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4 Historic Times Market Research Helped Avoid Catastrophic Decisions

Market research can be seen as quite a dry and uninteresting topic to those who aren’t involved in the industry. But for those of us who have been active in the research world for some time we enjoy the variety in our work and the opportunity to change perspectives and thinking with new insight and evidence; we cherish nothing more than the change and action that can be delivered off the back of our discoveries. So the next time you are at that social event and introduced to new people (facing that question of ‘what do you do?’) you can say, ‘I do market research and we change history!’ as I have four examples of market research that drove decisions to avoid catastrophe.

Market Research through the Ages

1. Second World War Propaganda

This is one of the earliest examples of focus groups that can be found, when K Merton examined the effectiveness of war propaganda – one of the first instances of looking beyond the poster content and taking into account the context and surroundings as influencing factors in the responses elicited. Early propaganda inspired fear and hatred of the enemy which motivated people to comply with rationing and frugality, but later messaging was found to engage people in positive behaviours through a reinforcement of values and community spirit. In terms of influential research with big consequences, very few campaigns really top studies that helped win the war and foster peace.

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In terms of influential research with big consequences. very few campaigns really top studies that helped win the war and foster peace.

2. Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram.

Consumer research has come a long way in the last 100 years. Henry Ford famously said customers could have their car in any colour as long as it’s black, but today consumers’ needs and desires are central to a brands offering; for many brands they must demonstrate they have given attention to this in order to market their great idea successfully.

We wouldn’t have Twitter, YouTube, or Instagram if it wasn’t for some good researching of the market. In the fast-paced digital world we live in, these companies could have taken the disastrous decision to ditch these products in their early forms, but researching the market enabled brands to strip back and focus these products to give the digital consumer exactly what they are looking for. These three social networking sites have transformed the way we consume, share, and engage with each other.

3. Starbucks changed coffee from a drink into an experience

The coffee and food-to-go industry is absolutely thriving and the brand that really set the bar for others is Starbucks. The clever thing that Starbucks did was to conduct research and identify ‘unmet needs’. Off the back of this they created an experience where customers from all walks of life would feel comfortable and welcome to sip drinks and eat snacks all day, with little touches such as the name on the cup creating a warmer and closer relationship. Starbucks are very attentive to customers which is apparent in their approach to market research.

Consumer trends and opinion are vital throughout this organisation, they even have a site for submitting and voting on ideas if you’d like to get involved. In 2007/2008 Starbucks were in trouble and profits were shrinking; they could have taken the decision that the coffee market was saturated and rolled back their store investment but instead they decided to listen to customers and really focus on exceptional experiences and recovered financially as a consequence. Other examples of researching and listening to customers in the nick of time are big brands like IBM and Dominos.

4. Lowering Cholesterol

My favourite example of market research influencing decision-making is Unilever’s campaign to improve consumers’ heart health. As psychologists and human behaviour specialists well know, a catastrophic decision isn’t necessarily attributable to one pivotal moment in a consumer’s journey and it is a collection of small negative health decisions that contribute to poor heart health. The challenge for Unilever was to get consumer’s to use their cholesterol lowering spreads and drinks consistently to see results.

There were two pieces of market research that informed their solution to this problem, the first was that people need to engage in a behaviour for at least 3 weeks for it to stick, the second was that the best way to achieve that longevity was to use the powerful concept of community spirit. Unilever’s marketing team created a program called ‘It Takes a Village’, which challenges the whole community to lower cholesterol. This program has so far had an 85% success rate and been rolled out in 10 countries. For me you can’t beat helping whole communities to avoid catastrophic health decisions, if this success continues we will hear about this throughout history I am sure.

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A catastrophic decision isn't necessarily attributable to one pivotal moment in a consumer's journey.

The great thing about the Unilever example is that, it is not just making history in terms of social impact, but it is also an example of using market research to its full potential. Unilever didn’t just run one study and apply the results to one marketing program, they created a global marketing information system that allowed them to consolidate and make available insights to the whole team. These insights could be used to drive real impact around the organisation, and that is what drove such an effective campaign for heart health.


Market research creates powerful insight that is vital for social change, motivating positive behaviour, action, and long term fitness for brands and businesses. However, it gets very little credit in these circumstances of avoiding catastrophe; market research is the quiet hero that runs through every successful organisation.

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Maria Twigge

Written by Maria Twigge

Maria is an active member of the UK market research industry, regularly presenting new and engaging topics at industry events. With over 9 experience guiding the FlexMR’s research services, Maria builds strong long-term partnerships with clients, providing insight to effectively translate client needs into action. You can follow Maria on Twitter or connect with her on LinkedIn.

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Topics: Shopper Behaviour, Innovation, Research in Society