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Controlling unintentional bias...

Please note that this a real case study - we've just changed the names.

The facts

Shaun is the Category Development Manager for a food FMCG manufacturer (Foodie). Foodie had not fared well in the recent business relationship benchmark survey. Very low scores were found in their category capability, shopper knowledge and relationships with the retailers. Not taking the category view and thinking only of their brands were common complaints from Foodie's trade partners.


The challenge

Foodie's problem is a common one; objectivity. Every year when the benchmark survey results come in, someone is at the bottom of the list and someone else is labelled for not taking the category view and being too brand focussed. So to satisfy our curiousity a few years ago, we decided to conduct some research for ourselves to find out whether branded bias is avoidable. Through our sister company we ran a series of training sessions with over 350 course delegates from over 25 different FMCG companies. In the training course, we planted exercises designed to measure the existence - if any - of bias.

We discovered two things:

1. Category branded data increased bias

We gave Group 1 data on their category where the category & brand names had been removed. They had 2 hours to analyse it & prepare a (role play) category story to the retailer from their findings.

We gave the exact same information to Group 2 but in this group we didn't remove their category or brand names. They also had 2 hours & the same task to complete.

Without exception, group 1 delegates quickly identified the key insights, presented these logically to the retailer (in role play) and had an 80% success rate of engaging the retailer into the initiatives proposed.

With only 2 exceptions, group 2 delegates debated for up to 2.5 times longer, consistently had flaws /omissions in their category story and had a less than 20% success rate of engaging the retailer into the initiatives proposed.

2. Proprietary research increased bias

In another exercise, Group 1 had a brief that said the data they were using was proprietary, i.e., owned exclusively by them & therefore for their eyes only. Group 2 had a brief that said the data they were using was generally available to all in the market (including the retailer & their competitors).

Would you like to hazard a wild guess at the result? In Group 1 the delegates were three times more likely to 'hide the bad news' about their segments and brands compared to Group 2 in their category story role plays.

DISCLAIMER ALERT!!!! Now we ran this research just for kicks (because that's the saddos we are here..…), so whilst valid please note this is not published research so please conduct your own research into this before making decisions based on the findings we've shared with you here! Thanks!

The solution

Whether we intend to or not, it can be difficult to control our unintentional bias because ultimately it is our brand's success that pays the bills. Even though we know that we should always present the category story, it can be very difficult in practice to keep ourselves on the straight & narrow. This can be especially true when (often more junior) category & shopper managers are being asked for insights from the (often more senior) brand and marketing managers. We are only human after all!

That's why our data is 100% independent and why it is generally available for sale to retailers and all manufacturers in a category. Before we were born, retailers tell of how manufacturer X of a category would come in with one story about where the category was going only to have manufacturer Y come in with a completely different story. They tended not to believe either and rarely acted on the research findings as a result. On the other side of the coin, manufacturer clients tell us how much they used to spend on be-spoke shopper research before us only to find so little traction and ROI with the retailer because the retailer wouldn't listen or act.

The results

Foodie has been a subscriber of ours for over 5-years now and through the independent, shared platform of shopper insight between them & their trade partners, plus following our tips & techniques to try and keep the bias out, they are no longer bottom of the benchmark list.

That's not saying our approach is without challenges. We often get asked important questions such as 'where is my competitive advantage?' and 'how can I make a difference with the retailer if they have this information already?' (see our FAQ's). Hopefully the above examples can help to show why this is our approach and why the pros of independent research outweigh the cons.