The poster for Rover's new car flaunts the headline 'Rejected by focus groups'. Whether this is the literal truth, and a badge the car manufacturer wants to wear with pride, or a roundabout way of saying that true innovators aren't bound by the findings of discussion groups, is not clear. Either way, the research industry won't lose any sleep over it.
The Rover poster is an extension of national press sneers at New Labour's use of focus groups - the most widely used qualitative research technique. Marketers, though, are aware of the benefits they get from 'qual', by way of insights into customers' thinking.
"Clients are becoming more demanding," says Sue Pryke, a director of specialist qualitative agency Crucible. "They are forced by competitive pressures to be more aware of, and sensitive to, consumer power. Our role has increasingly become one of identifying the strategic insights that will motivate consumers."
Certainly, within the total research scene, qualitative is holding up well. According to this year's league table, 83 of the 95 companies undertake some qualitative work. The total turnover derived from qualitative research is [pounds]109m, up 13.9% on the [pounds]95.8m recorded in last year's survey.
Two or three areas are particularly buoyant. One is retail, fuelled by the huge emphasis now placed on category management. Hauck Research, a fast-growing specialist which gets 90% of its turnover from consumer qualitative research, set up the POP Shop last year as a special unit to deal with this and other retail issues.
"Manufacturers realise that instore positioning now means a hell of a lot," says Mike Roderick, managing director of Hauck's international and specialist units division.
"With less and less shelf space available, manufacturers are increasingly keen to work closely with the retailers on optimising sales," says Laurent Guillaume, chairman of Research International UK. "We have seen an incredible development in category management research over the past two years."
"What we do is bring an understanding of how the consumer shops," adds Research International's marketing director Dave Phillips. "People behave differently, depending, for example, on whether it's an emergency purchase,or a regular stock-up. There are also questions to do with how the fixture should look. …