The Other Half of The Equation: with Virginia Valentine

Perfect Crowd is extremely pleased to welcome 
Virginia Valentine to Prague! Virginia Valentine pioneered the use of semiotics in UK market research. She is a fellow of the Market Research Society a multi-award winner and speaker at conferences worldwide. Virginia will lead us through a one day workshop on semiotics (19th of March 2009) more here


Third pill

Slavoj Zizek : Lacanian-Marxist, philosopher, "Elvis of cultural theory" and the greatest contemporary Eastern-European thinker:


In the Matrix, Morpheus gives Neo choice between red pill that would reveal the truth of the “Matrix” and a blue pill that would let him go back to the illusion. Zizek comes in at this point and expresses the need for a third pill. “What is the third pill? Definitely not some kind of transcendental pill which enables a fake fast-food religious experience, but a pill that would enable me to perceive not the reality behind the illusion but the reality in illusion itself.”

The influence of illusion - fiction, movies, advertising, brands - over our daily lives is much stronger than the influence of the non-symbolic (and inaccesible) reality.  Illusion - and movies most of all - says Zizek, is what teaches us how to desire...Clearly, the task of (marketing) research is to tackle directly the reality of illusion rather than trying to get to it through interrogation of consumers. We need the third pill. 


American Dream on the (Semiotic) Couch

The work of  Greg Rowland has been a great inpiration for me and for many people in Unilever. Here is Greg's analysis of the "American dream":

View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own.


The Innovation Trap


I have written the "Innovation trap" as an article for the October issue of the  Research World .  I received a number of  emails from people (agency and client side) who read it and who are also tired by the frentic (and usually pointless) search for new research methodologies.  "However", asks one of the emails, "where is the money in pure "consumer understanding?"  Great question. I am thinking about it, discussing it with people around me.  What do you think?  

Meanwhile, here is the article:

Researchers need to focus on understanding people instead of constantly inventing ‘new’ methodologies.

 I have spent the last ten years on the client side, where innovation and growth go hand-in-hand. Unilever or any other manufacturer innovates in order to grow its brand’s share, turnover and profit. The research industry has learned from its clients and has adopted this model: it measures its growth in value terms and  attributes a large portion of its growth to innovation of market research techniques.

 If innovation is at the heart of the research business, we should all frantically search for new ways of doing research. It is a seductive proposition for any creative researcher. However, I believe that the search for research innovations is a dangerous trap into which most of us have fallen.

 Market research is about understanding people and why they do what they do. Unfortunately, typical innovations in research obscure this understanding because they generate growth through developing research tools that can be sold quickly and in great volume. Again, it is exactly what the manufacturer does when selling its innovations.

 For instance, we might develop a new toothbrush designed for brushing the tongue. We know that the consumer might not have a genuine need for tongue brushing but we are smart enough to create the need. Rather than selling a product we are selling a myth.

 The great myth

What is the myth that market research sells to its consumers – the research buyers? The key myth is that of certainty and control over a world that is completely chaotic and unpredictable. Fear of the chaos out there has forced us – on the client side – into a make-believe world of benchmarks, persuasion scores and scales designed to measure emotions (the latest hype). We have subjected consumers to our reality of tongue-brushing while we are ourselves subjected to the reality of the major research agencies.

 A few years ago, the market research function on the client side tried to break free from the prison of benchmarks and scales. It re-branded itself and market researchers became insight managers. We promised to gather insight, transmit knowledge and educate our clients. If we had succeeded in this transformation, there would be less market research and more educated clients acting on gut feelings. The growth of the research industry would have halted as a result.

 Instead, the industry is thriving and its growth signifies our failure on the client side to listen to our intuition, take risks and come up with truly disruptive product innovation that would genuinely surprise and delight consumers.

 True research is about understanding people. And genuine understanding of people comes from years of learning, experience and true intuition. It comes down to talented individuals who are semioticians, ethnographers, and great qualitative researchers. These are the people whose insights add tremendous value to the business and who are able to energise and guide clients.

 I have a lot of respect for people who have established small agencies to fight the big players. The problem is that they soon adopt the structures of the large agencies and start their own frantic search for fast-moving research products. This seems to be the only way for a research agency to grow in size: they create the need for a new, high-tech, silver-methodology that will deliver pre-packaged ideas for innovations to clients' desktops.

 It used to be hard to challenge the agency system as agencies owned the necessary technical tools. Then came the internet revolution and today the tools that researchers need are either already out there or are being developed – not by research agencies but by the likes of Google, Facebook or Twitter.

 Because of this, there is no need for new innovative research methodologies. The true job to be done consists of unlearning, of throwing the obsolete research tool sets away. Instead of building new methodologies, we should build networks of creative people who can work together and truly help us to understand the world’s people and cultures.


Sum total of all the misunderstandings

I have listened to an interview with the writer Philip Roth on a BBC podcast (podcasts are great!) Roth has talked about fame and he quoted R.M. Rilke: "Fame is finally only the sum total of all the misunderstandings that can gather around a new name."

What we have here is a clear definition of a modern brand by Rilke: "Brand is finally only the sum total of all the misunderstandings that can gather around a (new) name." It is a definition that emphasizes the role of consumer co-creation in the brand development process (i.e. the sum total of all the misunderstandings). Rilke's name could have become big in the world of marketing if he had dropped the gloomy positioning and had been a bit more of a team-player.

Rilke's problem is not that of skills but of attitude. For instance, he also said something along these lines: "who would speak of victory, survival is all!". It is a very Eastern European thing to say. It is because of this defeatist attitude that we, Eastern Europeans, tend not to get to the top positions in marketing at multinational firms. Rilke might be right in a long run but I don't recommend to anybody to use this quote during a job interview for a brand managerial position. However, one can co-create with Rilke, change the sentence slightly and say with a winning smile "who would speak of survival, it is victory that is all!". Such statement will make a huge impression on the HR person present at the interview. Rilke


The power of Russian women

A quote from a comment from Steve on the post about Russian women: "... I believe that its future lays in hands of women. I have always been taken aback with the role of Russian females in their society. They have their aspirations, future vision, but men still have power and usually are in the fore. Today, but how long? I used to say females are taking Russia forward...."

I agree.  I think that women are moving Russia forward but their power is still limited to the domestic space (vs. public space). It was revealing to read the study about Russian mother and daughters: the mothers seem to pass the following message to the daughters:  "you will hold all the power at home but one thing you cannot ever do is to make your husband conscious of that...making him conscious of that will destroy the magic and he might reject you." 

I have discussed this with Greg Rowland who suggested that this might be true for every patriarchal society - they are matriarchal beneath the surface but the fact must remain unacknowledged. We have also talked about brands in this context and whether a brand could try to break the silence and acknowledge the real power of women in Russia. It might be too much to ask from a brand at this moment...

Here is a Russian woman on Youtube, filmed by her American husband. The husband claims, in the comments to the film, that he has done the video because the Russian lady is so amazing, loving and feminine, so different from the overweight, depressed and masculine American women.

And here is one cynical comment to this film on Youtube: Comment_youtube


Esomar Innovate Conference, Copenhagen (2 out 2)

I write this partly as a response to the comment from Matt Hart - and I will come back to Matt's points shortly.

I did two presentations at the Esomar Innovate conference in Copenhagen - one with Evert Bos from Brainjuicer and the second with Andrew Needham of Face. I did the second presentation on behalf of Ana Medeiros,  my colleague in Unilever. Ana works closely with Andrew on the co-creation for Axe and she has done great job driving and promoting co-creation within Unilever.  Here are the 2 presentations (Andrew Needham and John Kearon have kindly agreed to publish the presentations on this blog):

Both methodologies - Brainjuicer's creative 6-ers and the approach of Face - have at their heart co-creation of new ideas/concepts with people  (so-called creative consumers) and each of them are advocating a completely different approach.

Lets try to explore some aspects of the two approaches while looking at the questions raised by Matt:

Recruiting and profiling: Brainjuicer uses the screener for "creatives", described in the presentation.  Similar screener is used in case of the Supergroups (used by Márta for the co-creation on Tic Tac).  The " Stuffed Toy Elephant question" (see slide 15 of the Brainjuicer presentation) is one the key question for recruitment of creatives for both Brainjuicer creatives and the Supergroupers.

Educating the respondents: Face has their panel of consumers (Headbox) from which they draw creative consumers.  These consumers are often young designers/students of marketing and I think that this is a great advantage, i.e. rather than being dependent (only) on a questionnaire we can hire young people who are not only creative and bright but also educated in our field. (It becomes much easier to explain to them what the brands stands for,  what are the objectives etc.)

We worked with the young creative consumers on Axe/Lynx and we had long debates about whether to use older creative consumers when co-creating ideas for more "older" brands.  My feeling is that the offline and intense co-creation sessions are more suited to younger people who already know a bit about advertsing, design and marketing. Márta and her team used this approach for the work on the site for Tic Tac  - they have recruited young guys to design a site for middle aged people.

The creative consumers recruited by Brainjuicer create ideas online and in isolation. I think that the Brainjuicer approach is most useful when one needs to generate many ideas in a short time.  The ideas from the Brainjuicer creative 6-ers will come out in rough shapes and, in most cases,  will need to be fine tuned in an offline session. The ideas for deodorants (described in the presentation for Esomar) that were generated by the creative 6-ers  became one of the key sources for the Wildfire project (which is a c0-creation process).

Incentives:  I think that we have used the right mixture of incentives for the people who work on the new Axe variant (it is described in the Face presentation). That mixture included money but was not about money only - we had to create an engaging environment for the consumers to work in,  provide a real experience of learning and doing, take them seriously and share with them the final results of the co-creation (the finished product or advertising).


Esomar Innovate Conference, Copenhagen (1 of 2)

I attended the Esomar Innovate Conference in Copenhagen  (16-18 June) but I wasn't able to see all the presentations. Here is a handful of thoughts and observations about the bits I did see:

* The giant step that market research could take to help innovation everywhere hasn't yet happened. We're still waiting for the moment when the representatives of the big research factories arrive on  stage and acknowledge that they are running on empty, that it is becoming harder for them to sell the dream of certainty even to the weakest of clients and,  that after helping to deliver mediocre products and communication and helping to kill the many dreams of enthusiastic brand managers, planners  and creatives, they are closing their factories down.

* The majority of speakers came from the UK, western Europe and the US. The majority of people in the audience came from the developing world.  Either there is nothing very innovative happening in the developing world or those of us from the developing world cannot write very good papers (the 20-page-long variety that Esomar requires for entry).  My feeling is that the problem is with the papers themselves and the dominant, Western rules of discourse.  The people who judge the papers are from the West and they will naturally prefer a style and thinking process that is close to their own style and thinking.  The problem with the Esomar papers is similar to the problems with most of research reports: they tend to get out of hand and dilute insights and issues in an avalanche of words.

* Gregg Fraley was the keynote speaker and  I really enjoyed his speech  while I was watching it. I am trying to remember now what he was talking about. I recall a picture of the iPod. And a picture of Steve Jobs.  And a slide saying "Starbucks is dead".  Watching the speech was  like watching a good Hollywood movie - enjoyable but without providing a lasting experience that could really touch your life.

*The presentation of Márta Hoffman (RI, Hungary) and István Kozári (Initiative) was the highlight of the conference for me, and and not just because it was the only presentation from the developing world.



In a nutshell, Márta and István have changed the way in which Tic Tac connects with consumers online in Hungary.  In the past Tic Tac had a reasonably good but very static site. The site celebrated the brand but was not particularly useful for consumers.  Márta and her agency found gifted young people and co-created with them a concept for new online community for Tic Tac. 

The community is based on a strong insight into Hungarian society (not only) that the  research  uncovered and that lead to the "Networks of Favours" idea:


The  "Network of Favours"  is the concept for the Tic Tac community. People join the site to exchange little favours : walking a dog, watering plants, and such things. 

It ticks several boxes:

  1. It is useful to people and doesn't celebrate the glory of the brand (and being useful is a must if a brand wants to join an online conversation);
  2. The scope is  bigger and more important to people than the category and related territories e.g. "freshness", and;
  3. It is the right territory for Tic Tac.

The role of research in the development of the community was crucial: Márta and her agency found the right people to co-create with. They didn't just utilize creative consumers but included people from agencies and the client's company. They created an engaging environment for them. They facilitated,  moderated and interpreted the sessions in an informed way that was  in-line with the thinking on the brand. All of this led to the insight, ideas and real results.  And it was fast and affordable. This is what good research should do.

For everything else (technical innovations in market research) there is Google and Facebook. Ironically, it seems easier for the researchers lacking the intuition needed for doing the research job properly to displace the issue and create the need for a new, high-tech, silver bullet research methodology that will deliver pre-packaged ideas for innovations to clients' desktops.

I think that we need more case studies like the one on Tic Tac to dispel the "silver bullet" myth.

I work on Sure/Rexona and one of our key tasks at the moment is to find a way for the brand to join (get a permission to join)  the relevant conversations that are already taking place, online and off. The case that Márta and István presented was an inspiration for me, worth much more than the general discussions about innovation (with inevitable calls to actions, figures of percentages of innovations failing in the market and pictures of  iPods and Steve Jobs).

Here is the presentation that Marta has kindly shared with me:

(I have copied the photo of Márta and István from Henrik Hall's article.)


Red Ink

Slavoj Žižek quotes an old Eastern European joke in the introduction to his book Welcome to the Desert of the Real . The  joke goes like this: A Czech (or East German or Polish) worker is transferred to Siberia. He know that when he will write letters from Siberia to his friends at home they  will be read by the censors and so he tells his friends : "Let's establish a code: if a letter you receive from me is written in normal blue ink, it's true; if it is written in red ink, it's false." After a month, his friends receive a letter written in blue ink: "Everything is great here in Siberia: the shops are full, there is plenty of food, there are great and beautiful apartments, you can see all the latest Western films in the cinema and there are beautiful girls ready to go out with you - the only thing that you cannot get here is red ink."

These days, our shops are finally full in Eastern Europe (at least in the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary) and there are all the Western movies in the cinemas.  And advertising is wetting our appetite for more.  Advertising in Eastern Europe is shouting loud, celebrating products and services, assuming that people will keep their love affairs with brands that are pushing their primitive messages through TV.

Most of the manufacturers (both local and international) have bought into the cliche that, unlike  Western Europeans, Eastern Europeans must be treated with simple "push" advertising that "really sells."  These ads, packed with product benefits, might be good  for short-term sales but they don't  build an emotional connection between a brand and people.  The people featured in these ads have usually very little to do with the lives of people in the CEE region: they are just mannequins or people who are being used as metaphors for the products in the ads (or their  specific features). It is interesting how this approach has been used to tell the world about ourselves:

If there is ever a contest for ads packed with the most cliches about Prague, this ad must be a winner: blondes, alcohol, nice servants in wigs (is the servant standing for a reformed Czech taxi driver who is no longer stealing or beating his customers?) and Mozart (to signify culture). Has this ad been created to attract  more young English guys to Prague? Those that are stumbling out of their EasyJet planes and barfing before they reach passport control? Probably yes and the ad might do the job there - the guys might be encouraged to come to Prague on Friday evening, get drunk and get laid (if they overcome their shyness and need to do everything in a group ranging from 6 to 10), and then leave Prague Sunday evening, spending there $300 each. Is this ad going to attract to Prague the people that I have met in London - smart and affluent professionals? I doubt it - the ad might take away their  illusions about the creative potential of the people in Prague and Prague's genius loci

Our shops are overflowing with goods and we are getting fatter. The only thing that we are lacking is the red ink - to tell bits of truth about ourselves in an interesting way, as this (I believe) is the only way to build stronger brands - including the brand called the Czech Republic.


About Russia and the "Women go home" campaign

I feel as if I'm traveling back in time when I visit Russia, leaving the West with its citizens turned into consumers, its detachment,  irony and spiritual void and entering Russia, the soulful, pre-ironic land of material impoverishment.


I have traveled to Russia repeatedly the past seven years. Most of the business that we do in Russia is with women. Russian women are responsible for the boom in FMCG there,  buying into the dreams and promises of the great Western brands.

Often the dreams that brands are made of function as compensation for the hardship that women in Russia have to endure. They bear the double burden of family and work with fatalism, not expecting much from the men who might already be gone or/and drunk or dead.

The communist "engineers of human souls" realized a few decades ago that  birth rates are falling rapidly in the Soviet Union. The communist leaders did their bit of research and concluded that it was the participation of Soviet women in the workforce that led to the "masculinization" of women and hence to falling birth rates.  The official propaganda came up with the "women go home" campaign, encouraging women to become more feminine, submissive and tender. According to some Soviet psychologists,  the masculinization of women "had caused the feminization of men, wounding the men's self esteem, causing them to become idle and demoralized." (Cited in "Femininity and Double Burden) This is a tragically wonderful example of transfer of the guilt for impotence (both literally and figuratively speaking) from men to women.

The target for the "women go home" campaign were clearly men, who felt empowered by the campaign's goal - the subordination of women. In reality, the women were very much at home already as they still are today. The universe of Russian women begins and ends at home: women define themselves through home, family and interpersonal relationships. While many men are losers and drunks and living with them is hard, life without men seem even harder. No man equals no family  and "having a family" is the ultimate goal for many Russian women. On a more practical level, it is almost impossible to survive in Russia as a single mother. Single-mother families account for most of the poor households in Russia because of: a) the low individual income of single mothers;  b) their inability to compete with men on the labor market; and, c) the insufficient amount of private and public transfers to compensate for the absence of the second income source in the family. The need - to get and keep men - has been exploited by manufacturers and brands in Russia. Here is one of the crudest example (I have showed this ad already here but it is worth seeing again).

The need to appear feminine and attractive under any circumstances have been long internalized by Russian women. "Beauty requires sacrifice" and the sacrifice is performed daily: a typical Russian women would never leave her house - even to go shopping to a corner store - without a make up. They would be horrified if they could see some of the women in London who do their make-up on the morning trains to work, totally oblivious of the other passengers, males or females. Russian women are all but oblivious to the gaze of the others. The "locus of control" is not located within the free individual but with the community outside of oneself (which implies less freedom and individualism in the Western sense but  also less loneliness and alienation).

Perfect beauty in Russia involves a touch of mystery and enigma. The mystery comes from inside and is connected with the notion of "inner beauty" and "soul" - which are still so important in Russia. In relation to men, it is the mystery that is supposed to constantly re-fuel and renew men's desire. There is an unconscious fear on part of some women, that if a man "sees through a woman" he loses interest in her.

Times are changing, even in Russia. Changes are happening the fastest in Moscow, while things are slow in the provinces. It is in the provinces where time seems frozen. There are typical small towns full of older ladies (most of the men are dead) walking slowly along the empty playgrounds (the birth rates continue falling in the post-communist times). There is no Ikea furniture inside of the apartments in the province (there are Ikeas in Moscow already); their chairs and tables are old, dark - and real. The sense of authenticity is strong, coming from the things that have been touched and used for years, from the books on the shelves (yes, the Russian classics) that were read, experienced and "re-lived" and from the sense of fatalistic reconciliation with life itself.   

Whatever little I have learned about her - the Russian woman - I learned by talking to them in their kitchens, snooping around their living rooms and bathrooms. I also learned a lot from the "perfect crowd" of great researchers, sociologists and other experts that I have the privilege to meet and work with in Russia.   









Source: "Feminity and the Double Burden: Dialogues on the Socialization of Russian Daughters into Womanhood",  Natalia Roudakova and Deborah S. Ballard-Reisch