Smells like International Development

Published on 29 June 2018

Image of Kelly Shephard
Kelly Shephard

Head of Knowledge, Impact and Policy

The Knowledge Impact and Policy team (KIP) cross cuts IDS. It has 16 team members and 14 affiliate members with a range of thematic knowledge and communications experience. To make the most of our collective genius and to make space to learn from each other, KIP convene quarterly internal discussions aimed to broaden our thinking. Dr Matilda Andersson from Crowd DNA was a recent guest speaker. She had just seven minutes to tell us about her work on the pre-selected theme of human centred design.

Question: What does international development research have to do with a leading, male deodorant brand? Answer: Both rely on a better understanding of the needs and contexts that their target audiences inhabit.

When Dr Matilda Andersson visited IDS, the cynical amongst us may have questioned the rigour of the methods or the motivations that large consumer brands such as AXE (aka deodorant Lynx) would employ when undertaking market research. Any such questions were quickly answered. With an academic background in social media journalism and democratic debate, Dr Andersson brings a quality and rigour to the cultural insights agency. She explained her obsession with culture, identity and social norms, “Culture isn’t fluffy – culture is powerful. And while not all brands can be culturally iconic, I believe all must be culturally relevant”.

Dr Andersson leads the insights and innovation team in a global consultancy that work to bring together trends specialists, researchers, strategists, designers, writers and film-makers for a range of global brands. “We explore the cultural factors (from the conversations to the codes) of most significance to brands”, she explained, “and then apply this understanding to communications, products, services, experiences and growth strategies.”

Whilst their customer base may differ from IDS, the parallels between CROW DNA’s work to establish real as opposed to claimed behaviour, resonated with the programme realities that we often experience.

Dr Andersson shared details of a campaign called Find Your Magic. AXE wanted to be sure that they could communicate in more credible and authentic ways with teenagers. Working with Crowd DNA, they explored research questions including, the modern game of attraction. What does ‘The journey’ look like; what are the codes of conduct? Why individuality helps you ‘win’. How do teen boys get to ‘a thing’; how do online and offline intersect? Crowd DNA researchers employed a range of methods including interviews, immersion sessions and ethnographic research to better understand the realities of male behaviour in the modern world. The research took them to China, India, Argentina, South Africa, UK, the Netherlands and the US. Outputs included a handbook summarising the rules of attraction and a reconstruction of a teenager’s bedroom in the funder’s offices – complete with dirty washing.

Any market analyst will tell you that the way that you ask a question can determine the answer and that people often act differently in focus groups or will tell you what they think you want to hear. The trick in identifying audience’s needs isn’t as simple as just asking them and that is true whether you are working with knowledge intermediaries, policy makers or teenagers who want to smell more attractive. The reality is that people are people, whatever label we give them and the way to discover their lived realities is to employ a variety of techniques.

Listening to Dr Andersson I heard bells chiming with the similarities in a research project that I had previously worked on called Love Matters. This research programme explored the sexual attitudes and information needs of young Kenyans. Working in partnership with RNW media, IDS employed creative methods such as song writing to explore and provoke debate around sexual health in a digital age. In this programme it was crucial to work closely with the participants. We immersed ourselves in long workshops, chatted on instant messenger apps in between face to face meetings and really built up a rapport. This was as much the participant’s research as ours. We were adamant that the findings would have an impact and would influence how providers of sexual health information created and shared their messages.

So what are the differences between market research for products and a programme of targeted action research? We may have similar concerns around issues like privacy, ethics, censorship etc. We might both employ sound research methods and creative uptake approaches. In these areas there is clear overlap. But it’s at the level of the underlying motivation that is the difference between our worlds. Somewhere in the heady scent of the deodorant research there is an analysis of wants and perceived needs, but at the heart of it there is the brand. Meanwhile in research for development the people always have to come first.

But just because we have different drivers should that mean that we pretend each other doesn’t exist? Issues of poverty will never be solved by a better smelling world, but research should not operate in a vacuum. The trick is to recognise the world in which we live and share the approaches and, where safe to do so, sometime share the insights too. It is not until we start to show awareness of the needs of both the audience and the market that we can get to the heart of what really matters.


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