The Warc Blog

The Warc Blog

What can market research learn from English rugby?
Edward Appleton, Senior Manager Consumer Insights, Coca Cola Gmbh
Edward Appleton

Anyone who follows rugby will be aware of the transformation that the English national team has undergone since the new coach, Stuart Lancaster, was appointed roughly 12 months ago.

After years of turgid displays, disappointments, defeats and false dawns, with new Coaches being appointed and sacked without achieving much, it seems like the the team that won the World Cup back in 2004 has finally rediscovered its form. They recently beat World Champions New Zealand by a record score, and last weekend soundly beat a very solid Scotland side.

One can only attribute this new found success to the new coach - someone previously very little known to the average English rugby fan.

An interview - published in the Guardian newspaper a couple of days ago - set out to discover the coaching principles and philosophy that has allowed English rugby to re-discover its winning ways. I found many of the tenets very applicable to Market Research - whether clientside like myself, or working in an agency environment, our whole industry is carving out a new path for itself amidst a sea of innovation and change. Here's my take.

1. Investment in Research needs to Happen Earlier in the Business Cycle.

The English coach is apparently highly sensitised to the need for constant improvement, always looking left and right for inspiration, ways to get better. Nothing new here. What is more interesting is the focus on getting the timing right- "making changes before things start to decline, rather than when it is too late" .

How many companies invest in market research when their business is in solid growth mode? How many only begin to invest in insights when their sales indicate a drop in demand?

The moment in the S Curve to invest in MR to understand the dynamics of a business is when growth rates are still going strong, not when they are beginning to slowing down, have totally stopped or even gone into reverse. Whilst at first sight this may appear counterintuitive (why invest in understanding something that is working perfectly well?), the logic is simple. Almost all businesses go through a cycle; at the height of a growth curve, funding is sufficient to support sustainable and meaningful insights efforts that can lead to a transformation through innovation and renewal - something that can easily take between 3 - 5 years.

If there are marketing directors or CEOs reading this, I'd put in a special plea to take note.

2. Shifting Gear is about aiming for "Better",  not pitching Old versus New

A principle that seemed to underpin the coaching regime previous to Stuart Lancaster's appointment was the utilisation of big name players who had built a reputation over the years. Experience was valued highly - a dip in form of a seasoned international didn't seem to matter, even if was a dip that would be better described as a decline, continuing for months, even years.

The new coach seems to select on current form - and if this means younger players appear more frequently, so be it.

There are clear similarities to research practice and SM discussion in particular: yes, we should definitely innovate to improve our performance. 

But more importantly, we should avoid pitting "Old MR" methods against the "New", creating energy out of antagonism - we should be more steely-eyed about current performance. Fine to bash tedious trackers or customer satisfaction surveys; better to say: here's a validated way that will get you more accurate results, quicker and at a fraction of the cost. Being "old" doesn't necessarily equate to "bad" any more than "new" is synonomous with "better".

3. We Need to Think and Learn Laterally.

Stuart Lancaster's coaching involves taking time out to learn from high performance coaches from other sporting fields. We should all emulate this - it is essentially good business practice.

Market Research has long had a tendency to be comfortable positioning itself as a discipline that was narrowly delineated, where strangers feared to tread, having first to timidly knock on the Insights door. All that has changed through disruptive technology, and the broad access to data for those who have the time, inclination and skillsets to search for Insights.

We're beginning to wake up to collaboration across boundaries, learning from related fields. This years's UK MRS Conference programme is witness to a new approach - speakers include media broadcasters, PR leaders, an award winning physicist, even an artist. The title of the progamme says it all: "The Shock of the New"

4. Establishing a Clear Culture Matters

It's not altogether obvious how the words "culture" and "professional rugby" with its immense physical intensity go together - until, of course, one thinks about teamwork, where a binding culture is critical for high performance. The English coach takes personal responsibility for setting the cultural tone himself, and spends a lot of time in 1-on-1s with each and every individual to ensure they feel motivated, listened to.

For MR as an industry in flux, I think the concept of culture is a key, if rather intangible factor, as it relates to Identity, and the sense of belonging. 

We all know what traditional MR stands for, but what is New MR all about? When flicking through the MRS Conference programme, other than thinking - wow, sounds interesting - one question that kept returning to me was: what has all this got to do with market research?

To quote the Irish poet Yeats from his poem "The Second Coming" written in 1919, in the aftermath of the First World War, The Russian Revolution and The Easter Uprising: "The centre cannot hold".

I applaud efforts that help us learn, become inspired from other areas. Blending this with the rather humdrum question of "What does that mean for me?" is a pressing business challenge we all face.

Finally, and on a slighlty more lighthearted note, I would say that learning from any high performance sport has to be beneficial to us researchers. Putting our bodies on the line is not something we have been asked to do historically, metaphorically or otherwise. The future will require a different kind of dedication - a passion for an end result, wanting to be in the thick of things, scrapping merrily towards a team win.

Being a sort of business spectator won't be an option for many of us in future, however hard we cheer. We're going to have to get our hands dirty.

Curious, as ever, as to others' views.

Subjects: Consumers, Marketing, Brands

11 February 2013 17:18

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