You can barely open a paper these days without a survey being quoted.
Ok, I made that last one up, but I’m sure it’s true. As marketers, we all recognise these sorts of stories. Customer research as a hook to secure column inches or airtime, nuggets to capture the attention of press and public alike.
I have lost count of the number of times I have been asked for "interesting customer stats" for a press release, or if I could get my team to "quickly put something out in the field about [insert subject]".
While it’s not exactly fake news, if I had £1 for every survey I’d seen in the press with a laughably tiny sample size – or none at all – I would be sitting pretty now. And don’t get me started on Twitter "polls".
However, the last few years have heralded a real shift in the quality of insight in the public domain, with several of Britain’s best-known businesses sharing detailed customer insight with the public.
Waitrose’s Food and Drink Report and InterContinental Hotel Group [IHG]’s Trends Report also launched in 2013, with Thomas Cook’s Holiday Report and Sainsbury’s Living Well Index debuting in 2017, among others.
Many of these are not just PR content, but more serious pieces of customer insight, open-sourced for all to read (and in some cases interrogate). But what’s in it for the brands?
Admittedly, some reports are more sophisticated versions of those more traditional PR-driven surveys – Thomas Cook’s, for example, or IHG’s, the launch of which in Davos signalled to the market that the business was "realising the potential of the IHG brand" through a commitment to customer understanding across its global marketplaces.
But let’s take John Lewis as an example. Its annual Retail Report has explained how we shop, live and look for five years now.
Using data and research from both within and outside the business, John Lewis spends time and money laying out what our shopping habits tells us about life in the 2010s, and predicting trends for the future. But why?
I suspect there are a number of reasons. John Lewis has been beefing up its style credentials for years now, and the report serves as a snapshot of the zeitgeist, a consumer "time-capsule" not buried underground at Victoria Street, but safely nestled in the John Lewis online archives for all to Google forevermore.
Couched in open, friendly language, it’s all too easy to spot yourself in their reports. (Apparently, my "Home Style Tribe" is Scandi-Fan meets British Eclectic. Intriguing.)
These reports won’t have come into being without a truckload of diligent research and analytics, but in the past, this insight would have stayed firmly behind closed doors, closely guarded for strategic advantage.
But in sharing it, John Lewis is both reinforcing its brand values, and getting more bang for buck from its insight spend.
It is not only showing its customers how well it knows them, and how hard it works to do so, but that it respects them enough to share that information with them, in a spirit of transparency, openness and fun.
And of course, that kind of brand storytelling plays rather well in this age of sharing and social media, as well as driving some nice airtime and column inches.
Perhaps the most interesting example is Sainsbury’s Living Well Index. The supermarket aims to help us "live well for less" and founded the Index to discover what helps us live well, and assess how well we live as a nation.
So far, so brand values supporting, but Sainsbury’s could have achieved that effect with much less effort, rigour and expense.
Working with the definitely-not-flighty NatCen Social Research and Oxford Economics, and enlisting a heavyweight advisory group of experts in support – including Professor Richard Layard, world-renowned wellbeing expert and LSE legend – its study is the antithesis of "quick and dirty", surveying 8,250 adults across the UK using a 60 question survey, and updating the Index twice annually to provide "timely and uniquely granular insights into how the nation is living".
Undoubtedly, Sainsbury’s is not doing this solely out of the goodness of its heart.
Having an 8,000-strong panel and their answers to a large ONS-compatible survey, potentially paired with or modelled onto their detailed Nectar customer data, will give the grocer very powerful insights into how people shop, feel and behave, and how to help them live better by shopping at Sainsbury’s.
But the fact remains that Sainsbury’s, like John Lewis, is putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to customer understanding. Both will, of course, use it to drive their businesses forward, but they are also using and sharing insights for the benefit of a wider audience of customers, colleagues and the British public.
Our values make us different, says Sainsbury’s, while John Lewis aims to secure the happiness of partners and the loyalty and trust of customers. Seeing big British institutions use great customer insight to achieve these aims makes a customer insight professional like myself very happy indeed.
Marie Anderson is director at Maran Consulting