Research is a stumbling block.

Do a quick survey. Bottled carbonated mineral water — would you buy it?

If you run this survey and compile the results, most likely you will get a negative for an answer. Why on earth would I want to drink carbonated mineral water?

How about this: combine all the leading sports and fashion brands such as Polo Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Nike, Fila, Lacoste and Adidas, put them under one e-commerce website, and target it to web-savvy, fashion-conscious 18 to 24-year-olds. Give them the best online shopping experience and offer competitive pricing and free returns if customers are not happy with the products.

At that time (1999) research shows that the spending on such products by the target group was estimated at USD60b, and online shopping (UK alone) is £600 million. It should be relatively easy to capture a small fraction of USD60b and make this a viable venture. In fact, it was forecasted that the company should be generating USD$51.9 million within 3 years time. Based on positive research studies, investors such as JP Morgan, LMVH Investment and Benetton pumped in USD130 million to fund this new setup.

The carbonated mineral water in question is Perrier, that awfully expensive sky-juice which restaurants serve. The fashion site is If you have never heard of it, it’s alright. Within 6 months, it went bust. ( started at November 1999, closed at May 2000, case documented here).

So I am pitching two scenarios here: An idea which research suggests premature death but has been doing pretty well so far, and the other which research suggests guaranteed success but failed within 6 months. Zero target audience vs. USD60b potential spending power. Zero brand existence vs. an army of highly visible brands.

In the creative business, research is an over-emphasised process that stumbles many designers. True, it provides valuable information about target markets and helps refine communications objectives. And submitting design proposals with a heavy stack of research findings is super impressive (even though I suspect clients would never get down to read the research findings — the findings are merely supporting documents to validate a higher consultancy fee).

What we are really looking for is a special insight that would spark off a creative direction which could be translated into a communicative message, strong enough to help the product/services break away from their competition. And certainly not the validation of a hypothesis.

This is how I see it —

(1) When it comes to consumption, humans are irrational. You cannot fully explain why the age 18-25 group with a disposable income of RM1000 would spend 25% of it on a pair of shoes.

(2) Clients do know their product/services and the challenges faced. Instead of wasting time on research, a more effective method would be to ask intelligent questions and fish around for specific insights.

(3) Facts, figures and data are important, but the priority should be on gaining some new consumer insights which could be used as a direction for creating a communications program that would connect to the consumers’ emotions. It really is about dealing with humans with all their irrationality.

Examples of insights at work:

Different brands of cheese are available at the dairy products section in a typical supermarket. In reality, research will show that there isn’t much difference among the brands. However some creative person found that “special insight” about calcium being good for strengthening bones (and baby’s bones). That was the insight which Kraft used to connect to customers’ emotions. The emotional pitch — Kraft cheese is high in calcium, hence is good for your bones — boosted the sales figures. What consumers weren’t aware off is that all cheese are high in calcium, not just Kraft.

The same goes to the creative who had an insight about consumers buying vans/mpvs because they wanted space. It was really nothing revolutionary – space is the reason why people buy vans anyways. However the insight was pushed further and resulted in the successful Toyota Unser campaign, which positioned Unser as “spacious”. I supposed the majority of Unser owners never measured the space of their vehicles against other vans/mpvs. And even if they do, Toyota never claimed to be the “most spacious”, just “spacious”.

My point is: Research can only provide a generic overview but will not bring new insights about cheese, vans, soft drinks, car loans, housing loans, mooncakes, tea, coffee, shampoo, etc. Most likely there would be many variations of a similar product, and that variation would not be significant enough to influence buying decisions. The client would most likely know that they are competing against similar products, but they have no way of adding a differentiator to their products/services. The creative person’s job is to find that unique insight and translate that into a communication message that connects emotionally to the target audience.

We are in the business of creative thinking and this requires more than mathematics and science. Before embarking on another research, perhaps the question asked should be what are the expected results from conducting the research? If one could have roughly guessed the results, I suspect the efforts could be better used somewhere else, like being the creative thinker instead of being the researcher.