
The process of branding uncovers meaning that can’t be found in a single question, session, or anywhere else other than from within your organization. Our work is not built on short-sighted wins. It’s an exercise of strategy and of endurance.
Also, we’re not alone in our thinking: household names like Apple, Tesla, and more also don’t engage in market research. It’s their convictions that allow them to appeal to a future market not yet in existence, unclaimed and free for the taking. And obviously, it works.
Lastly, it’s important to mention that we’re experts in branding, as we’ve proven ourselves to be for hundreds of clients across a span of industries. As we tell each of our clients, we will never know as much about your industry as you do. But we can help you dig deep and uncover what it is about your brand that will mean something to the world. I believe it’s that promise and our process in getting there that draws our customers to us.
We do know a thing or two about branding and we ask for your trust that our proven process will produce the brand that serves you and your customers best.
(Special thanks to Haley Bridges and Liz Kelley for their significant contributions to this post.)