Research Reimagined for a New Normal

Register for the Insights Association’s Y Conference, March 9-10, 2021!

Luke will be participating in the Insights Association’s Y Conference this year. On March 10 at 2:40 PM EST/1:40 PM CST, his presentation, “General Mills’ Quest for the First Moment of Truth: Novel qual methods to fuel effective innovation frameworks,” will share how our partnership with General Mills’ In-Context Experimentation team generated quick method pivots that allowed for research to continue through the pandemic.

Click here to register!

We have all been changed because of the historic experience of the past year and have lists of things we are eager to get back to (e.g. travel) and new habits we hope to retain (e.g. more intentionality). A return to normalcy isn’t going to happen, per se, but a return to fewer sacrifices and a re-embracing of ideal routines seems to be on the horizon. What are the implications of this from an insight and strategy standpoint?

Research and methodology looked quite different this past year.  What are clients (and supplier partners) eager to get back to and what changes will stick? Will focus groups continue to be the default qualitative choice? 

For us, in-person intercepts have been an important method for innovation, packaging, and shopper work. The purity of the behavior and authenticity of the shopper and mindset still have us eager to return to stores, but there are challenges depending on the project.  Our mobile and virtual in-store methods are now available in situations when in-store intercepts aren’t ideal or possible.

Emerging qualitative methodologies have long threatened focus groups, but many struggled to break through the primary obstacle of habit. However, this past year interrupted our habits. Consequently, REAL Insight crafted a variety of multi-method solutions that deliver a lot of additional benefits in situations that would have defaulted to focus groups in the past.

The hunger to return to the old ways will be highly influenced by how they were replaced last year.  My guess is that client partners will be less attached to focus groups in the future but will desire to get back to in-person research. It is up to us research supplier partners to craft solutions that deliver not just the insights but the environment of convenience and collaboration that have made the focus group a go-to for decades.

A big implication is that all brands will need to refresh their foundational consumer and behavioral work. Human behaviors, values, expectations, priorities have realigned, so what brands have known to be true in the past, may not be true in the future.  This provides both the need to get back up to speed with insights specific to your brand or category as well as provide opportunities to capture share and enter new arenas where competitors have been slow to adapt.  The timing on when this should happen will be interesting and could vary across sectors.  My recommendation is to plan ahead and get in the queue early.  Supplier capacity will be limited compared to the interest, so lock these projects in before the rush to ensure the work leaves you with a competitive advantage instead of playing catch-up.


Made with REAL Ingredients

REAL Insight has a compulsion to conduct research that authentically reflects reality so that the insights lead to specific recommendations and decisions that help brands grow and avoid costly mistakes. Made with Real Ingredients is a claim that has defined REAL Insight’s work over its 30+ year history, although this is our first time using this language. In terms of research, “real ingredients” means having the right people in the right mindset behaving and responding in the right environment.

Finding the right people is an ongoing challenge for everyone in the research industry. Coming from an intercept background, REAL Insight has a low tolerance for professional respondents—who often respond as experts rather than as themselves—and those too familiar with the process. As we entered this pandemic stay-at-home chapter, we immediately got to work developing a better recruitment solution that prioritizes quality and purity while being cost effective.

What emerged is REAL Recruitment, our proprietary in-house approach to recruitment that avoids overused panels, gives us the control to recruit people we feel good about engaging with, and passes along significant savings to our clients.

Recruiting the right people is important, but so is making sure those right people are in the right mindset for the mission at-hand. With intercepts, shoppers are already in a shopping mindset; with pre-recruits we need to be more intentional about priming respondents to get their mindsets in the right spot to authentically behave and respond on a specific aspect of their life.

Environment is also a critical ingredient because context has a huge impact on mindset. For instance, a delicious piece of pie looks amazing and will be an easy sell when presented in isolation. But a delicious piece of pie presented on a dessert cart (are those still a thing?) with other delicious looking options suddenly becomes less of a no brainer. New products, packaging, and new service opportunities never live in a black hole.

The moral of the story: ingredients matter. The right manufacturing process (research methods, technology, and strategic analysis) matters, too. We will talk more about those next week.

Missed part one? Check it out here!

The Power of Authentic Storytelling

Storytelling is important.

In today’s world, the breadth of channels for telling stories is broad, and we are exposed to many more stories than we have been in the past. Research has always been in the business of telling stories but may not have always put a strong emphasis on telling a good story in a compelling way. The issue with storytelling in research is that a well told story can lead to strong action and decisiveness, but if some of the details are inaccurate or the conclusion is biased, teams can be much worse off.

The implication here is that we need to focus on the authenticity of the inputs to the story as much as we do in ensuring that the story itself is told well. Here are some tips for discovering and sharing a powerful insights story.

  • Focus on context and behavior: Consumers don’t always have an accurate view of what we do or how we will react. Gaining learning from people authentically primed by their real environment is critical for getting genuine data.
  • Ensure there is breadth and depth: Breadth is helpful in understanding themes, norms, etc. while also being useful in determining what is a breakthrough nugget that connects dots versus a potent outlier or distraction. Depth is needed to get to a level where those nuggets can be uncovered.
  • Bring humanity and humility (without forgetting the smarts): Humanity and humility are important attributes for researchers to possess in order to authentically connect with consumers and truly listen to their thoughts and opinions while remaining open to surprises in what is seen or heard. Using our smarts, we translate this data into insights and then these insights into recommended action.
  • Tell the story well: It is important to ensure the story is told succinctly and in a compelling way so that the key insights and recommendations are understood, and the team is motivated to act on them. Don’t sell your good insights short.

What story are you needing to discover and tell? From empathy to innovation and packaging to shopper insights, we have a team with solutions that cultivate authentic inputs while also knowing how to tell that story well.

In-Context Research Requires Environment AND Mindset


As a company whose roots lie with in-store intercepts, we have always had an appreciation for the purity and predictability of learning about shopping behavior and testing concepts/packaging in a real retail environment with shoppers who were in the store to shop.  


Reading Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman reinforced the idea that we need to preserve as much of the thought process purity as possible because the brain and the subconscious have a powerful ability to impact what we see and how we respond to things.

Thinking about in-store research in particular, there is a powerful difference between consumers who walk through the doors of a store to shop and those who walk in the doors to take part in a research project.  For the actual shoppers, they are thinking of what they shopping for, time constraints, budget, etc.  For pre-recruits, they are thinking about who they are going to meet for the research, what questions they are going to get asked, how they will “perform”, etc.  Each are primed for very different things. 

For research to be truly in-context, the environment needs to be real AND the mindset needs to be real.

The mission and mindset within each category can be critical to understand when learning about objectives like shelf breakthrough and concept understanding.  Someone that is in autopilot within a category is highly unlikely to break routine to consider something new or different no matter how impactful the packaging is.  Additionally, consumers use a number of subconscious short-cuts when shopping categories to simplify their shopping experience. So, what’s the implication?

There is NO way for results to be predictive IF respondents are approaching the research with the “game” mindset.

  • Be cautious when testing within retail “labs” because they consistently only check the “environment” box.   The primary issue here is respondents who are familiar with the objective and process and approach the shopping exercise as a game of “find out what is new or different.”  Recruitment plays a huge role in preventing this: make sure respondents haven’t done a similar type of activity within the last year at least.  Or just do the research in-store.
  • Rely as much as possible on intercepts and in-store recruits if conducting research in-store. 
  • Don’t overuse stores.  We recommend waiting several months before using the same store again to prevent running into the same shoppers again who already “know the drill”.

We have appreciated the traction in-context research has gained in recent years.  However, we have seen how the focus is almost always on the environment, not the mindset.  Make sure your next in-context research project accounts for  both.

Follow us on LinkedIn and subscribe to our newsletter to stay up-to-date on our future innovative endeavors.