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Qualitative Market Research: Probing Beyond Numbers

with Anju Joseph, Senior Vice President, Quantum Consumer Solutions Pvt. Ltd.

 
Changing consumer behavior and increased competition have refined the way market research is conducted. The marketing space today has become more challenging and marketers need to devise creative ways to engage their consumers. Qualitative research which looks into the aspect of understanding consumer needs seems to be a powerful tool in such a scenario. In this interview with Anju Joseph, Senior Vice President at Quantum Consumer Solutions Pvt Ltd, we attempt to understand how qualitative research techniques have evolved over the years, compare them with quantitative methods and discuss the underlying issues and challenges encountered.

    Modern Qualitative Research Techniques

    tejas@iimb: Over the years, qualitative research techniques have gone beyond traditional approaches like focus groups and in-depth interviews to newer methods like ethnographic research, archetypes, etc. Could you briefly tell us about some of these modern approaches that are extensively used at Quantum?

    AJ: We, at Quantum Consumer Solutions, are constantly trying to understand the consumer and the various facets of the consumer. Given the fact that the marketing world and consumers are rapidly changing in todayís environment, we currently offer four types of solutions for the client. Quantum Qualitative focuses on understanding the psyche of the consumer, Quantum Ethnography looks at understanding consumer behavior through the lens of culture. We also have two new divisions. Quantum 360 is our Consumer Consulting Division and Quantum Live focuses on creating live consumer experiences for the client team. When we looked at the discipline of Qualitative research, we felt that as a discipline, we were largely accessing the subconscious mind. However, the real decision making happens at the unconscious. Given this, our work today is focused on accessing the unconscious so that the real consumer can be understood in terms of drivers, anxieties, decision making and aspirations.

    tejas@iimb: Quantum Consumer Solutions has many major Indian and MNC firms as its clients. Could you give us an example of one such engagement and the type of study employed for qualitative research?

    AJ: To give you an example, we at Quantum employed the brand archetype study to arrive at the deep connect that consumers have with Titan Raga as a brand. What we discovered was that consumers associated it with exquisite beauty, sensuality and femininity. The brand archetype was the lover and this was the entire premise for the successful Rani Mukherjee advertising campaign for Titan Raga. Qualitative research tells you the granular deep understanding of the consumerís mind. My advice to students at IIMB, who will eventually be the future marketers, is that sometimes it is better to trust instincts and take risks. With consumers becoming more complex, it is essential to break out of stereotypical templates historically employed in the marketing profession.

    tejas@iimb: Qualitative research is about understanding the human psychology and studying the consumerís mind. Since this demands special skills, what kind of people can become successful qualitative researchers?

    AJ: Qualitative research is a specialized field. However, background is not the key criterion. It is important that qualitative researchers are excited and passionate about human beings. Any person who is deeply interested in understanding the nuances of human behavior can become a good qualitative researcher. In fact we view the eclectic mix of people at Quantum as one of our discriminators. We have people from varied backgrounds such as marketing, psychology, sociology, mathematics, chemistry and so on.

    The Qualitative vs Quantitative Debate

    tejas@iimb: There is usually a debate regarding qualitative and quantitative researchers on which the better approach is. To quote the two views, Fred Kerlinger states in his book, Qualitative Data Analysis, that ĎThere's no such thing as qualitative data. Everything is either 1 or 0", whereas another researcher D.T. Campbell maintains that, "All research ultimately has a qualitative grounding".1 What is your view on this? Do you perceive one as a better technique than the other or do these two methods complement each other?

    AJ: I donít think there is any conflict. Quantitative and qualitative researches are two different disciplines and cannot substitute one another. If you want to know how many people will buy your product, I canít answer that but if you ask me why people will buy your product, I can give you an answer. So it basically depends on the marketing questions and objectives. Marketers today are understanding this more and more. If it is market sizing one wishes to study, approach a quantitative researcher. Of course both these methods complement one another. If the marketing problem is why people are not buying the product, qualitative research will tell you the attributes people are looking for and what is happening currently. These attributes could later be converted into numbers as inputs for a quantitative research exercise.

    tejas@iimb: The general perception is that a new business idea or insight backed by hard numbers and statistics can be sold more easily. Having worked with a number of clients, do you agree with this? Is it more difficult to convince decision makers with consumer insights based on qualitative data?

    AJ: No, I donít see any difficulty in marketing qualitative research. As I said, the research methodology depends on the question that the marketer seeks to answer. The marketing fraternity today is evolved and they understand how these two methods work. Our clients expect answers to questions like why their product will work and want to understand the target consumerís culture and aspirations. They donít expect numbers from us. People tend to look at qualitative research as an art, but that is not true. Qualitative research is very much a science.

    Respondent Selection

    tejas@iimb: Since qualitative research typically involves a smaller sample than that used for quantitative sampling, the selection of respondents must be a very critical aspect. What is the strategy used for respondent recruitment so as to ensure reliability and validity of the research?

    AJ: Respondents are critical for both qualitative and quantitative research. However, for qualitative research, it is more critical for the client to define the audience. Earlier we had demographic criteria and almost always used socio-economic classification or SEC to define respondents. Today the consumer is much more complex. For us it is important to have the correct attitudinal profile of the respondents. With the kind of processes that we have in place, we have been able to create a field network that is exclusive to us and works like a separate parallel organization. The field set up has recruiters, supervisors and field controllers and they are doing quality control at different levels. I am not saying that the mechanism is 100% error proof. However, in case of an error it is redone at our cost.

    tejas@iimb: Since respondent behavior may be highly diverse across geographies and cultures, how do you factor in these differences during sampling? Do you approach a niche target segment or reach out to the broader market?

    AJ: If you take India as a country, the culture as a whole is heterogeneous. There is no one city/state/market that is a true representative of India as a whole. Given this, as a marketer you need to make some choices since you practically canít go to every city. So, we use filters depending on the brand. Say if it is a youth brand, we try to reach out to youth across certain geographies; we go to markets that are more fashion forward and identify strong markets and weak markets. So selection of markets is linked to the brand.

    tejas@iimb: Qualitative research involves in-depth understanding of human behavior and may often be probing in nature. Can you give us some insights on the ethical and confidentiality challenges faced during qualitative research?

    AJ: We donít give away the results to the respondents. We present the findings to the clients but never tell them the names of the respondents. We maintain extreme confidentiality in this regard. The respondents are briefed about the subject but they may not know the actual intent always- since you donít tell them the exact objectives and deliverables. You just tell them that today I am trying to understand, say skin care and make them play games, interact with them and ask questions. I donít think there is an ethical issue since the respondents always have the choice not to participate or they can say no to a section that they donít want to answer. We have studied subjects ranging from condoms to alcohol to tea and coffee, but havenít faced any issues so far.

    Future of Qualitative Research

    tejas@iimb: Businesses have embraced the recent technological advances in social media and are effectively putting it to use in their marketing campaigns. With the advent of non-traditional marketing like digital and social media, what is the impact on market research in general? What is the implication specifically for qualitative research?

    AJ: The advent of social media doesnít necessarily mean that conventional media is ceasing to exist. It still continues to play a huge role especially in a country like India where only specific target audiences can use social media. Of course, qualitative research is developing and is trying to incorporate an understanding of the consumer via the net/his behavior on the net. For instance, social media helps us to access profiles of people we meet, enables us to study their behavior in that medium and allows us to create youth communities. But it isnít like conventional research has died with increased access to internet. According to me, social media is just one amongst several channels. The vocabulary used in marketing circles today is integrated marketing communications or IMC. Certainly the web will gain more acceptance and will become more widespread in its usage as a medium of communication but I donít think that the other media would cease to exist. In fact, increasing bombardment due to traditional mass media like TV is now leading to word of mouth becoming another major medium, which in addition to being used by the internet virtually, is happening in the real world as well.

    tejas@iimb: Qualitative research has an inherent degree of variability in the way it is conducted. But flexibility is probably a major attribute that distinguishes it from quantitative research. In such a scenario, do you see international standards being established to enhance professionalism and ensure integrity of the research? Will it be beneficial or act as a disadvantage?

    AJ: To me this comes with a premise that currently qualitative research is not professional, which I disagree with. As I mentioned earlier, qualitative research is a science and not an art. It is not about someone stating somewhere that "this is what I think", but it is more study oriented and is evolving. People usually talk about skill of the moderator in qualitative research techniques like focus groups. This is just a myth. It is not as if only one person can do this kind of research, which is why I call it science and not an art. However, any improvement in standards is always welcome. Something like an ISO certification is valuable and should be encouraged but the premise that qualitative research is not professional is completely untrue.

    Conclusion

    Qualitative market research involves understanding consumer behavior. Its techniques have evolved over the years beyond traditional focus groups and personal interviews. Qualitative research is very much a science and has been employed by marketers to understand the reasons why or why not their product would sell, what is the experience that the consumer attaches to the product and what he seeks to gain from the experience. Qualitative Research has assumed increasing importance today considering that the marketing space has become extremely challenging and businesses need to devise creative ways to engage their consumers.

    Profile

    Anju Joseph is the Senior Vice President of Quantum Consumer Solutions. Quantum is the market leader in the qualitative market research domain and has almost all major Indian and MNC firms as its clients.

    References

    1. http://writing.colostate.edu/guides/research/gentrans/pop2f.cfm, Last accessed August 20, 2011

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