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Keep Looking: Beyond Market Research Methodologies

Keep Looking: Beyond Market Research Methodologies

In a celebrated episode of the UK based detective series, Inspector Morse, the eponymous hero clashed with his trusted Sergeant Lewis over the wrongful conviction of a man for the murder of a child. Morse was not involved in the original investigation and was called in to review the case when new evidence surfaced that cleared the convicted man. During their heated exchange Lewis claimed, “We believed we had him” and Morse replied, “You stopped looking, you should have kept looking!”. Morse continued to look and eventually found the true culprit.

This reflects how it is in many fields where evidence is analyzed, methodologies followed, and deductions made. The desire to find the “Answer”, to do it quickly and to rapidly act upon it drives us to stop looking when we reach the first conclusion, to use the evidence we see to support our conclusion and to look no deeper or further. This is, perhaps, a fundamental of the human condition; to reach quick conclusions and move on. Nevertheless, it often leads us to shallow and unhelpful understanding of complex issues.

Healthcare decision makers rely on evidence, whether it is hard evidence such as clinical trial information and sales data or more qualitative information such as understanding the behaviors and attitudes of groups of people. They are also challenged by the pressures of business to reach conclusions and related actions quickly. Time, rightly, and especially the time it takes to action something is often seen as a potential advantage to a company as demonstrated by phrases such as ”First to market”, “first in class”, “we respond more rapidly than our competitors”. This thinking drives decisions makers and those that inform them towards a ‘Good enough’ approach, where they quote Pareto’s Law, in which 80% of results come from 20% of effort, as a rationale for finishing something quickly and moving on, where the ability to do a lot of work supersedes the desire to do the best work. This makes sense a lot of the time. However, in the search for meaningful differences it misses the point. It’s that extra effort, more time spent thinking about the implications, going beyond the 80%, good enough, result that facilitates the deeper insight, the “Eureka” moment (hard to define but you know one when you see it) and finds something that changes markets, creates new ways of looking at treatments, understands a need at its fundamental level and makes a massive difference to the performance of the brand and organization.

At this point it is worthwhile considering the purpose of market research in general. On one level it is to explain how things are today, to describe the landscape, to understand why people say and do what we see going on in a market. This is clearly valuable; we need to know where we are starting from, what the existing state of the world is, so we can respond to it. This work provides us with a view of how the world was recently; perhaps last week or last month or last year. It can also provide trend lines that may be useful to extrapolate existing thinking into the future.

A second purpose of market research is to help decision makers consider how things might be in the future and what they should do about it; how might views and practices change, what is likely to drive change, what will become unimportant, and how will those trends change. At Vox.Bio our interest in the future is driven by our desire to find competitive advantage, to identify those things about our client’s brand and company that make a meaningful difference to customers and ensures they are  perceived as the high value option and to avoid the “Muddled middle” that increasingly happens in healthcare markets.

Too often this is done in an extrapolated world where the future is simply an extension of today. This type of analysis is increasingly unhelpful in a world where new treatments, new modalities and changes to healthcare funding and structures happen on a regular basis, changing the environment significantly and making extrapolation an ineffective methodology. Furthermore, the discussion is often held in a world that is defined by competitors, or available data, and is too narrowly focused on one or two aspects of a market, therapy area or treatment paradigm. This misses the point that people and their interaction with brands do not operate in a vacuum. We need to consider other forces that impact on their thinking and decision making, and because of this we need to take a broad view of markets, beyond the aspects we are interested in, to understand in a more thoughtful way how markets may evolve and how the behavior and decisions of groups of people may change over time.

To illustrate what I mean, I will review a couple of examples of when people have looked beyond the obvious, delved into markets and deeply understood motivations and decisions. The launch of Cialis by Lilly in the erectile dysfunction (ED) market, sometime after the iconic and successful launch of Viagra, is a good example. At face value Viagra was incredibly dominant; first mover, household name that people asked for, it defined the treatment market.  Lilly faced what must have seemed to many an impossible task. Cialis was slower acting than Viagra and speed of action was considered an important attribute, was active for up to 36 hours and who needs that for ED? Nevertheless, something happened somewhere within the Lilly team that pushed them to go beyond this thinking. They realized that Viagra played to a male dominated paradigm and they also found that Pfizer missed the concept of ED treatment affecting two people, the couple involved. Furthermore, they recognized that the onset and duration of action of Viagra posed issues related to how couples organized themselves, in fact that they had to be organized was the issue. Therefore, when Cialis was launched the focus was on spontaneity, the imagery and discussion was about the relationship between a couple, not the act itself. Cialis created a great deal of success globally and became market leader or a close second place in many markets. The insights at Lilly will not have been arrived at easily. Time will have been spent investing in thinking, challenging, exploring and finally reaching conclusions.

The success of the Roche brand Ocrevus in Multiple Sclerosis (MS) provides us with a different example. The team at Roche, considering an MS market dominated by Biogen with 3 or 4 brands, and Novartis with a focus on Gilenya, might have thought that they could only be a niche player. When one looks at the MS market and considers efficacy and safety it is easy to look at the market the way Biogen or Novartis might, where all the positions between safe and not very effective and not safe and very effective were taken. Surely Roche would have to directly compete with a Novartis or Biogen brand for those physicians and patients that want a particular blend of safety and efficacy. Roche did not do this. The team at Roche appears to have understood the needs of patients and physicians at a deeper level and in doing so they rewrote the treatment paradigm, refusing to see the world as their competitors did, captured a significant patient segment that was not defined in the old ways, and as such generated success for Ocrevus in a tough market.

The two examples cited above demonstrate an important aspect of finding differentiation. It is usually not about methodology; it is about broad thinking and a deeper, more fundamental, understanding of why people are doing what they are doing. Of course, methodology is important, or perhaps a knowledgeable and rigorous approach to methodology that provides accurate and useful information is important. Choosing the right methodology to answer the well-defined question also remains an important part of the research process. These are important skills of the market researcher.

However, methodology can only take you so far. It often depends on existing thinking, existing treatment paradigms and inevitably provides information that describes an extrapolation of the existing world. What the examples above show is that it wasn’t the research per se that made the difference, it was the desire to go beyond research and understand the wider market, a deeper understanding of what motivates people in the future, a willingness to rethink, reshape things, and the desire to take the time to think these things through, not to jump to the first conclusion. As Inspector Morse would say “to keep on looking”. Perhaps the best example of this challenge is Henry Ford’s response to the question of why he did not undertake research into his customers’ needs. “If you asked my customers what they want they’d tell you they need a faster horse” he is quoted as saying. What Henry Ford knew was that research in rapidly changing markets can only tell you so much. A deeper understanding and a vision of the future are what drove him. He knew it was about moving people and trade, not horses, just as others have recognized deeper truths about their markets since. Think of Steve Jobs at Apple, James Dyson, online clothing retailers like BooHoo and many others.

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The implications to those people in healthcare who study markets to uncover potential advantage today and in the future are clear: Don’t rely on research and don’t be excessively narrow in your thinking. Think broadly about markets, go beyond the obvious interpretation and assume, probably rightly, that your competitors have the same research as you. Having the research is not an advantage, what you do with it, how it helps you is where the advantage lies. Consider research results in the context of a broader review of the market; what are governments doing, social trends, payer trends, treatment trends. Use organizations that can help you envisage the future, perhaps different futures, often called scenario planning, so that you can “Play” with the implications of changes and understand clearly what you need to do. And, of course, keep asking questions and do not accept the superficial level of understanding, ask “So what?”, “Why?” until you feel you are gaining a better understanding of the fundamental drivers of the behavior of the market you are interested in.

It is perhaps no surprise given the argument put forward above that many market research organizations now position themselves as providing insights and interpretation, not merely research or methodologies. They perceive that methodology is considered by clients to be a commodity and they want to add value, defend pricing, and create differentiation between them and their competitors. This makes sense, though the transition from an organization that delivers rigorous attention to methodologies with the skills required for this into an organization that also delivers academically based strategic approaches such as scenario planning, insight and strategic recommendations is not easy. The skills required are not the same, new types of people are required and it may not be easy to convince a client that considers you to be a “Commodity” of a different market position for your company, and a different value for your services.

The challenge to the healthcare organizations choosing a partner in research today is to be able to ascertain that they can provide a robust, evidence based approach to methodology, recommend the right methodology, access the people you are interested in and deliver the strategic interpretation that will at best drive your thinking in search of differentiation and, at worst, stimulate your thinking in new directions. Clearly this requires an assessment of the skills that are within the potential partner organization. Smart people are everywhere, so having smart people is not enough. A potential partner needs to demonstrate that they have the people with the background (academically or otherwise) to deliver on the broad strategic analysis of markets, that have done it before and can support you in digging deeper into your questions. They need to demonstrate the tenacity to work with you on constantly asking why, so what, how and all the other questions that will get you where you need to get to.

As Inspector Morse might have said, keep looking and once you believe you know your market, keep looking again, until you feel you really have got to the fundamentals of a market. This will help you define your differentiated place to serve your brand and patients alike.