James Thompson
Oct 26, 2016

Take research with a grain of salt, and other hard-won marketing advice

To those climbing the marketing ladder, listen closely and learn from the mistakes of your forebears. Be sceptical about research, listen to feedback and maybe your ego will be spared a few dings.

James Thompson
James Thompson

I thought I’d honour this issue of Campaign, which celebrates the achievements of younger members of our “profession”, by writing about some of the mistakes I made in the days when I had more career ahead of me than behind me. When I told a colleague about this idea he suggested that there weren’t enough column inches. That has only inspired me further, so get ready to bask in my foolishness and vanity. In the form of advice: 

Don’t take research at face value. I once relaunched a major brand with new packaging. Research assured me the target consumers loved the new bottle. Problem was, the people who actually bought the product weren’t in the bullseye target and these (much older) people found that the bottle was too heavy and difficult to use. Sales (and bottles) went through the floor before they started to climb again. I had used research as a tool to support my own preference rather than with genuine curiosity.

Listen to the mood music — and don’t ignore the details. I was part of a huge product launch that everyone thought was a guaranteed success — strong parent brand, growing new category, great advertising, record-breaking concept scores. I took some to a party and people left unfinished bottles on tables. I reassured myself that these people were not in the consumer target. After the launch, it turned out that the taste was widely disliked, and when we looked harder at product test results there was a steady low-level drumbeat of responses which should have set off warning bells. I’d inhaled in my own fumes instead and glossed over inconvenient data points.

If someone else’s view is inconvenient, there is probably value in it. I’d proudly led the development of a new product that I thought was a winner. Just as we were about to launch, a new boss was appointed who thought that I hadn’t built in enough visual differentiation but who also made it clear that he would support his team’s judgement in the early days of his job. We launched. He was right. It wasn’t differentiated enough. Now, I try to welcome sceptical comments through gritted teeth. 

Just because you believe passionately in something, that doesn’t make you right. I can think of times where I argued brilliantly (I thought) in a situation where strength of feeling overrode strength of evidence. Now, when I find myself getting locked into a single-minded position I try to ask myself if I have lost perspective and check with a colleague whether I have lost my mind even more than usual.

Congratulations to all those recognised in this issue. I hope that some things I learnt at a similar age are of some use to somebody out there.

James Thompson is global MD of Diageo Reserve (Diageo’s luxury portfolio)

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