Market research firms are preparing businesses for the next normal

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant disruption to businesses across all industries and markets. Having access to reliable market research can be one way of helping troubled firms plan for a brighter future

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Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, getting to grips with the new normal will require new information on consumer behaviour. That is where market research will prove to be vital

On January 12 this year, Toluna CEO Frédéric-Charles Petit was chatting to a colleague in Shanghai while on a business trip to China. Conversation turned to news of a virus that had emerged in the city of Wuhan, some 800km west. Petit listened with interest but didn’t think much of it; the streets and restaurants were full, and life was going on as normal in Shanghai. He returned to Europe the following day and forgot about the conversation. But by the end of January, life in China had changed beyond recognition. By March, the entire world was locked in a battle against the coronavirus pandemic.

The spread of COVID-19 has upended entire industries, and many firms are not sure if they will survive the disruption. The ones that do will find the relationship they have with their customers has changed, meaning that getting to grips with the new normal will require new information on consumer behaviour. That is where market research will prove to be vital.

Toluna has been making sure that businesses have access to the information they need for two decades

Toluna has been making sure that businesses have access to the information they need for two decades, connecting firms and consumers in real time to deliver on-demand insights. Founder and CEO Petit has been there every step of the way. As organisations try to make sense of unexpected changes to the business world, Toluna is ready to help them adapt as necessary.

People of influence
In some respects, the market research arena has been significantly hampered by the coronavirus pandemic. Qualitative interviews and focus groups can now only be conducted remotely and, regardless of the efforts by the interviewer to put their interviewee at ease, remote data collection is likely to suffer from some drop-off in quality compared with in-person interviews. Conversely, with such huge changes predicted to occur as a result of the pandemic – some temporary, others more long term – the need to gather consumer insight has never been more vital.

“Businesses all want to know what people are thinking, how are they going to change their behaviour, how the virus is likely to affect their usage of certain products, their attitude towards consumption, and their intention to do certain things,” Petit said. “As a result, delivering this insight in real time is key. With all the change that is going on in our lives, gaining a view on consumer perception and behaviour could provide a lifeline to a struggling business.”

At Toluna, work has not stopped as a result of the coronavirus. At the start of March, the company published market research collected from 4,000 respondents spread across eight countries. The data provides organisations with insight into how consumers are feeling amid the pandemic, how their purchasing decisions are changing and how their activities have been disrupted – for example, going to the cinema or theatre, exercising in public venues and social gatherings were among the top activities to be cancelled. Receiving up-to-date information like this can help businesses plan their next move.

“Changes that might seem minor on an individual scale may have a huge impact on businesses,” Petit told European CEO. “This might involve how you use certain home care products or where you are going on vacation. How, for example, are you going to carry out social distancing on the beach? And are you going to be willing to pay premium prices for a hotel if you can’t go to the beach or if you can’t swim in the swimming pool? But, more importantly, we also deliver insights from non-consumers about, say, the perception of government performance and social and healthcare services across Europe.”

The work carried out by Toluna is being mirrored by other actors in the market research industry. French firm Ipsos has also collated information regarding the coronavirus pandemic, providing media outlets and consumer brands with vital insights. With their established communication channels, market researchers may also find they can give something back to their data providers during these difficult times. Toluna has launched a number of online games to create a sense of togetherness and community among their influencers.

Striking the right tone
While market research continues to play an essential role during times of uncertainty, marketers must not become overzealous in their quest for consumer data. Whether there is a recession occurring, a pandemic sweeping the globe or any other disruption, the impact on people’s lives must be considered. Businesses should not look as though they only care about profit during these times.

“When firms are trying to get through difficult periods, I think it is critical that they have access to up-to-date market research,” Petit said. “You also need to not only think about what is happening now, but also what is going to happen next and how that is going to affect your communication with the consumer. How can you communicate at a time when there is so much uncertainty without looking like you are trying to benefit from the duress in the market? Should you, as a brand, retract from the market and not communicate anymore, or should you communicate because you have value and a message to share?”

Whether market research firms are conducting online surveys, in-depth interviews or focus groups, acquiring the optimal insights will require additional planning during times of crisis. Researchers should try to look at the situation from the participant’s perspective, taking extra care to ensure that questions are worded in an empathetic way.

While market research continues to play an essential role during times of uncertainty, marketers must not become overzealous in their quest for consumer data

It is also vital that the client’s expectations are managed appropriately. The coronavirus pandemic is an unprecedented situation and all organisations are learning about the best way to deal with it – this means mistakes will be made. For researchers, meeting client aims may be more difficult than usual. It may be challenging to source willing interviewees, and the answers they provide may not be as effective as hoped.

Currently, many companies are finding that adaptability is key. This is also the case for market researchers. Recognising the unusual nature of the current business climate and increasing the flexibility of your usual research process is one way of ensuring that your interviewees feel comfortable and your clients receive the information they need.

Times are changing
Over the 20 years that have passed since Petit founded Toluna, he may not have experienced anything quite like the impact of the coronavirus, but he has certainly been around long enough to realise that the corporate world is always in a state of flux. He describes the reality of starting his business in 2000 and how it operates today as “like being in two different companies”.

“I’ve watched Toluna grow from a start-up to an SME, then a mid-cap,” he told European CEO. “And while my title has remained the same through all these changes, in reality, I’ve actually had many different roles. In the beginning, I was doing everything that you could imagine when you’re managing a small company: I was writing the cheques, buying the pens, carrying out projects for customers and everything else in between. But we already had ambition and the culture was always to shoot for the stars.”

Generally, Petit is much more closely involved in product development and engaging with clients than he was in the firm’s early days, but recently his role has become more operational once again. As new guidelines were put in place to limit the spread of COVID-19, Petit had to act quickly to guarantee business continuity while keeping his employees safe. “We are obviously concerned like any other organisation, first of all with the health and safety of our people,” Petit said. “We have close to 1,500 people across the globe, some in the UK – in London and Manchester – others in France, Germany, Romania, India, the US… Across 20 different countries. After we could ensure their health, then we explored how we could maintain business continuity, making sure our clients could continue to benefit from our technology and services.”

As new guidelines were put in place to limit the spread of COVID-19, Petit had to act quickly to guarantee business continuity while keeping his employees safe

In light of the changes that will emerge in the post-pandemic world, McKinsey & Company has spoken about the emergence of the “next normal”. The phrase, which the consultancy firm also used after the 2008 global financial crisis, recognises that we are entering a new reality, involving a dramatic social and economic restructuring.

Market research firms like Toluna are usually seen as being more resilient to these sorts of crises, but that does not mean they are unaffected – they were impacted in 2001 following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York, they were impacted by the financial crash, and they are finding that their business is affected now. The impact, however, does appear to be less than in other marketing services. In times of change and uncertainty, difficult decisions need to be made, but having access to the most recent data on consumer behaviour can help make the process as painless as possible.

Strength of character
Of course, for market researchers to deliver the insights their customers need, they have to process, analyse and store large quantities of data. Like many researchers, data privacy is a top priority for Toluna. “Security is obviously critical for us,” Petit said. “Trust between us and the consumer is key, particularly as they will sometimes be giving their opinion on subjects that are quite personal. So, of course, we are GDPR-compliant and we’ve been working with a lot of discipline to be compliant with regulations in other markets as well. We are always looking to protect our environment from intrusion; it is never an area where you can afford to be complacent.”

In addition to putting all the necessary technical safeguards in place, protecting consumer data relies on knowing when to disappoint clients. Sometimes market researchers will be asked to share something from their data that is simply not acceptable from a regulatory standpoint. When this occurs, marketers must commit to doing what’s right, particularly if there’s a competitor that is willing to break the rules to keep clients happy.

These principles are something that Petit is keen to instil within the company culture at Toluna. To him, the worth of a company is derived from more than just its balance sheet. It is also about the values it upholds – this is what makes a business resilient when times are tough. “During these difficult times, you have to stay true to your values as a business,” Petit said. “When we were operating with just 10 people, we didn’t need to write these values on the office wall, but now we have more than 1,400 employees worldwide and we need to make sure our values are shared by every new member of staff. We must continue abiding by our values of integrity and respect, satisfying our customers and acting as a team.”

As with any industry, the rights and needs of stakeholders must be considered at all times. This means respecting the privacy of individual consumers, understanding what it is that clients want, and trying to deliver the best company performance for shareholders.

Taking the lead
Over the 20 years that Petit has been at the helm of Toluna, he has seen the industry develop markedly. He has also watched his company grow substantially, always willing to adapt to new client requests and shifting consumer trends. It is something that has helped to keep the role fresh over such a long period.

“I can’t say that I never thought about leaving the company and moving to something else,” Petit said. “There were times when I could have sold the business, for example, but when you have passion for what you do, if you have a vision for what the company can become, you stick around. Obviously if Toluna had stayed the same, if it remained static, I probably would have left. The day I would leave would be the day where I don’t feel I can bring value to the company anymore.”

One of the ways he continues to provide value is through his inclusive leadership style. He believes that, today, communication is more important than ever, particularly with so many employees working remotely and spread over vast distances.

“We have an organisation where communication comes from me, but we also have an executive board, as well as regional and country leaders that communicate often with their staff – I don’t like the notion of pyramidal communication. I think that we should all be able to communicate: the CEO has to maintain a vision, give regular updates and also be available, which I think I am. But each market and each country has to have its own leadership.”

Allowing many employees to take on leadership roles is particularly important in the market research industry, where each market has its own distinct trends. What’s more, each client may be searching for different insights. No single leader would be able to keep track of such diverse client needs.

“I also think that leadership requires you to be passionate about what you do,” Petit said. “Some people think that being passionate means being irrational, but you can be passionate about the prospects for your business while also being rational about the economic reality of COVID-19. Business is not just about gross margins and shares – it is about people, giving them a sense of direction, and doing what’s right. That’s when passion is really important.”

Ultimately, getting the balance right between passion and reason will determine each company’s success or failure. Having as much relevant data as possible can help firms to achieve this – and this is where market research can prove to be essential. If in doubt regarding the best way of moving forward with your business, why not ask your customer? They are always right, after all.