True growth comes from asking the right questions because the intention is to explore not ask: Wise words by Adnan Pocketwala, the Head of Research at Ormax Consultants Pvt Ltd. He has nearly 10 years of experience in interacting with consumers across categories including FMCG, Education, Media and Finance. His intuitive, beyond-the-obvious approach towards consumer behavior, research design and product innovation is what makes him an asset to clients and partners. An avid student of mythology, Adnan has a penchant for decoding behavioural biases at play, otherwise invisible to the naked eye. He speaks to Samira Pillai on the importance of research in shaping communication, myths surrounding the subject and how individuals and young startups could use and apply research tools to achieve growth.

Research is to see what everyone else has seen, and to think what nobody else has thought (Albert Szent-Gyorgi, scientist). Does this apply to modern day market research, consumer understanding and strategy?

The thought applies to absolutely any individual or business! Part of the reason why we have it on our wall is because it is timeless. It speaks about a mind that can spot opportunity / opportunities. An opportunity that others may simply not know existed or may even overlook.

Research is not about asking more questions or the same questions again hoping to elicit a new response. It is about deeply observing shifts in consumer behavior, perceptions and beliefs with a fresh lens.

We must foremost acknowledge that research is a thinking business. That itself changes the way we approach understanding consumers and business strategy. And this is as true today as it was in the past. We often work in categories which have been around for decades, like deodorants, salt, sugar, chocolates etc. and have been researched for years. However does that mean the consumer is completely satisfied and there are no opportunities for better and more relevant products to be launched.

Fogg saw an opportunity in deodorants, a category which had been around for years. It saw an opening that no one else saw. It thought about the category and consumer need differently.  That’s how you make successful products and brands. It was the same way during our work with Puro, in launching a salt brand or with Welspun in the bed and bath space or even with Kapiva in the Ayurveda space.

Research = Opportunity Creation. Please elaborate.

Most companies have play books, things that they have done in the past which they know will work. Steps which will get them that x% growth quarter on quarter or year on year. Research helps to add to your existing playbook or refreshing your playbook. Find ways to spot opportunities beyond your existing playbook. Opportunities which will help your brand grow faster and become stronger.

Think of this moment, with this pandemic, there have been numerous changes in consumer behavior, this is where research is invaluable in identifying new opportunities and finding new ways to engage the consumer with products, services and content.

And these have to be created, you have to know and understand your consumer deeply to be able to become more relevant to their lives. Make them choose you in a crowded and competitive market place.

5 Tips on Using Research for Personal and Business Growth by Adnan

Whether a large brand, or a new business setup; whether a mompreneur or foodpreneur; whether a trainer or a consultant, much of the business rules remain the same. Everyone has a consumer, a market and competition. Build a solid foundation which aligns everything else – from your pitch, to communication and content strategy to even your business strategy. There are some key things to have utmost clarity on.

Is research just a starting point from where content and content marketing strategies evolve or does it guide the overall plan?      

I don’t think research itself defines your content marketing plan or strategy. If used well, research can help you gain clarity on what your brand stands for. What role do you play in the consumer’s life? How they think and feel about you, what do they expect from you? It helps you spot conversations that your consumers want to have or are interested in.

A while ago we did a study with a partner in the fashion space and we helped them not only identify the right social media channel but also what consumers expected from a brand like theirs. This then went into building their content strategy and also their tonality.

We are now working in the space of understanding the ‘moms of today’: their needs, desires, frustrations, who do they turn to for help, who and what do they trust, what makes them anxious and unsure. When such rich consumer understanding is overlaid with your brand story, it could be used powerfully to create meaningful and relevant conversations.

Think about it this way, much of what we know is based on our own experiences and biases, what we feel is important and great. Research helps you see the world from someone else’s eyes, your consumers’ eyes.

What goes into the making of an intelligent question?

This is a difficult one, because we truly believe that all questions are powerful in their own way. At Ormax we pride ourselves in being eternally curious, constantly asking the ‘Why’. It is one of the key factors to our success and ability to constantly add value to partners.

However, true growth comes from asking the right questions. So the thought is not intelligent questions, but the right question. We often meet partners who find it difficult to frame the question or articulate what it is they really want to know. That’s why we always ask for a conversation with the business owner, the one who owns the problem. We never work on a written brief unless we have spoken to the partner first.

Also we bring it down to 2-3 questions at best. Because unless you are clear what really stops you from taking a business decision. No amount of research will ever help or be actionable. The right question always illuminates the way.

If research is meant to understand current consumer psychology and behaviour and cater to their needs and desires in the way they receive it best… does it leave space to address a need that has not arisen yet, a method that hasn’t been experienced yet?

We at Ormax understand 4 types of needs: Stated– (A need which is clearly articulated by the consumer), Unstated– (Here a need exists but it’s not verbalised due to social or cultural constraints), Felt– (The consumer feels the need and knows it exist), Unfelt– (The consumer feels no need, maybe because he or she is completely satisfied or does not know there is anything better). This gives you a beautiful 2X2 matrix to map all needs and identify the one a brand or business sees most alignment with

In practice, there are two powerful starting points to identify need gaps: One, start with a crib session and let the consumer speak about all the problems or complaints he has with the category. Not only the brand. That is often goldmine to spot gaps and new product ideas. Two, shift focus from understanding what the product does or fails to do to identifying the role it plays in the consumer’s life, what job it really does. This is a great way to identify unsaid or unfelt needs, since it goes beyond the physical product limitation.

For example, there are various jobs or roles toothpaste plays – teeth cleaning, fresh breath, confidence, wake you up, signal it is morning, change the taste in your mouth etc. Now if we analyse this, we can see various types of needs emerge which may not come out by simply asking a consumer what he wants changed or improved in his tooth paste. We must recognise that a consumer does not spend 8 hours a day thinking about his toothpaste. Only we do that, as owners or brand managers of a tooth paste.

Traditional research involved more face to face conversations, often accounted for non verbal communication and has been considered to have richer data points. Digital technology and smartphone penetration on the other hand, has expanded horizons, is considered to be more real time and audience inclusive. It also allows more users to participate anonymously. Please comment.

Face to face, in person, over a phone or digitally are only the context in which you understand your consumer, how you understand the consumer. The power or limitation of the medium should never decide what you aim to understand.

Yes you are right that a face to face helps you pick up non verbal cues which a digital interaction may not, which is why we always choose a medium basis what we want to know. It comes after you have decided what you aim to explore. Many times we want to know a person’s individual feelings and desires, things that are private to them. Here, an in-person conversation helps because the connect has to be human to human. Digital would not work well here. We have had women in ghunghats become comfortable enough to share their family hardships and troubles with us. Same as how we have had girls confess and share moments of joy they have had with their partners. Other times we may want to know how a person reacts to something in a social context. This is where a group setting is invaluable.

That said, digital does not mean devoid of non verbal cues. Today technology helps us record conversations: look for visual cues, check for pauses, shifts in tonality etc. We do this actively while working on assignments even if they are conducted online. Actually, especially when they are conducted online.

To be honest, most studies often require a mix of techniques to be employed. Like when working with a partner on a new chocolate bar we had to not only understand reactions to the idea but also observe how they ate the bar and what that reminded them of. I still remember one of them saying this feels like eating a burger.

The idea is to work with the medium and not force a fit. Each has its strengths and limitations. If you understand your consumer well you know which medium will help them open up most and share.

On the other side of things, in your experience, are target groups wary of surveys?

Fundamentally we are a social species and love sharing. Think of all the unsolicited advice you receive from friends and neighbours in your society. Honestly, we meet many consumers who participate and share their mind as willing contributors, especially when they are made aware of the role or importance of their inputs. That is the key to good research.

How mindfully do audiences respond to surveys?

The industry has often faced criticism that consumers say one thing and do another, but that is not because they are being dishonest or vague. The issue is as humans we are not always and truly aware of our actions. Thus a good research design would have to keep that in mind.

I was in discussion with someone who wanted to launch an online rent a dress business model and was sure it would be a success because x% people had told him it was a great idea. This is a great example of a flawed research design for many reasons. For one, a good idea is not the same as ‘I would’ do it. So asking a few questions is just poor research design.

The fact is that each one of us would have different concerns while renting a dress – like what would my neighbours think about me, will it fit me, how hygienic would it be etc. Unless the research aims to deep dive and explore all the threads in a conversation, identify all the behavior blocks it would never be a success. Good research needs to explore and not ask.

Does the design or the survey matter and does it impact how they respond

Absolutely! It can make or break the research for numerous reasons. There is a brilliant example of this in a series called ‘Yes Minister’. It explains how poor design will not only lead to giving you a faulty answer but also how a skillful researcher could manipulate consumers into giving him the answer he seeks or believes is right.

There is a common perception that undertaking research is cumbersome, expensive and time consuming. Is this true?

Think of research as an investment. It is a craft which requires skill, which does add to the cost and effort. You cannot use a hammer to sculpt a masterpiece. Having said this, research does not always need to be costly. We have worked on projects and delivered strategic pieces in 3-4 weeks for a few lakhs. What we never do is dip sticks or conduct fast and quick research because there is no value to be unlocked there. You put garbage in, you get garbage out. At best it will look nicer.

We work extensively with entrepreneurs and startups, when many of them are at the start of their journey, some don’t even have a product in place or the product is still under development. Our aim always is to help them identify and narrow down what it is they really need an answer to. Do they want to validate the idea or find ways to communicate the same or work on their positioning or find opportunities within the category or identify triggers and barriers to product adoptions etc.

Also, research is a step by step process. It’s not all at once. Each piece of research builds on past information and helps explore and understand additional nuances and aspects. Each piece of research unfolds a different key and builds on your knowledge base as the owner.

Many of our partnerships have been over several years, some started with a small study and then went on to do bigger things as the company grew. As I said earlier, think of research as an investment. It is like reading, you don’t know the value of it till you experience it.