The value of asking: How any business can benefit from consumer research
The value of asking: How any business can benefit from consumer research

By on in Strategy

The value of asking: How any business can benefit from consumer research

I’ve been working in consumer insights and research for decades, but each time I’m on a new project I’m still struck by this simple truth: There is just so much value in asking questions.

Businesses that commit to connecting with consumers, asking thoughtful questions, and really listening to the answers, position themselves to unlock incredible business insights.

I’ve seen the positive outcomes firsthand, and I also understand how daunting it can be to undertake such research: It requires resources and corporate will to get a project off the ground, and humility and openness to absorb unexpected results.

Still, there is no reward without risk. If you need help convincing your management, your team, or yourself that consumer research is for you, keep reading.

What’s holding you back?

The number one point of resistance I see when it comes to undertaking research is the belief that we already know our consumers, who they are, and what they want. And, of course, we do, to a certain extent–we’re running successful businesses!

But consumer research unlocks the “why” behind actions and behaviors. Each of us naturally views the world through our own personal lens, shaped by our experiences. But we are not our customers; research shifts our vantage point and fosters empathy so we can see things from their perspective.

Even something as simple as hearing the words consumers use to talk about your product can make a monumental difference in your work. Incorporating that verbiage into messaging helps build a stronger and more authentic connection with the people you’re addressing.

Using consumer research to get a deeper understanding can be the difference between fostering a good consumer experience and a great one. A single pivotal learning from insights work can spark a business decision that blows your competition out of the water.

When to undertake deep consumer research

You don’t need to roll out a massive research project before running every digital ad or sending each marketing email, but any time you’re innovating, it’s worth the investment.

Perhaps you’re launching in a new market or want to reach a new segment. Maybe you are developing a novel product or seek to improve an existing one. Research during this period of innovation provides you with a crucial baseline understanding of how your audience and offering interact.

Take this example from General Mills: In the 1950s, the company launched Betty Crocker cake mixes, hoping to transform dessert prep for homemakers of the era. All the components of a delicious cake were in one box–even the eggs and milk, in powdered form. All a baker had to do was add water and pop the batter in the oven.

But the launch was a flop. Sales stagnated, and General Mills was left scratching its head.

To dissect the mystery, they brought in researchers who uncovered this surprising bit of consumer insight: Women felt guilty using a cake mix that was so easy. How could they deceive their guests and husbands, letting them think they had spent hours in the kitchen? (A very 1950s-specific variety of guilt!)

General Mills focused on this insight, returned to the drawing board, and launched an updated version of the cake mix, which required bakers to add a real egg. While this was certainly not a laborious process, this tweak was enough to solve the problem. Sales took off, and the rest is history.

Who would have guessed?! This is the kind of “a-ha!” insight you can only uncover by speaking directly with your consumers.

Determining the research method that’s right for you

If you’ve explored consumer research before, you know there are many methodologies out there. What are the rules about when to use qualitative versus quantitative methods? Which one is right for you?

The answer is, it depends. Different objectives require different approaches.

Quantitative research is more a test, rather than an exploration. Quant methods are a great fit for, say, trying to understand the effectiveness of your advertising or deciding which packaging option is best at delivering on your brand personality. If you wanted, for example, to assess which of your four key brand attributes most resonate with your audience and the best way to get that messaging across, quant is for you.

Qualitative research is more nuanced and probing, and is great for unlocking deeper understandings. There is room in qualitative methods to delve into why people do the things they do and think the things they think. Exploring a concept like “what does it mean to be beautiful?” or digging into “how is my brand perceived versus the competition” are ideal uses for for qualitative research.

Ethnographic research lives under the qualitative umbrella and can be some of the most exciting and insightful work. Here, you may go to a consumer’s home or tag along with them through their daily routine. Literally stepping into a consumer’s world and observing their actions and behaviors can be invaluable, shocking, eye-opening (and fun!). The insight that’s most important may be one that you witness, but that your consumer may never think to share in a survey response, or know how to articulate.

Sometimes, a combined approach is best. Brands may start with quant research to get a basic understanding of facts about a region, market, or situation before moving into qualitative research to dig deeper. Then, they may return to quant to validate the results of their qualitative work. The right approach is dictated by your goals.

B2Bs need consumer research, too

Research may seem like it lives firmly in the realm of consumer brands, but B2Bs can see just as much benefit. After all, B2B buyers and end-users are still people!

If you work for a B2B and want to undertake consumer research, give everyone a seat at the table. The feedback you hear from decision-makers will likely be very different from what end users have to say. All of them have valuable insights to share.


The most surprising insights are often the biggest gifts.


Sometimes the hardest part of the consumer research process is grappling with the results. Like the General Mills team before you, you may uncover a shocking insight that upends your entire plan.

While that possibility may trigger a reflexive cringe, know that the most surprising insights are often the biggest gifts. The right research nugget can give you the information you need to pause and reevaluate your approach. It can tell you where and how to pivot. In short, it can be the thing that changes the trajectory of your business for the better–but only if you’re willing to ask the questions and hear the answers.

Got your own questions about consumer research or how to turn your research results into marketing magic? Let’s talk.