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Wrestling With Research
by Barry Feig

After being in this business in one form or another for fifteen years or so, it hit me. It was like a revelation. Marketing is a lot like professional wrestling.

There's a lot you can learn about marketing from watching professional wrestling. Mostly because it doesn't make a whole lot of sense, especially from a quantitative research standpoint. The thing is, most quantitative research will prove that professional wrestling can't score in the marketplace. It's absolutely illogical.

Let's say you ran a quantitative test and asked the following, typical questions:

  • Do you think professional wrestling is for real?
  • Is it believable?
  • Is professional wrestling wholesome?
  • Would you definitely buy a ticket or pay $20.00 to watch it on T.V.?
  • Is Randy "Macho Man" Savage a good guy or a bad guy?

The answer to the first four questions would probably be "no". At least if the respondents had their brain synapses wired properly. The last question was a trick question and is totally dependent on what time zone you watch the wrestling reruns in.

Professional wrestling measures the appeal in cheers and boos. If the audience isn't yelling, they're not having fun. It works like that in the new product arena too. You should try listening for the cheers and boos in your next focus groups.

Much quantitative research in the new product arena measures the cheers instead of listening to them. Quantitative research often misses the mark because it misses gauging the fun aspects of new products. Fun does not have to be reserved for kids' products. Fun, in fact, cannot be measured quantitatively. It's like asking people to tell you what's funny about a joke. If you have to ask what's funny about it, it ain't funny.

But professional wrestling is about fun. It's gone beyond fadism. It's withstood the test of time as should a new product introduction. Would you believe we're actually on to Wrestlemania V. It's true.

Bad guys get religious conversions overnight and become good guys -- it's called instant repositioning. These wrestling promoters know what they're doing -- they offer fun. But it's nothing that can be quantified in a research study.

Quantitative research in the new product arena offers the steadiness of numbers and an air of reliability, but no surprises.

The difference between quantitative and qualitative is that the one with the "N" breeds numbers, the one with the "L" breeds consumer insights. The one with the "L" underscores the consumer excitement, the one with the "N" only offers a reassuring nod.

Insecure product managers claim qualitative research doesn't breed numbers. It's not projectable. But they're wrong. While you can't graph the results on your Macintosh, the emotions and insights that you elicit can be projected among those of similar lifestyles and demographics.

Quantitative research is overdone because numbers breed familiarity. It's much easier to kill a new product idea because the "definitely will buy" top box wasn't high enough or the product did not
rate well on the "attribution index." Attribution indexes are a damnable waste of time. Nobody cares. Except for other researchers. And product managers.

The problem is not that there are bad researchers or that quantitative research is useless -- it's far from that -- but that marketers are using it as an excuse to kill off too many good new product ideas. Or worse, marketers are using it to justify making a no-go decision or to put off a decision. The point is that quantitative research is valuable, but it shouldn't be used as the sole research avenue.

A great deal of research is actually done to make sure new product ideas fail. There, I said it and I'm glad. A vice president of a major cosmetics firm told me that he didn't care how many new product ideas failed as long as he didn't back a bad one. This company hasn't had a major new product hit in the last five years. In fact, one product was actually under development for a decade before it was put on the market and met with a rousing yawn from consumers. I have his resume in my file.

Have you checked the microwave category? Companies are falling over themselves trying to offer the consumer convenience and speed. If they ask the consumer the right questions they would hear that "microwave" is already a synonym for convenience and speed. Those things are already presumed by the consumer in the microwavable product. Talk about taste, not time. That's what the consumer's looking for.

The microwave oven industry didn't really get started until bright-eyed marketers talked to the consumer. Women, one after another, told them that they were nervous about using the new technology. They didn't need or want the product. Sales didn't really get rolling until creative marketers excited men about the new technology and exploited the benefits of defrosting. This magic technology was then repositioned, not to replace the conventional oven, but as a supplement to it.

To err is human, to repeat the error is the bane of quantitative research that is built upon faulty insight.

The one with the "N", by nature, tried to fit consumer responses into pre-defined categorical pegs based on things we allegedly know from the previous research. Yes, ivory tower marketers are living in towers with faulty foundations. The one with the "N" dis-allows the evolutionary approach to consumer behavior which builds one insight on top of another. The one with the "N" often ignores the quirks of human behavior that can really make or break the product.

Qualitative work, on the other hand, is the one part of the creative marketing process that you can effect without relying on advertising agencies.

Here are four ways to get the most from the one with the "L".

  1. Do it yourself. Attend every focus group. Interview consumers one-on-one. It's fun, and enlightening.
  2. Don't show consumers white card concept boards. They're dumb. And boring. And too abstract for the consumer. Show them the actual product with the advertising you're planning on doing. Don't make the mistake of asking consumers to do your thinking for you. Ask them to react. And then, listen to them.
  3. Don't be afraid of a "no" or of having consumers laugh at your ideas. Build on these negative insights.
  4. Don't get too excited about a "yes" unless you're sure it's backed by real emotion.

And the next time your kids mess up your mind by telling you how Macho Man beat Hulk Hogan but didn't really win (because it had to be a pin), and how he did switch managers from the Lovely Miss Elizabeth to Sensational Sherrye, don't laugh. You may be getting a valuable marketing lesson.


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Barry Feig: feig@barryfeig.com
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Telephone 800-707-0739
Santa Fe, NM 8750