There is a perception amongst smaller businesses that the really successful entrepreneurial companies don’t use research: but that’s only half true. In fact, they do use research, but not as much as the big name brands.

Take Covent Garden Soup Co (NCG), one of Britain’s best-known success stories. As Kate Raison, the company’s marketing director, explains, while NCG’s founders didn’t do any research into the product, they researched what the retail trade thought of its packaging – the now-familiar waxed cardboard cartons.
Railton says that today the company doesn’t do a lot of research on individual products. It researches the NCG brand and its relevance to the target market and buys in sales data from IRI and Taylor Nelson (suppliers of information on sales of grocery products in retail outlets and elsewhere). “We also get lots of comments from consumers, which are very useful. And we have just done some sensory research, using a company called MSTS, which will tell us things like ‘X% of consumers like chunky soups’. We’ll use that to focus our new product development. A lot of the research we commission, we do because the retail trade likes to see it.” But, she warns, you have to be careful: “You can use research to say anything you want it to.”

For bigger companies, research is a fundamental tool for their marketing departments. As Ben Scales, associate director of research company Informer Brand Development, says: “Big blue chip companies use research in a different way. They’ll involve researchers in the whole process, from NPD through product launch and on-going marketing. Smaller companies tend to come to us only when they’ve got a problem, or a big decision to make.”

Benefits for smaller firms

Leslie Sopp, head of research for the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales, and also chairman of the Association of Users of Research Agencies (a “client-side network group”), says: “Smaller companies will do research, but not as much as blue chip firms. While big companies will have dedicated research people, SMEs will tend to have people who straddle a lot of areas. We would love to have more smaller companies as members of AURA, so that we can help them use research better.”
Sopp says that “research is all about informed risk management”, adding that the first thing with any research project is to put together a “very clear statement of business needs and objectives”. After that, “it should be possible to design a brief to ensure that research meets those objectives”. But, he warns, good research may not tell you what you want to hear. “For example, you may be researching a new product, and the research says it won’t work, there’s no market, so don’t go ahead. It’s not what you want to hear – but it will save you money. I’d call that a successful research project.