Putting the surveyors under surveillance

Why are more and more design consultancies doing research? And what do they do with the results?

Design consultancies are commissioning more and more research into various subjects to try and catch the eye of potential new clients and to assert their credibility within the industry.

Whether it’s finding out how many annual reports are comm- issioned or sussing out how difficult-to-open packaging turns off consumers, consultancies are looking for a way into clients’ consciousness.

The latest examples of the research boom are Dragon International’s work on the power of a brand’s reputation and Coley Porter Bell’s study into the role of packaging in shaping purchasing decisions. The CPB work will be revealed next week.

Dragon’s aim was to discover how brands are perceived and how they behave. The findings, to be unveiled in the next few weeks, will shed light on how brands relate to their corporate identity, brochure and letterheads, and which brands are being managed in the right way, says Dragon senior consultant Keith Wells.

CPB worked with its WPP Group stablemate Research International on the packaging study. CPB chairman Colin Porter says the consultancy commissions a lot of research, of which only a fraction is published.

“Why do we do research? Because we want to find out stuff,” is Porter’s rationale. The main motivation, he suggests, is to keep up to date with consumers. “In most of our projects we are working with fmcg brands and the consumer audience is in continual change. We have to keep finding out what the climate is.”

Both Dragon and Wolff Olins, which next month plans to announce the findings of its survey Made in the UK into the overseas image of British industry, see research as one way of keeping ahead of the competition.

“Our research is either strategic, to get a basic grasp of a business sector, or tactical, to find out information specific to our business plan,” says a Wolff Olins spokesman.

Wells, of Dragon, adds: “We want to be better informed than our clients and our competitors.”

But what about research as a self-marketing tool? “Is it a marketing ploy? There can be some of that,” admits Porter. “But if you have found out something interesting that no-one else has, why not make it public? The bonus is there in terms of what you can get out of it for PR, but there are few who would say research is purely a PR exercise.”

Dragon sees research more as a long-term marketing tool than a sales tool. However, the consultancy is quick to recognise that some findings can be presented to potential clients. Its survey – Corporate Reputation: Does the Consumer Care? – was produced as a joint initiative with Marketing Business magazine and was sent out to client companies and non-clients in the form of an article.

Another way of making use of research is to present it at a conference. Porter was this week presenting some of the Research International project results to a London conference CPB organised jointly with market research group Mintel.

“That’s all part of us getting businesses thinking about issues such as how to run and manage brands. Hopefully, some of them will think we can do it for them. Research gives you something new to offer to conferences.”

Wolff Olins incorporates findings into seminars or briefings, or goes for coverage in trade association journals. The group was getting inquiries about its Made in Germany survey, which looked at Germany’s business image among international industries, months after it was published in the Financial Times this summer.

Some of Wolff Olins’ research is never made public. “If it is intelligence-gathering to attack a business sector it remains private, because it could be of use to our competitors,” he adds.

Plenty of other consultancies, including The Jenkins Group, PI Design International and Fishburn Hedges, have commissioned research in recent months.

The Jenkins Group issued the results this summer from a study of how companies buy their annual report design. Jenkins Group director Nicholas Ind initiated and co-ordinated the piece of research. “We did the research for two reasons. We were hoping to garner some PR and raise our profile through media interest in the results. And we had a genuine interest, from a new business sense, in how the market buys annual report design.”

The Jenkins Group brought in an outside consultancy to run the research. Ind says: “It is useful to bring in someone from outside because outside people have more objectivity.”

The Jenkins Group made all its results public, even though the hoped-for conclusion – that free-pitching is a waste of everyone’s time as the finished report is often far from what was seen at the pitch stage – could not be drawn.

However, the media coverage was not as widespread as the consultancy had hoped. “We had hoped there would be interest from publications in sectors other than design, such as the management press. In retrospect, we could have marketed the survey better, but I do think the research proved worthwhile. Financially, if we get work from the research, directly or not, it was worth it. We did have people ringing us up after reading about the survey in Design Week,” adds Ind.

Despite the hours spent pouring over survey findings to collate material, consultancies feel that it is time well spent. The Wolff Olins spokesman, who has just received 2000 returned sheets on the Made in the UK research says: “It has been very much worth it.”

Latest articles