Gonzo Research Part I


Gonzo Research

Our Strategy Director Brian Millar has been featured on the Natwest Business site, revealing more into the wacky world of Gonzo research and how we do it at Sense Worldwide. The original article can be found here.

How can a water sommelier, an ultra marathon runner or a blindfold Kung Fu master help your business to grow? Some of the world’s most innovative companies are complementing traditional research with radical, fast and cost-effective methods for gathering insights and inspiration. These include talking to people with extreme lifestyles, hanging out in unusual places, or just tuning into a million twitter conversations. In our two part series, Sense Worldwide’s Brian Millar – a man who regularly goes Gonzo for companies like Nike, PepsiCo, Samsung and Converse – reveals the method behind the madness

In a nutshell
– Don’t do a survey, gain an ‘insight’
– Search out the truth…
– And go to extremes to get it

Gain an insight
Some years ago, a top ad agency got given a tough brief by the UK government: create a campaign that will stop young women smoking. The agency was going up against some of the richest, most powerful marketers in the world (this was before the ban on cigarette ads). They needed an insight. An insight is something that makes you re-think an assumption you’ve always made: Virgin Atlantic was founded on the insight that long-haul travel is boring; Red Bull’s insight was that many of us drink cola for energy, not refreshment.

How do you get an insight when you have no money? The agency decided to go Gonzo. Gonzo journalism was invented by Hunter S Thompson, who used to hang out with extreme people (Hell’s Angels, Southern socialites) until he became one of them; Gonzo journalism is subjective, fast-moving and improvised.

Gonzo research works the same way: the agency sent a young employee down to a local McDonalds. She spent a couple of afternoons earwigging on the conversations of fourteen-year-old girls. She came back, and reported that they mainly talked about their looks. How, asked the agency team, do cigarettes affect your looks? The government scientists responded that it affects your skin, your breath and your facial features. The result: one of the most successful anti-smoking campaigns ever created – for the price of a few Big Macs.

All too often, market research gets clogged up with surveys that ask the same questions year after year: results that tell companies nothing new and ‘insights’ you could work out for yourself.

It doesn’t have to be like that. Increasingly, we’re seeing some of the world’s smartest companies ‘go Gonzo’ on their research, seeking out game-changing insights in the strangest places, without a survey or a clipboard in sight. It’s what we do for global giants like Nike, PepsiCo, SC Johnson and Samsung – it’s something you can do too. Here’s what we’ve learned in our adventures in Gonzo research.

Bank on the facts
My consultancy does a lot of work with private equity companies. Banks were badly burned by data models in the past. These days, they check everything – often in weird and wonderful ways. One public equity company buys satellite imagery of supermarket car parks. By counting the cars they can estimate whether shopper numbers are going up or down.

A famous hedge fund manager supposedly buys one muffin a week in a coffee shop chain he’s interested in. He checks the receipt, which has a purchase number. It’s a global number, so by keeping track of his muffin codes, he gets a week-by-week estimate of worldwide sales, probably before the board of the company get it – for $2! That’s pure Gonzo finance.

Go to extremes for inspiration
Most research is conducted with a company’s typical customers. We think that’s a mistake. It’s very hard to hear anything new from them: they’re already happy with the products they have. If they have a problem, it’s the same problem everybody has: you love your iPhone, but you hate the battery life. Yup, Apple knows that.

We believe that every product has an extreme user: somebody who is more demanding, more discerning than the average user. And those people are far more articulate about what we need to change.

With Nike, we’ve worked with ultra marathon champions, barefoot runners, extreme football fans and even a blindfold Kung-Fu master. They all had extreme needs from their apparel: something that’s vaguely annoying on a four mile jog turns into agony twenty five miles into a run across Death Valley.

With a mobile company, we turned to a Himalayan mountaineer. He was under pressure from sponsors to take selfies on top of unconquered peaks and post them on social media. He also had to preserve enough battery life to make emergency calls, and he thought about every gramme he carted up a cliff.

When we were called on to redesign a toilet brush, we talked to people with obsessive compulsive disorder. We learned that many of them went through elaborate rituals to wrap the brush in toilet paper, which then turned into a soggy mass and had to be cleaned off in turn. The result: disposable paper toilet brush heads.

Just keep up, or get ahead?
Small businesses used to have some great advantages over their bigger rivals: they move faster, and they’re closer to their customer. Gonzo research is changing that, helping bigger companies stay agile and ahead of the competition. SMEs shouldn’t just keep up, they should get ahead. In the second Gonzo research article, I’ll give you more tips for doing just that.

Check out part 2 here.

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