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Best of NAMA 2020

Knowing your customers and potential markets can mean the difference between successfully launching a new product and wasting valuable time and resources. Four agrimarketing professionals weigh in with their thoughts on what matters in market research today. They are: Bob Wilbur, vice president, Agri-Food, with Quarry Integrated Communications; Richard Gibson, manager of Bayer CropScience's Business Intelligence & E-Commerce department; Deanna Traa, Monsanto Canada's West Seed & Trait commercial lead; and Ken Cross, vice president of marketing for Maple Leaf Foods Inc.

AM: How significant is market research in developing your marketing plan? How large a role does market research play in today's marketing decisions?

Bob Wilbur, Quarry Integrated Communications
Wilbur: That depends on what you are trying to achieve, how much knowledge you have about the situation, and how confident you are in that knowledge. Often there is a lot of existing information that should be explored first, such as an internal database. However, if you are tackling a new market, or introducing new technology, market research is a critical tool to help you make informed decisions. But it's only one component for building customer insight, which is the real platform for positioning and differentiation.

Traa: The role of marketing research in plan development continues to evolve. The focus of our market research is sharper than it has been in the past with more attention than ever being placed on "need to know" versus "nice to know" information gathering.

Cross: Market research, both qualitative and quantitative, is very important in helping us make decisions. We try to prioritize which decisions we will apply research against by determining the return on our research investment. If the issue involves a large dollar value, or there is great uncertainty, there is a high probability that we will conduct market research. In my experience, the role market research plays varies greatly between companies. It can be a great aid to effective decision-making if used properly but can also be used either to mislead or to abdicate responsibility for decisions when used improperly. There is no substitute for good business judgment.

Gibson: As a manufacturer, getting the right product to the right customer at the right time is critical. Market research not only ensures that the product is available in sufficient quantities but also identifies the product attributes that are important to customers in the various regions of the country. Communication of those product attributes also relies on market research to understand the effectiveness and interpretation of the desired message.

AM: What are the biggest hurdles in getting good market research?

Wilbur: A clear understanding of how the knowledge gained will be used. Good market research needs to uncover insight that will help solve a business problem. Often the "off-the-shelf" market research products don't address the real needs.

Deanna Traa, Monsanto Canada
Traa: Given the increasing demands on our farm and retail customers' time, we strive to keep the scope of our surveys tight, resisting the urge to "load the train" with additional topics resulting in lengthy questionnaires. We've found the quality of the responses is inversely related to the length of the questionnaire.

Cross: I believe it is important to be clear on what the research objectives are, and I personally like to be clear on hypotheses and decision criteria prior to going to the field with any research. Many people find this a difficult process. Obviously there is also a significant amount of variability in the quality of service providers as well, and making the wrong decision here can destroy a project.

Gibson: I think good market research is getting easier and easier to find. The techniques and discipline of the companies that I have dealt with have been excellent. I think the classic problems still remain though: how much information do you need, how much do you already have, and how do you assign meaning to that information in a way that moves the business into a favorable position.

AM: What type of research do you place the most value on or find most useful? i.e. psychographics, qualitative vs. quantitative, etc.

Wilbur: Again, it can depend on the situation. Different problems or opportunities warrant different types of research. For example, quantitative research helps to define the scope of a particular opportunity while qualitative research leads us to points of differentiation and focused messaging. It is important to understand specifically what you're looking for so the research can be designed to achieve your objectives and provide actionable information.

Traa: To some extent our investment has shifted from historical tracking, or looking in the "rear view mirror," to market research that pressure tests future concept, program and potential business decisions.

Ken Cross, Maple Leaf Foods Inc.
Cross: I think that all types of research have a different role to play and there is no "ideal" type. I generally like to use quantitative research as an aid to final decision-making, but I find qualitative research to often be the most insightful as I am working through a project.

Gibson: Our business relies on a combination of all three types of research. Recently, the application of psychographics to our analysis is becoming more valuable. In a competitive marketplace, demographics may identify the people you want to communicate to, but understanding the psychographics of your customers may help you deliver the message more effectively.

AM: What do you think is the most interesting new trend in how market research is conducted or analyzed?

Wilbur: Research techniques that get to the deep underlying needs of the audience - what truly motivates them. Much of what we do tries to influence attitudes and behaviors. So we need research that addresses that kind of thinking. Continuing to focus on the transactional activity only helps to describe behavior, but it doesn't address the reasons for that behavior.

Cross: Although it is not exactly new, the progress that has been made on qualitative/quantitative research methodologies, including the utilization of decision labs, has been terrific. The fact that we are now able to get real-time response has proved very useful for me and cuts out weeks in project timelines.

Richard Gibson, Bayer CropScience
Gibson: The Internet has provided insight into our business that we did not previously have in terms of determining what customers are looking for and what they find useful in our online services. The movement to online surveys and panels has also become an area of interest as it allows for rapid feedback on concepts or information collection which might otherwise not be feasible using traditional methods. The endpoint though is still the same, and that is to understand our customers better.

AM: What are your criteria when choosing a market research company?

Wilbur:They must have a good understanding of the category and the frame of mind of the participants. They need to have the willingness and the ability to try innovative approaches that will truly aid in developing insight. And they need to deliver value - ensuring that the knowledge gained is worth the investment.

Cross: When choosing a market research company I am looking to build my trust level up quickly. The specific criteria vary between methodologies, but if I can nail the trust issue, the rest generally falls into place. The types of things I do to increase my trust level are: 1) reference checks among people in the marketing community that I already know, 2) in-depth interviews where we discuss philosophical approach, 3) develop an understanding of intellectual and physical assets, and 4) I also try to get an understanding of company longevity and financial position.

Gibson: It depends on what type of information we are looking for. If it's a rapid online study or a traditional call center survey, there are advantages to using specialists in the various fields. Overall, the insight that a good statistician can provide to the data is important for me. AM

Lyndsey Smith is an agriculture writer with Issues Ink, Winnipeg, Manitoba, which publishes several agriculture magazines, including Germination and Manure Matters.

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