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Market Research in the New Business Landscape

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Jun 4, 2020

New normal or back to the future? Whatever happens next, understanding the needs of your customers will be more important than ever. It’s no secret that the business world as we know it is rapidly changing. Our previous blog post highlighted the changes in marketing alone but the impact of coronavirus is widespread across all business functions. With retailers closing, lockdown rules in place and a sense of uncertainty about what the future holds, customer mindsets are also facing significant changes. So, what do we do if we feel like we are losing sight of what our customers need? The answer is research.

Market research is a widely accepted method of gathering information about customers, it’s one of the first things many brands think of if they want to learn more about their audience. At The Brand Strategy, we are experts in market research and can guide brands through utilising more contemporary methods such as ethnography and semiotics to stay in-the-know about their customers. These methods will be explored later in this blog, first, let’s look at the traditional options such as surveys and focus groups that have been used for decades.

Traditional Market Research

As an established method of market research, surveys are low cost,  fast, and are often easy to implement, making them a go-to for many brands. Fast-food chains, in particular, are reaping the benefits of surveys: Taco Bell and KFC are renowned for promoting their online feedback forms on their receipts with the encouragement of their store staff. Additionally, offering incentives for those who complete the survey, gaining valuable insight on customer experience with few associated costs.

Focus groups, although more costly and requiring additional resources, provide a deeper look inside the minds of customers and have consequently caused some groundbreaking discoveries for global brands. Take Mattel for example, their brand Barbie, the most popular fashion doll ever produced, began to lose relevance amid a body positivity movement. Many found it hard to justify promoting a product for children that only perpetuated unrealistic standards of beauty. Realising that change needed to happen, Barbie looked to focus groups to understand what they could to survive in a highly critical environment. The outcome was a range of new, diverse Barbies, resonating positively with the customers of the product, parents and children.

It’s clear that traditional methods of market research are effective, but what do we do when businesses are no longer running traditionally? It’s time to get creative and explore the other options we have available to understand customers in a rapidly evolving environment. 


Introducing...ethnography. Ethnography is not a new method of research, it dates back to the early twentieth century. But it is a less practiced method, despite it offering insight that many other methods fail to. To put it simply, ethnography is the art of people watching, something many of us may already have some experience with.

Ethnography is not just about the ‘what’ but also the ‘why’. It’s about finding contradictions between what people say they do and what they actually do, allowing us to uncover hidden needs that even customers may not realise they have. By watching people in their natural environment, whether that’s at home, at work or online, it is possible to gain a holistic understanding of customers and how and where a brand fits into their lives.

Natural environments are changing. From 9-5 in the office to 24/7 at home, many customers’ lifestyles, habits and routines have been subject to drastic alterations. This may spark fear in many brands, and rightfully so; no longer understanding your customer base like you once did can be a daunting thought. However, this creates the opportunity for insightful, relevant and worthwhile use of ethnography. 

This opportunity is prevalent in the use of virtual ethnography. With millions of customers heading to the internet to engage with their peers and their favourite brands, using ethnography to study their online activity will allow us to get closer to them and understand their needs on a deeper level. 

As ethnography provides brands with information on customer lifestyles, trends and the influence of social context on customer behaviour, utilising it in a time where many of us are lacking or losing sight of this key information, will be highly beneficial. 


Still looking for a way to delve into the minds of your customers? Using semiotics might be just what your brand needs. Semiotics is the concept of studying the use of symbols and signs and what interpretations people make from them. A less traditional form of market research, semiotics works by categorising anything that conveys a message as a sign. Each sign consists of two elements, the signifier and the signified. 

The signifier is the form each sign takes. Whether that be words, images, sounds or shapes, all of these elements contribute to the physical element of each sign. The signified is intangible and is the symbolic meaning that viewers take from the sign. To gain insight using this method, studying the associations and symbols that people conceptualise in response to a visual aid, draws attention to why individuals behave and think the way they do.

This may all sound rather distant from the world of branding, which is understandable, the roots of semiotics lie in philosophy and psychology. Although, these worlds are often more similar than we think. To build a successful brand, the message you convey must align with positive associations customers hold in their mind. Whether that be their status, values or beliefs, if you can ensure your target customers identify with the message your branding emanates, you will see positive results.

An impressive use of semiotics can be found in the rebranding of McDonald’s. Taking place in 2009, arguably ahead of its time, McDonald’s in Europe transitioned from their infamous red and yellow branding to a deep forest green. 

Green has many associations and meanings but it’s widely accepted that when we see green, we think of sustainability, nature and the environment. McDonald’s were very much aware of this when they made the transition, stating that they aimed to promote a more eco-friendly image. Mcdonald’s recognised that customers were moving towards an environmentally conscious mindset and by altering their visual branding, they were able to tap into this and connect with customers that identify and make positive associations with sustainability.

Whilst this is a somewhat obvious way of considering semiotics and how signs and symbols can aid branding, it offers a whole host of other benefits. By using information on what associations customers make with certain signs, symbols or colours, we can make more informed decisions, ensuring the content we create will resonate positively. It allows us to gain a better understanding of the role that social and cultural factors play influencing customers responses to visual aids. As shown by McDonald’s, their decision was informed, relevant to social factors and served a purpose, something that branding without such insight fails to do.

What’s next?

What is apparent from exploring the different research options is that there are plenty of them which may be just as daunting as not knowing about your customers altogether. However, can you name one successful business that gave up when they hit a bump in the road?

Whilst many options means the path to understanding your customers isn’t as clear, it equally means there is the opportunity to choose the method most suited to your business. Depending on your organisation size, budget and needs, there is a market research method to match, delivering the insights that will trigger success.

Times may be uncertain but your customer insight doesn’t have to be; The Brand Strategy can offer guidance on utilising these methods, ensuring you’re ready to take on whatever happens next. We are fully trained in executing the previously outlined research techniques in a way that will align with your brand and customer base. Get in touch today and we can support you through these challenging times, ensuring whatever we face over the months and years to come, you and your brand are prepared.