Confidence limits: polling organisations’ failures undermine market research credibility more widely


Things are hotting up in the opinion research environment. The climate of opinion about those who measure our opinions is undergoing significant change.

It’s an inconvenient truth, but the debacle of the UK’s May 2015 General Election casts a long shadow over research in related sectors, like marketing.

How could so many eminent polling organisations fail so spectacularly in their fundamental task?

Nobody likes to dampen the enthusiasm of the researcher, of course, and I may be a sample of one, but nowadays I can’t help wondering whether some or all of the forecasts she presents about brand awareness are worth the electronic paper they’re written on. And have attitudes to the client’s brand really changed that much, after that fairly low weight TV campaign?

Accusations of ‘herding’ have been roundly dismissed. 93.5% of polling organisations, when questioned, spontaneously replied that herding had not influenced the results of their polls. Which is quite comforting.

And it’s good to know that they’ll be changing their methods. Far too technical a topic for my little brain to understand, but it’s something to do with unrepresentative samples. So at least they’ve managed to identify the source of the problem. Good that the experts are now on the case.

Forecasting has never been an exact science, of course. Weatherman Michael Fish‘s “Don’t worry there isn’t …” response to predictions of the devastating 1987 hurricane still echoes in many memories.

But with the accumulated statistical knowledge and sophisticated computer systems that are now available, we can surely be forgiven for expecting a degree or two more accuracy in such an important sector?



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“Haven’t I seen you somewhere before?” Startle your audience with a change of main medium


Old Product Development often involves re-formulating, re-pricing and/or re-positioning a tired, too-familiar brand.

But a radical change of media strategy can startle both existing and potential consumers into refreshed awareness.

You can have too much awareness, of course. Stick rigidly with that well-worn advertising saw – “Don’t Change Anything!” – and one day familiarity will breed brand-blindness. As though afflicted by some nasty degeneration of the retina, your prospects’ eyes will glaze over when the ads. appear for the zillionth time in the same old media spots.

That needn’t happen. The shock of a new media environment can re-focus a brand’s image. It needn’t be a long-term move … even a temporary jolt can produce a stand-out effect which will raise the brand’s profile significantly by injecting the element of surprise.

In the world of literature, the Russian Formalists called this technique “ostranenie“. By presenting common things in an unusual way – by ‘defamiliarising’ the too-familiar – perceptions can be enhanced.

The alternative media option selected will of course need to be appropriate to the target audience – and will effectively be promoted from secondary to primary position in the hierarchy.

But by selecting an unusual main medium to re-energise recognition of your brand, you’ll ensure that customers see it in a whole new light.



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Faster – Higher – Stronger: the only way forward for the IAAF now


Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the IoC, said that “organised sport can create moral and social strength”. He must be turning in his grave at this hour.

In the race to the bottom of sponsors’ esteem, the IAAF has surged into the lead, almost certainly overtaking FIFA for the least coveted title of “Sports Body with the Most Negative Image”.

Organised sport seems more and more to be a place where moral and social weakness hold sway.

Sponsors – effectively the bankers for international athletics competitions – stood by the sport through thick and thin, as it was rocked, down the years, by scandalous behaviour on the part of both athletes and their coaches.

There were always compensations. Major sponsors purchase more than just image enhancement and positive associations, of course, when they buy into and leverage a major sponsorship program. The ability to reach massive TV audiences worldwide will inevitably trump three or four days of negative headlines around a particular bad apple.

But here’s the rub: even viewing levels may be hit if organised athletics loses forever the precious credibility that draws the millions to their TV screens – credibility that has been fundamental to its mass appeal and thus a key driver of sponsorship investment.

The ‘back stories’ of individual athletes are bread and butter for media reporting on athletics competitions. But where suspicion exists that such stories are incomplete – partly fictional because of a cynical sub-plot, a conspiracy involving the use of banned drugs – media will shy away from giving such material the credence and focus that it has come to expect.

Many of the image associations for which brands pay so heavily have been fractured and tarnished so badly that some of the basic funding of athletics may be in jeopardy henceforth.

And ironically there can be very positive image benefits available to brands which terminate relationships with drug cheats, or indeed organisations which are seen to facilitate criminal activities.

The turnaround in athletics must be accomplished quickly; standards for compliance must be seen to be much higher than heretofore; and the IAAF must enforce new rules far more strongly.

Faster – Higher – Stronger: that’s the only way forward now for the IAAF and world athletics.

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“Events, dear boy, events”: how a media strategy can be blown off course

Political policy-making has some interesting parallels with constructing a media strategy.

Sudden upheavals in the fast-moving world of domestic and international politics can throw the best-laid plans of our elected leaders into complete disarray. No-one has encapsulated this problem macmillanmore succinctly than Harold Macmillan, with his legendary (perhaps apocryphal) response, “Events, dear boy, events”, to a journalist who asked him what was most likely to blow a government off course.

In media planning the event horizon has come much closer over the last decade. Planning too far ahead increasingly runs the risk of being overtaken by the unforeseen. New media launches, short-term promotions by competitors, the effects of developments in the wider economy – these and other factors can impinge on our media and marketing planning. Tactics and testing must assume a much more important role, within the context of a firm media strategy.

Perhaps preparedness for unforeseen events is a measure of the strength of both political and media strategies?

Digital technologies and media convergence create a constant churn of new media opportunities, throwing untried and unresearched options our way. What are we to do if our client’s main competitor seems to be stealing a march on us by being first to test the new medium?

Such events are unavoidable. But the requirements to be both light on our feet – with a strategy that can adapt and be flexible enough to accommodate short-term changes in the media landscape and elsewhere – and focused on clear objectives – so that we don’t get thrown off-track and ultimately find ourselves in the weeds – should always be seen as paramount.

In my view, constant re-assessment is the name of the game. Now more than ever we need to scan the middle distance for possible opportunities and threats. “What if …?” should be a question that’s addressed on a regular basis. And, being thus prepared, we should never be worried about deciding in advance that the answer is “We’ll ignore it”.

Very occasionally, we see the worlds of politics and media buying collide. Naturally, buying media in a war zone can pose unpredictable hazards, as we found recently when insurgents took control of a province we were targeting in a war-torn state. The bill stickers were unable to get into the targeted region – so, in the event, we were forced to re-allocate our client’s funds into billboards in adjacent locations.

Buying media in China is always open to the danger of being affected by a sudden unpredictable directive from the dreaded SARFT censorship body.

saopauloIn 2007, the mayor of Sao Paulo instituted a near-complete ban on outdoor advertising of any kind. Although the policy had been discussed, it was seen as a mere threat – until it was implemented and a whole media category was suddenly wiped from the slate in Brazil’s most important city.

Fortunately, most politicians in most countries adopt a fairly laissez-faire attitude to the media. Indeed, they are more likely to cultivate a co-operative relationship with news outlets and opinion-influencing media.

Indeed, it was the media that eventually did for Macmillan. He surely could not have seen the Vassall and Profumo scandals coming. In the days before the media spin doctor became a vital part of a premier’s team, events finally did catch up with him.



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Sainsbury’s finds a safer place to play with its sponsorship money


Sainsbury‘s has signed up as sponsor of ITV‘s Showcase Drama package, in a deal reportedly worth in excess of £10m.

The deal follows hot on the heels of their announcement last month of the early termination of their contract with British Athletics – there was a mid-term break clause that allowed them to do that.

The real world can sometimes be a dangerous place for sponsors to play. Sainsbury’s denied any connection between the current doping scandal which is tarnishing the reputation of a sport which had seemed so spotless and inspirational in the period immediately following the London Olympics.

And in any case they’d perhaps needed to impose some kind of Osbornian cuts on marketing expenditure following poor trading figures announced last May – their first full-year loss for ten years.

So, after the Games, the play’s the thing that Sainsbury’s will focus on.

Television drama is a lot more predictable than sport. Actors always stick to the script.



Image credit: Dave Croker [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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