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Fri 19th Jun 2015 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Lesson from the opinion polls, children and restaurants, and getting the best from a marketing agency
Authors: David Martin, Glynn Davies and Ann Elliott

Lessons from the opinion polls by David Martin

For all the money and brainpower thrown at them, the opinion polls singularly failed to anticipate the results of the General Election. It was a statistically significant failure, and an unexpected one, not least for the ‘commentariat’ – take a read of Andrew Marr’s reaction in the New Statesman to see how the result unnerved the experts. It caused Marr to ask “how the hell do we know what we think we know?” The British Polling Council, which represents the professional polling organisations, with an evident gift for understatement, declared the results of the final pre-Election polls “were clearly not as accurate as we would like”. It cited the results from eight polls in the final three days of campaigning, with sample sizes as big as 10,000 in one case, using a mix of telephone and online methods. On average, they underestimated the Conservative eventual share of the vote by over four percentage points. The BPC, with the Market Research Society’s support, has set up an independent enquiry to make recommendations for future polling. ‘None of the above’ might be a good place to start. In stark contrast, the exit poll which asked 22,000 people how they voted after the fact, in 133 constituencies around the country, proved to be suitably accurate. The BPC/MRS learned panel will report back by next March. But for now, here are some commercial implications, when gathering customer sentiment.

1.  Don’t get your insight from just an ‘in group’ of close advisers:
In the political world it’s easy to imagine too much reliance being placed on ‘insider’ opinion from the hothouse of the Westminster Bubble. But it’s also a risk in the business world, if too much emphasis is placed on expert views, close to the management group, or where customer opinion is gathered too narrowly. When focus groups were the go-to method for qualitative research, agencies had a homing instinct for the comfy suburbs of the big cities. The good folk of Sutton Coldfield, Wilmslow and West Bridgford could have made a decent living from market research, but for the client manager, giving a voice to less fashionable places was a constant concern, and it still should be.

But you don’t have to leave it to the ‘experts’. Diagnosing the superior customer experience that it measures in the USA compared to the UK, KPMG Nunwood’s David Conway observed recently that “If you look at the US, their executives sit with customers all the time... we just don’t do that in the UK – it’s kind of ‘by remote control’ and by a little bit of distance...” This followed a piece on JD Wetherspoon in The Independent referring to chairman Tim Martin’s longstanding commitment to spending a couple of days a week in different pubs talking and listening to customers directly – a consistent commitment to broadly-based close-up consumer listening that will have yielded an invaluable competitive advantage for the group down the years. Listen widely, and lead by example.

2.  Don’t trust what people say they might do: 
Surveys often ask consumers to imagine what they are going to do in the future, sometimes in the search for a PR soundbite, often with noble intentions. But it’s fraught with risk, if not dishonesty, especially if the possible answers to the question are not equally socially acceptable, or equally ‘cool.’ And consumers’ answers to those kinds of questions will not always consider affordability – in other words they are more of a wish list.

In the words of Trajectory Partnership chief executive Paul Flatters, “We know that consumers are notoriously bad at predicting their own future behaviours” – and he’s a seasoned sage in the business of market research. Far better to ask your customers what they actually do, or did.

3.  Handle social media with care:
I admit it, I Tweet, tentatively. But calm voices are often drowned out there by what Andrew Marr described as “an echo chamber of lazy, received opinion, big on the volume, an ear-splitting background noise”. Ahead of the Election, social media seemed to signal a loud and clear Labour advantage. But it wasn’t the whole electorate talking.

Young industry leaders grew up with social networks, so it’s easy to be lulled into thinking that it represents wider opinion. But the 2014 Ofcom report on the Communications Market showed that whilst 35 million people claimed to use Facebook, usage levels of social media are highly age-related. That’s endorsed in CGA Peach’s Brand Track data, where over 80% of under 35s claim to access social media daily, but only a little over a third of the over 65s do so. Those so-called “shy Tories” may have been quiet but too many commentators forgot to listen to them, or were listening in the wrong place. Don’t overlook your silent customers; they too have opinions, and they might just be in the majority.

4.  It’s no longer a two horse race:
A key factor behind the failure of the opinion polls is likely to the emergence of a more complex multi-party political ‘market’, leading electors to be less likely to identify with a single party than previously. As the BBC’s political research unit pointed out, 25% of voters on 7 May did not support the Conservatives, Labour or Lib Dems, compared with 12% in 2010, and the possible permutations of switching behaviour have multiplied hugely.

In a commercial context, it’s natural to become fixated on your positionally closest competitor, or on your biggest one. However, the ever-increasing diversity of available local eating-out choice means consumers’ decision processes are now less simple. You need a multi-dimensional insight on the competitive landscape.

This fully paid up, life-long market researcher is certainly not here to shoot down the pollsters, but there are some clear lessons to take from their recent fall from grace. At its simplest, as competition multiplies and becomes more diverse, it is critical to talk to as many customers you can, and in as many places as possible. And don’t be afraid to do it yourself.
David Martin is managing director of Red Circle Insight, a market and customer insight resource

Children and restaurants by Glynn Davies

Children and restaurants are like oil and water to some people who believe youngsters should not be seen in anything like a half decent restaurant.

The little trouble-causers are fine in the likes of Hungry Horse, Brewers’ Fayre and Giraffe outlets but in more high-end environments – no chance. This is adult-land where there should be no distractions to diners from unruly nippers running amok, making lots of noise, and killing the atmosphere for those people looking for a night out away from their own offspring.

It’s a fair point and I’m sympathetic to some extent, but it suggests that all children run amok and make lots of noise in restaurants. This is patently not true. The problem, as we all know, arises from the fact far too many kids have been brought up not recognising what is acceptable behaviour in such places. Clearly the blame lies squarely at the feet of irresponsible parents.

But another aspect is also at play – the growth of family-friendly restaurants. Nothing fills me with more dread that this term attached to an eating out venue. The big problem is that they are typically designed to distract children away from participating in the core rituals of food, drink and conversation. Such halfway-house concepts fail both the children and their parents to my mind.

As a former judge on an annual industry awards, the ‘Best Family Pub’ category was always an interesting one to oversee. As a parent with two young children (now six and eight) we took them to a variety of these best-in-class places. Agreed, the children found some appeal in them because they often have playrooms attached to the dining rooms, and in some cases fully-blown adventure playgrounds, as well as more run-of-the-mill colouring books and games. Pretty much everything is there to distract them from the task at hand – eating.

This is surely not healthy. These places simply free up the adults to blithely concentrate on their food and drink while their offspring are sufficiently distracted and entertained so as not to interfere with mummy and daddy’s night out. This has not been my policy. Partly driven by a (maybe selfish) desire to continue – albeit infrequently – to eat out with my wife in decent restaurants. My children have simply had to join us in these places that are predominantly child-free domains. This has worked a treat in acclimatising them to behaving well (i.e. relatively unobtrusively) in restaurants. They might be causing mayhem and beating each other up outside the place but once through the doors they know the score.

It could be argued that it’s simply not the same level of enjoyment as going out with just your partner. That’s true – it’s simply different. As a parent there is great enjoyment to be had from ‘educating’ children about eating out and introducing them to foods that they might not necessarily see at home. One point quickly realised though is that children and restaurants adhere to that well used phrase – ‘you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink’. But this is not that big a deal as I reckon children do become more adventurous in their own (very slow) time.

What you find in decent restaurants is that the business’ objective is not just to provide good food but is more about delivering exemplary service. And this extends to diners’ children. They might be rarities in the place but they will be treated extremely well. (The only place in the world where I’ve encountered problems is Copenhagen – but that is another story!)

In the UK, I can recall one dinner when my wife was trying to get my son to talk a little more quietly when the waiter suggested: “He’s only a child, let him talk as loud as he wants.” And another time my daughter enjoyed a personal visit into the kitchens of a top Italian restaurant to see the ice cream being made (I’ve never been asked!). Apart from such visits – what exactly is in it for the children in these largely adult domains and why would they behave (we don’t wield a stick to keep them under control by the way)? Visits to restaurants can easily be ‘sold’ to children as special treats – it’s an opportunity to stay up late, and get a big bowl of ice cream at the end. But there is one other ingredient that appeals to the young mind – the prospect of being in a ‘special’ place where other children aren’t.

I’ve spoken to many people in the hospitality industry and I’ve been very surprised at how they seem reluctant to take their children into certain restaurants. As they maintain their indecision and their children get older the chances of them misbehaving increases and so the decision is further delayed – and so the vicious cycle continues. I’d suggest ending the indecision and taking the plunge as the water’s just fine. But please don’t take your children to the same places as I take mine.
Glynn Davies is a freelance journalist and leading commentator on retailing

Getting the most out of a communications agency by Ann Elliott

An outstanding communications agency can be an invaluable asset for any business in the hospitality sector. This benefit isn’t driven by business turnover, the size of the marketing budget, the scope of the brief or the complexity of the task. What really drives success is achieving a sustainable, trusting and effective working relationship. This has a real and significant impact on the success, not only of specific marketing activity, but of the business as a whole.

Having worked in-house for a number of the UK’s leading hospitality brands and currently running my own agency, I’ve been on both sides of the client-agency fence. Here are my ‘top tips’ then for getting the most out of your agency in order to deliver more sales, more profit and ultimately higher ROI.

1.  Help your agency understand your business: Before any agency gets going, they are likely to ask you for access to key opinion formers in your company. Let them in. If you want to get the best from your agency then give them the time they need to absorb company information. The ‘education’ process can take many different forms including face-to-face briefings, company conferences, brand workshops, FAQ sheets and working in the business (both on-site and in head office) . Without a complete view of your company from the inside out, your agency will undoubtedly miss valuable opportunities. If you don’t cover this phase properly then you never get off on the right foot.

2.  Set clear objectives: Make sure that you set clear, achievable and measurable objectives for your agency. This is essential but it’s surprising how many companies just don’t do this. ‘Give me a book full of cuttings’ does not constitute a KPI. Or, even worse, ‘I will know success when I see it’. No, you won’t, and neither will your agency. Be clear, right from the start, what you want them to achieve. This means both of you can evaluate success (and failure) against mutually agreed expectations and be honest with one another about changes needed. 

3.  Provide constructive feedback: Don’t be concerned if you don’t like something your agency does. Tell them. They want feedback – they can’t read your mind all the time. Agencies often throw themselves completely into a project and regular feedback helps them maintain momentum and keep on the right track. Where the waters often get muddied is when multiple individuals with vested interests provide conflicting feedback. That’s a nightmare. Give them one person to liaise with who gives them constructive, regular and helpful feedback. Nirvana.

4.  Be nice to work with: Agencies work better with nice people. Simple as.

5.  Keep them in the picture: Agencies know how challenging business is and that one week’s sales can make all the difference to plans but keep them in the loop about changes. Every business has its own subtleties that keep them continually spinning and shifting – external objective advice can often help keep things in perspective. And agencies can often be the source of inspiration in difficult situations.

6.  Get creative: Push your agency for creative solutions – your agency should understand you well enough to always be bringing you fresh ideas. Relevant creative ideas don’t have to be expensive – they just have to work and give a return. Be demanding on your agency for new ideas (but then don’t nick them and do them yourselves. That’s not very fair).

7.  Avoid politics: Don’t be nice as pie face-to-face when with your agency and then criticise them in emails and copy in all and sundry. Agencies don’t always understand or appreciate internal politics – they just want to get the job done.

8.  Be realistic about timings and budget: Finally, and not least of all, manage expectations. You will find agencies have the ability to turn work around rapidly, but this isn’t always a recipe for optimum success. By allowing a sensible time frame and reasonable fiscal resources you will get a far better result that benefits your business in the long-term rather than offering just short-term gains.

Agencies want to work with great clients – those who are fair, honest, demanding and clear. They don’t mind challenge or the odd big hairy audacious goal. They want success, too, and they want to be partners with you on that journey for a long time. Start as you mean to go on.
Ann Elliott is chief executive of leading sector marketing and public relations agency Elliotts – www.elliottsagency.com

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