A long time ago, it became clear to me that marketing research had only one purpose: to search for the consumer need, wish, want, or desire that would be the key to the unleashing the marketing "money river."

While this is an honorable goal, it is a very elusive one.

The November 28, 2005, issue of the Wall Street Journal published an article titled "It's the Purpose Brand, Stupid," co-authored by Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School, Intuit Chairman Scott Cook, and Taddy Hall, chief strategy officer of the Advertising Research Foundation. The provocative article states that marketers would be far better served if they were to start looking at their brands "from the standpoint of understanding what jobs customers need to do—and to build products that serve those specific purposes."

The authors go on to say, "When people find themselves with jobs to be done, they essentially hire products to do those jobs." They argue that we must develop "Purpose Brands," or brands that consumers inextricably associate with the jobs they want done.

But still the issue remains: How do we discover the consumer need, wish, want, or desire that will cause a brand to have a purpose?

In my book, I write, "Consumers buy products because they need them, e.g., an inexpensive Chevy simply to go back and forth. They buy products because they want them, e.g., a BMW because it makes a strong statement about their success. They buy products they wish for, e.g., a Porsche because it is a symbol of automobile perfection. They buy products they desire, e.g., a PT Cruiser because it takes them back to their childhood." By deftly finding their identity along the need, want, wish, and desire continuum, all of those autos—Chevy, BMW, Porsche, and PT Cruiser—have become "purpose brands."

In essence, we do need to create purpose brands. But the other half of the story—that is, the hard part—is to determine clearly the that job a brand can uniquely and believably execute so that consumers can fully embrace it.

Our economy is highly sophisticated and competitive. We have choices that are far beyond the simple fulfillment of basic needs and wants. We have moved to a point where research that simply uncovers and exploits what might have been a significant need or want in the past is now basic, necessary for merely remaining competitive. And it's far short of identifying a unique "Brand Purpose."

If more than 90% of all new products fail, market researchers can share in much of the blame. Such products continue to be marked by sameness and lack of clear differentiation because the research techniques they use are usually old hat. Many researchers have failed to provide the new tools and approaches that effectively identify the deep-seated wishes and desires that are critical to identifying the purpose their brands should serve.

Consider some examples:

  • How does Home Depot differ from Lowe's in its brand purpose?
  • What about Staples vs. Office Depot vs. OfficeMax?
  • How about the cars that General Motors manufacturers vs. the ones produced by Ford?
  • Consider Allstate vs. State Farm or Citibank vs. Chase.
  • Look at Coke vs. Pepsi or Bud vs. Miller.

While these marketers would certainly argue that their brands are positioned with a purpose, the job that each one of them would do for consumers seems identical. I can't begin to distinguish a differentiating need, want, wish, or desire that they claim as their own and which would turn these brands into ones that could be referred to as "Purpose Brands." Can you?

It simply isn't enough for the research community to use the same tired research techniques that worked 20 years ago and assume that they are relevant in today's ultra-sophisticated marketplace. For marketing research to be a useful tool today, creativity and innovation are needed more than ever. Unfortunately, it is rare that a researcher in a large corporation will insist on trying new research approaches that are risky or that seek to develop new research paradigms. Yet, these are the very paradigms that show promise in teasing out unconscious consumer wishes and desires that will allow brands to have a distinct purpose.

Today, many new experimental research models and promising research approaches go beyond ones that are traditionally used. There's ethnographic research, recall focus groups, focus group panels, consumer overtime behavior studies, observation studies, consumers as creative sources, and so on. The point is that we can't really begin to understand the jobs that consumers need brands to do if research continues to report results using traditional approaches.

Think about a two-hour focus group. Is this state-of-the-art? The moderator asks the questions and respondents to give their top-of-mind responses. At the end of the group, after all the moderator's probing and projective techniques are exhausted, marketers get their two hours' worth of information (or four, six, or eight hours when multiple groups are conducted). Usually, they think they've learned something. Mostly, they get the same superficial understanding of their brands and products that the competition gets in their focus group studies. No wonder so many brands look the same. They are all firing from the same gun!

The problem is that often what consumers say in focus groups and what they do are different—and research has long been behind the eight ball when it comes to addressing how attitudes and behavior interact so that brands have the opportunity for developing a distinct purpose. I would argue that until management gives research the time and money to develop new tools to understand this dichotomy (and researchers become more demanding of management support to do so) we're a long way from the era of the "Purpose Brand."

So what to do? Well, would there be a deeper level of understanding, more insightful information, if focus group respondents returned for a second or third group session... or even beyond? Would more profound needs, wants, wishes, and desires surface if consumers were given the time to think about our brands and the jobs they can do?

Would combinations of recalling consumers and also observing them going about life in their homes or businesses provide breakthrough brand thinking? Does the whole notion of peaking consumer awareness about the products and brands they use get us closer to the jobs we and our brands can do to make their lives easier? I think so.

The way research is practiced today taps into consumers' spontaneous attitudes. While this may be all that is needed for many of our studies, it's rare that tapping into consumers' top-of-mind spontaneous attitudes provide breakthrough Brand Positions. So, whatever you believe about market research, know that without new approaches that dig below the surface and allow us to truly understand the jobs for which consumers would "hire our brands," we'll be comfortable in the much of the sameness spawned by the era of "positioning."

Needs, wants, wishes, and desires. They are all part and parcel of uncovering the jobs that our brands can uniquely accomplish. Suffice it to say, a catchy phrase (it's about being a "Purpose Brand") is oversimplifying a very complex issue.

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image of Robert Kaden

Bob Kaden is president of The Kaden Company and author of Guerrilla Marketing Research. He can be reached at thekadencompany@sbcglobal.net.