Toys R Us. Kodak. Blockbuster. Blackberry. These are all examples of brands that once dominated their respective markets. And now they’re business school case studies for what can go wrong when you don’t successfully recognize shifts in the marketplace. These cautionary tales loom large over researchers and marketers who lose sleep over how they can successfully keep pace with a rapidly evolving consumer and technological landscape.
A key step toward capitalizing on change is to spot the shifts in trends before — or while — they happen. And the best way to spot those shifts? Keep an eye trained on your category.
Why study your brand category?
It’s easy to become laser-focused on your brand. Like any good architect that fixates over every line, curve, and measurement, you obsess about brand awareness, associations, and equities. It’s important to immerse yourself in these details, and there will always be value in deep brand-level research.
But in your brand obsession, it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. Unless you have a clear monopoly over your space (SPOILER ALERT: you don’t), your customers aren’t as focused on your brand as they are focused on your brand’s category.
Sure, there are lots and lots of iPhone fans out there. But in order to be iPhone fans, these users first have to buy into all the benefits that smartphones, in general, have to offer. Apple surely measures how iPhone features resonate with customers, but the company gathers just as much — if not more — insight through understanding how all general smartphone users interact with their devices. It’s through these insights that Apple can identify trends and develop new features that anticipate and meet consumers’ needs.
Online anthropology delivers social analytics with rich insight about your category
One of the best ways to discover category-level insights is through deep listening of online conversations. This practice, which is also known as "online anthropology" lays a digital blanket over the millions of online conversations about consumer needs and products or solutions within your space. Because these discussions are unprompted, they offer authentic, unfiltered insights into real consumer challenges and successes as they interact with your category. In other words, it gives you a clearer view of the world through your consumers’ eyes, and to understand what motivates their behaviors and decisions.
Our research underscores why a category-level focus is so critical to gathering the most relevant insights. We found that among all online discussions in several popular categories, less than 10 percent mention any brand whatsoever. And for some topics of online conversation, brands are even less present. For example, our research shows that only five percent of food and beverage conversations, for example, are brand-specific. That means if you’re in the frozen dinner category, and you’re listening only for chatter about your brand or your competitor’s brands, you’re automatically ignoring 95 percent of conversations that could help you discover unmet needs and other considerations to help improve your product’s success.
Benefits of online anthropology’s category-level social analytics insights
There’s something particularly fun and liberating about category-level research. When you stop asking guided questions and you simply start listening to unprompted conversations, you’ll find some pleasantly surprising information. The paths can lead to several different types of insights, but most can achieve one of three important objectives:
- Explore the white space. Online anthropology helps you evaluate the consumer’s unmet needs within your category. It may reveal a cohort of users and advocates that you’ve overlooked or underestimated. Or it can lead you to discover people using your product in ways — and for reasons — that you and your competitors never intended. When Claussen pickles explored the white space a few years ago, it discovered that athletes turned to pickle juice as a healthier and more natural alternative to sports drinks like Gatorade. The research inspired Claussen to redirect some of its marketing resources to target potential customers with more active lifestyles.
- Expose potential threats. Too often, businesses are blindsided by trends and competitors that pop up almost out of nowhere. Would Blockbuster still be around if it could have spotted and adjusted to Netflix and streaming video much sooner? And what food brand wouldn’t have wanted to get in early on the Greek yogurt craze before it exploded into a multi-billion-dollar category? Deep listening excels in finding and analyzing specialized online communities that advance these trends and nurture your threats long before they gain mainstream momentum.
- Prove (or disprove) your hypotheses. Marketers make many assumptions about their brands and products, and category-level research via online anthropology can be the ideal mechanism to test those hypotheses. As Toyota prepared to launch Prius in the early-2000s, the company was ready to focus its message on how much money drivers could save at the gas pump. But a deeper look at the most enthusiastic hybrid car fans found that they were far more motivated by environmental benefits over any financial benefits. The findings helped Toyota re-focus its communications from “save money” to “save the planet.”
A final thought on activating category-level research
If you ask any marketers or product designers, they’ll tell you it’s a lot easier to adapt your product to the way people behave, as opposed to changing the way people behave to force them to adapt to your product. And that’s the biggest reason why category-level research will always be invaluable: by carefully observing how consumers behave and interact with your category, you can better communicate with them, fulfill their needs, and give them indispensable experiences that will keep your business relevant well into the future.