NEW YORK: General Mills, the food group, believes that attaining a greater level of "consumer intimacy" will drive sales – but only if the widespread imbalance between quantitative and qualitative research is redressed.

As argued by Jeanine Bassett, the firm's vp/consumer insights, growing a business requires knowing the customer better. This, in turn, relies upon having a more "intimate" understanding of the target audience.

"How do you enable consumer intimacy?" she asked. "You need to reframe the job, so both qualitative and quantitative have jobs to do.

"Consumer intimacy has no agenda. It has no job to do. It is just about walking in your consumers' shoes, living in their world, understanding what they're dealing with on a day-to-day basis." (For more, read Warc's exclusive report:General Mills looks for insights beyond the numbers.)

At present, many marketers base their decisions purely on statistical evidence. This is a consequence, at least in part, of the fact that the industry has essentially been "discounting" qualitative research for many years.

Indeed, the findings from this type of analysis are typically just "boiled down to a pithy verbatim or two" and used to support the overall data. "Consumer intimacy – just flat out – is not prioritized," Bassett said.

"The challenge is: how do you make room for people? How do you make room for consumers in a numbers culture? How do you create some space for the consumer to have a very strong voice, other than quantitatively, in decision-making?"

General Mills conducted an in-house study covering a variety of different segments, and found that there was a tendency to over-index the importance of some consumer segments at the expense of others.

"You have to bridge that gap," she said. Understanding the everyday challenges facing various groups is a good place to start. "You're not walking in their shoes. You're not experiencing their lives and their needs," said Bassett.

Such an emphasis will mean abandoning the "safety in numbers" approach that characterises much of the industry today, and threatens to act as a source of misplaced confidence.

"We often confuse precision with accuracy," she continued. "There is magic in decimal places: the more numbers you have in the right decimal places, the more convinced we are about the data.

"There's nothing magic about decimal places at all. And the volume estimate is simply that – it's just an estimate. It isn't necessarily accurate; it's just our best guess."

Data sourced from Warc