The 2015 General Election – The End Of Market Research As We Know It?

I am going to try to avoid politics altogether, both the result and the electoral system which delivered it, since this has no place in our politically neutral Marketing Society. At least I’ll try my best, because what I really want to focus on is why the opinion polls got it wrong. This is very important because the election polls are not only the most visible and engaging form of market research for the nation as a whole, they are also highly influential on how most senior business people, those who are not career marketers, view market research. Putting it bluntly, if opinion polls can get it so wrong how can you trust any market research?

This happened in 1992. The opinion polls were predicting a clear win for Labour led by Neil Kinnock and as we know the result was a resounding triumph for John Major and the Tories. There was indeed a strong move to Labour who picked up 42 seats from a 3.6% swing in votes. The Conservatives lost 40 seats (compared to Thatcher’s landslide win in 1987) but they secured 14.1 million votes, 41.9% of a high turnout of voters, enough to give them 336 seats, a big majority. The real losers were the LibDems under Paddy Ashdown, who lost 20 seats and retained only 22. Sound familiar? So will this. The two issues of the election were the economy, we were in a recession, and immigration. The Tories campaigned on both issues with scare stories about high taxation, high inflation and “opening the floodgates to immigrants”, under Kinnock’s Labour party. It worked. There was the infamous gaff of Kinnock arriving in Presidential style to a pre-election Labour rally, then tripping over and falling into the sea the following day. John Major went round the country with a little wooden soap-box, and the Sun newspaper apparently won it with their high profile support for the Conservatives. So was it the policies, the fear factor, Kinnock looking a bit pompous and accident prone, Major looking like a decent guy, the support of Murdoch’s press? Who knows – all of the above – but the fact is that opinion polls spectacularly got it wrong, and did so right up to the moment real votes were cast.

I can remember clearly in the months that followed the 1992 election being in meetings and presenting market research data to support some recommendation or other and seeing the cynical look on the faces of the non-marketers in the room. Some of them came right out and said it – “Yes, but market research said Labour would win”.

I predict this will happen again. Research clearly tells us that the green pack is preferred. Yes and research told us emphatically that it would be a hung parliament. So, my fellow marketers, all of whom will want to continue using market research to inform decision-making, you better get your arguments together. And I want to help you, even though part of me is celebrating the end of market research as we know it. Even though I do regard 99.9% of market research as another “higher form of ignorance” (see my recent post).

Back in 1992 we used the following arguments. The polls did not ask the right question. They asked which party you would vote for, not which leader you prefer and which policies are most important to you. Overall the polls showed that the majority of people thought they would vote Labour, but they also thought Kinnock was a bit of a pillock and they did not trust Labour with the economy or immigration. That is what actually drove where they cast their vote in the secrecy of the polling booth. Opinion polls in the USA are more accurate because their electoral system separates party preference from Presidential choice. Any anyway, you should never use quant research on its own, focus groups would have told you that claimed voting intentions masked an underlying lack of confidence in Labour and their leader among the key socio-demographic groups Labour needed to win over to secure a victory.

The same arguments can be applied to this last election – even the same issues and the same groups. Let me illustrate this with the purest form of qualitative research. I met up with an old colleague, a middle class Northerner and lifelong Labour supporter, just a week before the election. Let’s call him Tony. For Tony, support for Labour is visceral, he admitted that. He could never imagine not voting Labour. I did not try to dissuade him, I simply said, “Miliband, Balls, SNP, fragile economic recovery, really, I mean really?” I promise you, he gave out a long sigh. Yes, he said, I guess you’re right. No idea how he actually voted but you get my point. Party allegiance is not the same as your actual vote when you consider the real issues and the real options, and as you wrestle with the reality of our electoral system. You are not just casting your vote for your local MP, you are also casting your vote for who governs the country in a first-past-the-post system. That alone makes a fool of Opinion Polls – and yes, I am aware that Lord Ashcroft and his team developed a way of asking the questions that separated the local MP choice from the national choice but it didn’t work did it? His final poll put Labour and Conservatives both on 33% and he was publicly saying a hung parliament was by far the most likely outcome.

So let’s summarise – market research is fine but a) you’ve got to ask the right questions b) you’ve got to segment the respondents and c) you have to use quant and qual to get the full picture. Right? Wrong. You have to accept that 99.9% (that is statistically significant by the way) of all market research never gives you the full picture and will never reliably predict outcomes for one very important reason. Humans. It fails to take account of the human condition, our genetic programming and how the brain actually works.

Not only do we not know what we think, we do not know how we think. So how can any question posed in a market research context ever predict or even fully explain anything?

I could elaborate but time’s up (I have a word count limit I have to stick to). So let me just close by saying the 2015 Election should be the end of market research as we know it, and good riddance. It should now be the age of market intelligence.

Why Oh Why?

I’m doing some work on leadership at the moment – as a marketer I work on the principle that you don’t need to be good at something to be able to express a view – and I came across a TED talk from Simon Sinek

It was posted in 2009 so I would imagine many of you (maybe even both of you) have already seen the video but I am quite taken with it. It offers an important message not just to leaders but to brands – people buy why you do what you do, not just what you do or how you do it. Or put another way, it is your beliefs and motivations that inspire a following.

Making a profit is a result but it cannot be your prime motivation if you are looking for loyalty and commitment. He has a very simple model based on what, how, why. People or companies know what they do and most know how they do it but only leaders are clear about why and unlike the rest of us that is where they start. “This is what I believe – what I do and how I do it are the proof”.

He explains that this is based not just on insight but science, how the big bit of the brain works – the Behavioral Economists will understand all this. But even without the science it just makes sense. I have also been doing a lot of work on the Craft Movement in drinks. People know what the big drinks brands do and often how they do it, but they don’t know why (other than making a profit). With Craft beers you know exactly why and that explains their growing following.

And on the subject of craft – you’re going to love this link – I spotted in the press the speculation about Kraft being bought up by Brazilian Private Equity firm 3G. It was Kraft who bought Cadbury and then span it off into a separate company, Mondelez, together with Toblerone and Oreo cookies. 3G together with Warren Buffet bought Heinz and are rumoured to be sniffing around Campbell’s.

I would imagine all these well known brands can articulate what they do and how they do it, whoever owns them. But it must be awfully hard to offer any reason why they do it other than to make money. In fact I would imagine that if you went to the board of any of these companies and suggested that in order to inspire more followers (sell more stuff) it would be a good idea to identify the motivation, the beliefs, the ideals behind the brands and to put these ahead of this year’s profit objective you might find yourself out of a job.

The main guy behind 3G is Jorge Paulo Lemann. He is the same guy behind the creation of ABI, the people who brew Stella Artois and Budweiser. He is clearly a very smart businessman and as a result is wealthier than many medium size nations. I can’t imagine he would care what I think but Jorge, if you get to hear about this, I’d pose you one question.

You are getting your butt kicked by Craft beers (15% of the USA market by volume, 25% by value and still growing). What are you going to do about it?

What ABI, and indeed SABMiller, are actually doing is buying up the more successful Craft Brewers. I wonder whether this strategy will work? You buy the ‘how and what’ but lose the ‘why’. Perhaps I’m wrong – Ben and Jerry’s and then Innocent both sold out and the brands still do well I’m told.

But can you be a leader of a big business that in large measure is publically owned and put your faith in idealism – ideals and beliefs that trump pure profit? Simon Sinek uses Apple as one of his examples in the video but back in 2009 Steve Jobs was still in charge. Now there was an inspiring leader who knew why he did it, not just how and what.

Can you be a politician and win power with your ideology in tact? Well some might say Thatcher did. You may not have agreed with her – I didn’t at the time – but she was clearly motivated by beliefs and succeeded in inspiring first the grey suits of the Tory party and then the electorate. So did Churchill for that matter.

But can you be a brand manager working in a big multinational and put the “why” at the heart of your marketing? Depends what kind of leader you are.

And that is what I have always believed – to be a great brand manager you have to be a great leader, so it’s worth paying attention to this leadership stuff.

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