Did you know 51 percent of men put their pants on left-leg first, while 65 percent of women start with the right leg? Or that the average person eats 35,000 cookies in his/her lifetime? Or that the number of cars on the planet is increasing three times faster than the population rate? These numbers are more than just fun trivia. They’re the result of research, funded by companies and organizations to solve specific problems or improve sales. Whether or not the research in these studies was done scientifically and its results interpreted correctly, is an entirely different story.
You don’t have to be a research expert to recognize how important good research can be to the success of a company. Information is power. Every business, big or small, must have accurate and timely information just to stay afloat. You have to stay on top of your markets, competitors, and the wants and needs of your customers. Equally important, you need to tap into the thoughts and feelings of your employees, using their input to improve your work environment and product or service. And, it’s not enough to just conduct surveys with check-the-box answers. You also need to interview people face-to-face and in groups, probing answers and finding out what people believe and why. You need to seek their ideas for solving problems or pursuing opportunities.
Remember the New Coke fiasco? Alarmed by Pepsi’s growing dominance in younger age groups, Coke executives decided to battle back with the new-and-improved taste of New Coke. They spent millions of dollars reformulating and taste-testing their new product, asking consumers to pick Cup A or Cup B. Sure enough, the research seemed to indicate New Coke beat original Coke in hundreds of thousands of blind taste tests. What the research didn’t take into consideration, unfortunately, was that people weren’t buying Cup A or Cup B. And when they found out what was in each cup, they strongly voiced their preference for original Coke. The company responded quickly, pulling New Coke off store shelves and replacing it with the original formula, which they named Coke Classic.
The bad news was, it took years for Coke to overcome this marketing disaster. The good news was, professors everywhere had a textbook example of how not to do research.
But for every example of a company being fooled by research results, there are many more where good, thorough research made a world of difference. Such is the case with Sears.
After decades of being the dominant American retailer, Sears found itself in the 1980s at number three…and sinking fast. So the company went to work to uncover the root of the problem and devise solutions. They talked to employees and customers. They used focus groups and surveys. And what they found surprised them. Their target market wasn’t the 45-year-old man shopping for hardware, like they had previously thought. Rather, it was the woman of the household—with a husband, children, a home and the responsibilities of being the family’s CFO. Not only was she responsible for practically all the family’s decisions concerning clothing, home furnishings and appliances, but also nearly 40 percent of home-improvement and automotive products.
So Sears did what any smart company would do. It studied the research thoroughly and acted on its findings. It upgraded its clothing lines, made its stores more female-friendly and wrapped it all up in its Softer Side of Sears advertising campaign. Several years later, the company finds itself on much steadier ground—with new customers, a new direction and a new sense of internal pride.
The first step in doing any kind of research is to decide what you really need to find out. Sounds obvious, but many companies make the mistake of spending lots of time and money on research that says a little about a lot of things, but not enough about what they really need to know. IBI