Thursday, 5 December 2013

Onwards and Upwards (Sophie Hawker)

Having worked extensively with museums and galleries in the past, we recently took a stand at the Museums Association Exhibition and Conference. It was a great opportunity to talk to people involved in all areas of the museums and galleries sector, from directors to curators and suppliers to volunteers. Not only did it help re-establish some existing relationships, it also helped lay the foundations for creating new ones in the future.

What it also did was help us to re-evaluate and re-confirm the key roles which are now developing at Park Lane Research. Three months on from my first day, we can now plan to use these more effectively. 

We realised at the conference networking events that I was much more comfortable than Barrie at approaching people I didn’t know, and finding common ground. In the exhibition environment, there was a need to take the plunge, to make that first approach, and to welcome people onto our stand. 

My role as student manager for the English Department at University of York has clearly stood me in good stead for this. It meant I was forever at open days, showing round prospective students and their parents and ‘selling’ the university and the course I loved. This experience was boosted and enhanced by the work experience I then gained at PR and Advertising agencies once I had graduated.

Barrie’s nature and general approach meant that he was more likely to take a step back at the conference, especially when confronted with new people at our stand. He still tells the tale of how a favoured client at Tesco once introduced him by saying, ‘this is Barrie, he’s brilliant at what he does but he’s s*** at marketing himself.’

Over the years, this has never been a major issue from a company success point of view – Barrie has been happy with how things have gone – he’s built long-lasting relationships with clients who have come back again and again and again.

My appointment, however, is a recognition that the company does not have to continue to hide its light under a bushel. My role is about marketing the company and playing to my strengths, as well as promoting Barrie’s.

So far as we’re concerned, we’re starting to become the dream team – I’ll help generate more contacts, more business; Barrie will continue to deliver high quality research, underpinned by more than twenty years experience.

Oh, and considering he’s my Dad, we seem to get along quite nicely too!

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Hawker's Epiphany

No, I’m not going to write about the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi.  I’m going to concentrate on the other definition of epiphany; a moment of sudden and great revelation or realisation.

Because as some of you may know, this month I attended a conference in Liverpool, and it’s fair to say that this is where my most recent epiphany occurred.  I was listening to someone involved with designing museums and galleries (Christian Lachel) and a key part of his address was to say that one should always ‘start with the heart, and then move outwards’. 

His claim was that through understanding people’s emotions, or indeed their personal story, we could begin to design around it to ensure that what was designed chimed perfectly with what was felt.

And there it was; a paper amongst many papers, a suggestion amongst many other suggestions.  But here was one that cut to my heart; here was one that I totally ‘got’.

It brought home to me what I actually try and do as a qualitative researcher – because I too attempt to find out what is in someone’s heart in order to understand what might explain their story. 

And yes, sometimes this is built around what some might say are more mundane products; a paint brush, a car shampoo, an electric cooler even.

But at other times, the topic is more intense; teenage health and wellbeing, post natal illness, heart disease, adoption; all of these sensitive issues I’ve researched quite recently.

And what do both sets of subjects involve; they involve me trying to get to the heart of the matter; trying to unravel stories which I can later use to build strategies around whatever marketing problem I’ve been asked to address.

Regular readers of my blogs will know that I have sometimes struggled to explain to friends and family about what I do for a living.  In their eyes, even those who have known me for a long time, I’m convinced their image is still of me standing on street corners with a clipboard.  And whilst in fairness I’m still heavily involved with that type of data capture, I’ve never actually stood on street corners with a clipboard myself.

Following my epiphany, though, I’m now thinking of another line to explain what I do to those who are interested enough to ask.  Now I will announce that “I find out what’s in people’s hearts”, now I shall state that “I’m a storyteller and a collector of tales”.

I’m aware that some might still find this explanation a tad obscure.  But in my view not only does it add a touch more romance and mystery, it also provides a more accurate portrayal of what I think I’ve been trying to do all my working life.
Here’s to your next epiphany!

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The Making of Mer

Working on a one-off project can be very rewarding but getting involved in an ongoing project can be even more so – especially when you see a brand transformed and a range of products earning its rightful place at a premium level in-store.

And this has been the case with our involvement with Far├ęcla and one of its key brands, Mer.

Mer is a range of car care products and has been around for years, gaining a huge number of supporters who regularly tweet and blog about its quality and effectiveness.

But when we were first asked to research the brand, its look was not exactly sending out the quality cues which many of these same supporters have long eschewed.

Enter a design team specialising in automotive work, WDA-automotive and cue more research looking at how Mer might throw off its old clothing and start to compete on a level playing field with the likes of Auto Glym.

And the key to unlock this Mer potential turned out to be the genuine heritage it holds in terms of the product itself and how it was originally developed.

Here we found that a certain Franz Billich was the original inventor and here we discovered its genuine German credentials which have now been used to amazing effect in the new range.

There followed more design work and more research in testing packaging which drew on this German-ness, along with a classy look and feel that looked capable of helping the brand emerge from the car care shadows.

The results, I’m sure you’ll agree, are stunning. And if you wander along to your local Halfords store you’ll see they look even more stunning in real life.

So our most recent work has involved interviewing people in-store and checking what they think of the new look Mer. This, as well as testing more ideas on how we can improve the brand still further.

As things stand, it looks like the making or re-making of Mer has been a great success.  It’s not only drawing in many new customers, it’s also keeping its loyal followers loyal – quite a feat in such a crowded marketplace.

And Mer’s been helped along by outstanding design work as well as various stages of research, including groups discussions and face-to-face depth interviews in-store.
So here’s to Mer and here’s to Auto Shine Technologie, a key element on which the new Mer range has been built.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

'The Big Do'

Sometimes a project comes along which makes you feel a little warmer on the inside.  And this was the case with a recent project we worked on for The Christie charity in Manchester. We have the utmost respect for The Christie and the work it does, and this job gave us the chance to try and help them raise more money to help with future research on cancer, a disease which we are told now touches around one in three members of the population of the UK.

Working closely with Music, The Christie’s branding agency, we were tasked to uncover insight that would inform a new campaign brand and ‘big idea’ for fundraising for The Christie. 

The brief was broad, the questions were mainly open and the scope was wide.

So we interviewed current fundraisers for the charity, current fundraisers for other charities and current staff at The Christie who came from a wide range of disciplines and departments. 

The research that followed highlighted the passion many felt for the hospital itself but this was sometimes linked with a greater need for clarity and consistency when it came to how the brand was depicted and used in its publicity. 

Research also suggested that if we could improve some of these issues and come up with a great ‘big idea’, then support would follow and response would be excellent.

Insights were many and various as we discovered that all three parts of our research sample had quite different perspectives on The Christie’s approach to fundraising today and how this might be improved for the future. 

Once our work had been completed and presented to The Christie, it was the turn of the creative minds at Music to translate our ideas into a reality. Not that we saw our work as base metal but the team at Music does seem to have been able to turn it into gold. 

Music created ‘The Big Do’.


And it’s a Do which has its focus on a day rather than what was once a month; and it’s a Do which is inclusive and fun, other important factors which came out of the research. 

The orange provides distinction and stand-out and incorporating The Christie ‘embrace’ within the new ‘The Big Do’ identity is yet another part of what we see as its genius. 

So The Big Do has been launched and the big day is Friday 1st November.  We’re looking forward to supporting The Christie further, if not with more research, then certainly in our next company fundraising exploits.

What’s going to be your ‘big do’ this year?!   

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Une Entreprise Familiale

I’ve just been reading the air freshener can in our bathroom (as you do) and discovered that the makers of Glade use the above as the strapline for their company. The can reads – Johnson, A Family Company, Une Entreprise Familiale.

This is a timely discovery I feel, since in two weeks Park Lane Research also becomes more of a family concern. Adding to the team, which already includes my wife, Claire, will be my daughter, Sophie, who has just graduated from the University of York with a 2:1 in English Literature.

I have to confess that this has not been an easy decision from a dad or daughter perspective. I don’t want to be seen as someone who only offers ‘jobs for the boys’ (or in this case, girl); and Sophie doesn’t want to be seen as someone who’s run back to her parents for a job.

The reality is that the appointment of Sophie makes sense in all kinds of ways. She’s perfectly capable of finding her own way in the world and will continue to do so no matter how long she remains working with me. But the jobs for which she had started applying matched perfectly with the kind of role which I need doing here.

So what started out as a tricky decision slowly became something of a no-brainer. I get a bright, intelligent graduate whom I already know quite well (!). She gets a job doing something she already knows a lot about, which should act as a platform from which to launch her career in marketing or even marketing research.

We’re gradually both getting over the idea that we might feel guilty about this new arrangement – it’s a mutually beneficial situation and it’s one which will help Park Lane Research move to the next level.

The irony of it all is that when I started the business nearly twenty years ago I decided I couldn’t work from home because we’d just had a new baby. Now that same baby has grown up and she’s coming to work at the office with her dad.

And if it’s worked for Johnson and Glade, why shouldn’t l’enterprise familiale work for the Hawkers too?
Welcome aboard Sophie, you’ll be great, and here’s to the next twenty years plus!    

Thursday, 13 June 2013

“Gizzajob, I can run groups, go on, gizzajob”

I have recently been drawn into an online debate on the topic of DIY research and it has reminded me of one of my favourite dramas from the 1980s (yes, I’m that old).  It was a series written by Alan Bleasdale called Boys from the Blackstuff.  In the most memorable episode, a main character (Yosser Hughes, played superbly by Bernard Hill), rampages around the streets of Liverpool asking unsuspecting workers to give him a job. 

At one point he follows a council groundsman trying to draw white lines around a football pitch.  As Yosser becomes more manic the white lines become more jagged with the workman becoming more and more nervous as Yosser taunts him menacingly saying, ‘Gizzajob mate, I can draw lines, go on, gizzajob.’

This particular drama came to mind, not just because it is a particular favourite but also because I think there are parallels to be drawn with running groups and indeed with qualitative research as a whole.

And one of the key points surrounding this, I feel, is that sometimes as qualitative researchers, we can become the victims of our own success.  We run groups and conduct interviews so well that at times it probably looks as easy as drawing a straight white line along a football pitch.

This in itself of course ignores the fact that, as I have found to my cost, drawing a straight line along a football pitch is no mean feat.  And whilst Yosser might have felt himself well equipped to draw the lines, one wonders how he might have coped with other aspects of this particular groundsman’s role, such as perhaps looking after the pitches in general, cleaning out the changing rooms, being available all weekend to open up, clean up, close up etc.

By the same token, observers at groups might also be forgiven for not considering what has preceded the group in terms of designing a topic guide, recruiting the ‘right’ people, designing the project as whole.  They might also fail to acknowledge that this running of the group is just one part of the qualitative process, which will later involve analysis of what has taken place in the group and the crucial aspect of interpreting just what has been said and how it has been said.  Then the writing of a document and delivering a debrief, with strong conclusions and actionable recommendations.

Just like Yosser then, the danger is that an observer at a group sees what they want to see – great respondents (‘weren’t you lucky they were such a good bunch’), a discussion which flows (‘wasn’t that fortunate how you were able to bring that topic into play at that particular time’) and a group that bonds (‘it was great how they all felt able to say what they thought but they listened to each other as well’).

I’m not suggesting that all of the groups I have run have followed this particular pattern but when they have done so the result has been that some observers have suggested that what I did was easy and that how I did it was perhaps something they could do for themselves.

And there’s the rub – when we make things look easy we lay ourselves open to the likes of Yosser suggesting he too could do it himself.

So what’s the answer here?  I’m not suggesting we over-dramatise what we do (although I’ve seen many a qualitative researcher in action who already does just that) because that might suggest we protest too much.  But what I am saying is that we need to try and put across to people that there’s a lot more to qualitative research and running groups than turning up, having a chat with a few people and going home.
And what I’m also saying is that the more we educate clients and potential clients along these lines, then the less likely it is that they will ‘do a Yosser’ on us.  Surely no-one wants that!

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

'Traditional Group Discussions' - Discuss

‘Traditional Group Discussions’ – Discuss

In the multi-social-media world in which we live, it’s so easy these days to keep track of one’s competitors.  Indeed some of them make it even easier, updating you as their ‘close connection’ on LinkedIn with their latest company presentation, highlighting their new bell, whistle, flugel horn, vuvuzela et al. 

And it’s through a close connection of a close connection I came across the heading for this particular piece of bloggage. 

Here was a research company announcing the launch of its latest website, and a very fine job the company seems to have done with it as well. 

On closer inspection, however, or after further ‘stalking’, as my teenage daughter might say, I clicked on the qualitative offering for this particular company.  And top of the list was the mouth-watering prospect of ‘traditional group discussions’.

Having been a qualitative researcher for more years than I generally care to advertise these days, I can imagine why this particular heading might have been chosen.  Group discussions have not had a brilliant press for years, not helped in my view by programmes like The Apprentice, which on one level promotes the use of market research, and on another, devalues it completely by showing it done badly on a regular basis.

John Humphrys has not done us too many favours over the years either, often using his most disparaging tone when referring to the use of ‘focus groups’ when testing government policies and the like.

This having been said, however, I still don’t quite see why a company presumably trying to ‘sell’ group discussions would preface this term with the word ‘traditional’.  Is it just me or does this not sound as though these particular groups will be conducted by slightly out of touch researchers, clinging to a method, which the very title of this offering would seem to undermine.

Because ‘traditional’ to me suggests an apology for a method, and not one with which I personally would want to be associated.  My groups might use a ‘traditional’ format at times but these groups sound like they’ll be formulaic in the extreme.  Maybe they’ll have ‘traditional’ respondents thrown in for good measure too, whatever they might look like or act like.

Some might argue that my getting hot under the collar on this topic is my just reward for stalking competitors online.  But my answer to this is as follows:  Just because group discussions have been around for years, this does not mean we should potentially start to devalue them by referring to them as ‘traditional’.  To me this smacks of apologising for the technique, as opposed to celebrating and promoting the same.

So what’s wrong with the term ‘group discussion’, or ‘focus group’ come to that?  Done well and done properly, this method has stood the test of time.  So let’s not start selling it like a quarter of humbugs from a jar, or a loaf of stale bread from Arkwright’s in Open All Hours.

Group discussions work.  It’s official.  Be proud.  Celebrate.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

2013 - Get Real!

2013 - Get Real!

Another new year and early talk on the forums revolves around what’s going to be the next big thing. In research world, the tendency has been to big up all things virtual once more – let’s build pretend communities, let’s get people interacting as and when they feel like it, let’s invent games for them to play and then interpret them as if we’re fully trained psychiatrists. The list goes on.

Obviously I read these things and familiarise myself with potential new techniques which might be useful as part of my researcher’s kit bag. At times I even worry that I really am becoming that dinosaur which some ‘modern’ researchers would have me cast as.

And then I read a blog in a Harvard Business magazine which serves to inspire rather than to depress. Here there’s talk of the value of meeting people face-to-face, rather than ‘chatting’ over the ether. Here there’s talk of the value in the quality of conversation and communication, and not just in the quantity.

This sets me thinking about my own recent connections and reconnections with friends and family, some of which have been in person and some of which have been via various social networking sites.

It serves to remind me that the personae which some people use on the likes of Facebook can be very different from the person they are when you meet them face-to-face. It helps me to remember that whilst some can come across as very positive in the way they present themselves online, when you scratch the surface face-to-face, this can mask a whole host of issues they are facing in their day-to-day lives.

It turns out, for example, that one of my ‘friends’ has had one of the worst years of his life and I only get chance to find that out when we’re chatting in person rather than ‘bantering’ online. It also turns out that another ‘friend’, whilst appearing the life and soul from their social network ‘identity’, in real life leaves parties early and spends most of their time when at said parties interacting with virtual friends they can’t actually see.

What all of this does most of all is to reinforce my view on the fact that there is nothing more valuable, both in life and in research, than in meeting people face-to-face and getting to know them for real and not just for virtual.

So here’s my pledge for 2013. I’ll continue to engage with all things social media – I enjoy Facebook, I’m growing to love Twitter and I can see a great deal of value in LinkedIn.
But I’ll also remember that there’s nothing better both in life and in research than saying ‘let’s meet up and have a ‘proper’ chat.’

So yeah, I’m going to get more real in the year ahead and why don’t you?!

Happy New One!