September 30th, 2005

Tonight's Special: Reality Marketing

By Kristen Millares Bolt
Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Lynne Robinson’s home in Bellevue is like any other—ringed in flowers and shrubs, full of the sounds of a happy family of four.

But inside, an experiment is unfolding.

They call it reality marketing—a deliberately provocative term that evokes Big Brother as much as any tawdry reality television show.

But in the Robinson home, as she bustles around her cheerful kitchen, two Ph.D.-holding sociocultural anthropologists watch her quietly, smiling and chatting when it seems appropriate.

Their mission? Observe the family’s eating habits, up to a maximum of nine months, jotting down notes, compiling video clips, examining neurolinguistic word maps.

In short, they’re "deconstructing everything," according to Michelle Barry, one of the research study leaders who works for a Bellevue-based market research firm, The Hartman Group Inc.

Since 1989, The Hartman Group has advised companies such as Whole Foods Market, PepsiCo and Campbell Soup Co. on issues about health and wellness and how to get close enough to the consumer to figure out what they want.

With the Robinsons, they just got a whole lot closer.

Their study kicks off what Chairman and Chief Executive Harvey Hartman and his team hope will be a research series that will be tailored to specific companies in future iterations. For now, the pilot studies are exploratory and focused only on the family’s attitudes and actions around food.

"It’s not seven executives coming over to watch someone make dinner," explained Barry. "We are not going to ask them what they think of someone’s slick new packaging."

Instead—by delving into the lives of everyday people—Barry hopes to answer another, larger question: How does the home experience affect shopping and consumption behavior?

The studies may begin with the family, but their end is the product.

"How they use the product, how they share the product, how they interact with the product, what are the emotional connections to the product—all these are things that intimately intertwine with what happens in the home," said Barry. "It is such an enormous void in the intellectual capital of the entire industry."

Enter the ethnographers. The study of people in their natural environment is, The Hartman Group believes, the future of marketing.

"They are all standing in front of a shelf, saying how do we redesign this so that we can move more products," said Barry. "You can rearrange those cans as much as you want, and put on more signs and little stickies, but eventually you are going to hit a dead end."

The Hartman Group’s prior studies have been more occasion-based—a grocery trip, a restaurant meal.

But following someone around in a grocery store won’t tell them why Robinson ends up buying different foods for the entire family—crucial knowledge for companies trying to package their foods as "fit for the entire family."

That’s the influence of Robinson’s two children—a fifth-grader and a seventh-grader—and her on-the-go husband.

"Sometimes I end up cooking four separate meals in one night," said Robinson, expertly wielding her spatula above a pan of frying potatoes.

Hartman’s past research on the fragmentation of the family meal found that, without a gatekeeper mom ladling the same food on each plate, portion sizes have increased, as has overeating.

But they will learn more in Robinson’s kitchen.

It echoed in laughter, nervous at times, but mostly just casual.

Barry and her colleague, James Richardson, are both charming people, and the conversation flowed smoothly while Robinson—a natural self-deprecator with a flair for comedic timing—prepared her meal before jetting off to pick up her daughter.

"I don’t feel like I am doing anything different," she said as the researchers looked on. "They are just observing."

What the researchers will find out is still unknown, as is the applicability of their work to business practices. But executives such as Dwight Riskey, a senior PepsiCo vice president in charge of consumer and customer insights, will be watching the results closely.

"This generates a richness that we wouldn’t get from standard techniques," said Riskey. "We don’t expect them to come to us with a specific product to develop—they don’t know enough about the guts of our business to do that effectively—but we can’t spend time with consumers, and they can."

Riskey said that PepsiCo, parent company of Frito-Lay and Tropicana, already does home testing, but mostly by sending out new products for families to use for a period of time—giving the company an idea about how it might sell in the first year.

But that’s a narrow approach, which categorizes people as unit sale numbers, and it may tell PepsiCo if a new product will flop, but not why. With so many new and healthier ideas hitting the stores, that’s an expensive gap in knowledge.

"Traditional market research says everything is in boxes or segments—let’s put people in boxes and let them live," said Hartman. "In reality, we are all somewhat messy."

The key to being successful in a crowded retail market, said Hartman, is to understand what’s behind many consumers’ convoluted approaches to health and wellness.

Most people are contradictory, and their idiosyncrasies resist being adequately understood and streamlined into marketing efforts. Crafting a vitamin for someone who is hard core about health might be easy. But Hartman is concerned about the person who says "I have my best cigarette after that three-mile run."

"Our role is to help companies understand that messiness," said Hartman. "The more we understand the messiness, the more we can help companies market their wares."

But just as people are messy, so are the terms of the research—how to avoid, for example, the truths contained in Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which posits that observing behavior changes it?

Robinson was clearly delighted when the two researchers complimented her cannoli. "Really?" she squeaked. "You guys can come over every night."

During some weeks, they will.

Though Barry said the family is in complete control of the time they will spend together, the entire point of the research is to observe the family consistently—whether in person or through video that the family will itself shoot—in order to understand change.

"The magic is in the threads of continuity," said Hartman. "The fluidity of life is the power behind reality marketing."

Those threads pull through diaries, grocery receipts, pictures of meals, video clips and essentially months of stream-of-consciousness behavioral observations.

But if compliments incite Robinson to step up her cooking, then The Hartman Group—which is paying a small amount to the family—will effectively have become part of their own study.

And after the pilot run, the studies won’t be purely observational.

"We are going to give companies a window that they can peer through, so to speak, and watch the family, giving them products to use without being all over them," said Hartman. "We don’t want to change them, we want to observe and understand, at the end of the day, that if they were going to change, if they wanted to change, what are the things that they need in front of them to effect that change."

It’s a delicate balance, said Douglas MacLachlan, University of Washington professor of marketing and international business, but "as far as I can see, the consumer would like to be faced with alternatives that have been tested, and have some likelihood of being valuable to them."

Barry and her colleagues will be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And so will the family, which raises the question: Why would they open their homes to the researchers and their corporate clients?

"We did it because I want to help people who don’t make good choices to make better choices for their families," said Robinson. "If that means getting it back to the producers of food that people really do like healthier foods, and they make that more available to people who don’t necessarily consciously choose those things on their own. ..."

And what do the kids think?

"They just think it’s really cool."

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