Secondary Research

January 1, 2005

To use the information generated by research effectively one needs to have a substantial degree of capabilities: namely, a wide range of analytic techniques and substantial knowledge of a myriad of research methodologies.

Secondary research is particularly good at two things:

  • Defining an appropriate audience for your offering

  • Defining the state of the category in which you intend to become involved - both in terms of competing attributes and current communication strategies

I. Audience Definition

Before one can craft a sensible marketing communications strategy, one needs to know something about the audience to whom you're selling - to arrive at a basic target audience definition. Secondary research can be extremely helpful in establishing the identity of the best target audience.

A. Basic Definition

This capability is especially important when you have a limited budget and/or a short period of time to put together some kind of target definition before your product group begins to craft a communications strategy.

You can gain a quick and useful definition of a prospective audience though:

  • A review of company files There is often more information in the files of a company than anyone is aware of. While this material may not be directly relevant to the brand or line extension you are planning to launch, companies tend to stay in the same categories. Useful information can be gathered by reviewing old tracking studies, A&Us and focus group reports. Another good source of information comes from lists that the company has developed. From promotional "clubs" that a brand has sponsored to a registry of web site visitors, preexisting sources of information can provide useful customer data.

  • Consumer Demographic and Purchase Databases (e.g., Simmons, MRI) One of the advantages of such a search is that your company/agency does not need to have had any previous experience with a given category. By using preexisting databases, you can look at purchasers in your category and develop a good basic definition of your target audience.

  • Psychographic Models (e.g., VALS) Some of the currently existing databases - like those supplied under the VALS brand - can be helpful in creating a general portrait of category consumers. That said, I would caution you to use psychographic data carefully. The portraits generated by psychographic models seem to be very precise, but are actually very general. When you share the results of a psychographic study with colleagues, be sure to stress that the target audience descriptions are preliminary - not to be held on for the long-term. When you do more precise primary research, like an A&U, these more statistical findings need to be widely disseminated and understood.

B. Perspectives on Life

There is more to understanding a consumer audience than demographics per se. In addition to creating a costeffective and timely perspective on a target audience, secondary research can be extremely helpful in crafting an in depth model of consumer attitudes, motivations and cultural assumptions.

C. Generational Cohorts

A large proportion of our assumptions about what the world is like and how it should be are derived from the lessons we learn as we grow up - especially the formative years of childhood and adolescence. These lessons on brands, p roducts, and services, used to evaluate future experiences and situations, are especially of great importance to marketers.

While many of these experiences are idiosyncratic - due to our personal or family surroundings - in the age of mass communications (which has dominated out lives since early in the 20th century), many formative experiences are shared with people within similar age demographics. For example, the experience of the Depression and World War II formed the frame of reference for my parents' generation. Historical experiences unify these groups by providing a common set of criteria that they continue to use as they mature.

As such, in order to understand what consumers expect from categories such as financial products or consumer technology, it is useful to look at the attitudes that chara cterize their generational perspectives - the ideas that represent "common sense" for them.

Procedure To compile a cohort analysis requires an in-depth knowledge of history. Here are some suggestions for this type of research:

If you are thinking about constructing a cohort model, you have first identified your prospective customers in terms of age groups.

  • The first thing that you need to do is to redefine how you think of their ages. Forget about the usual media breaks. What you want to know is not how old they are now, but the years in which they were born.

  • Your research should concentrate on their formative years, such as the years when your prospective customers were between the ages of eight and 15. You need to look at political and social trends that dominated those times. In addition, you need to look at contemporaneous marketing trends and finally, at the state of the target category. If possible, get your hands on creative advertising of that product/service category from the relevant era in order to understand the influences that formed their expectations.

  • Finally, you need to look at social and marketing trends that have taken place in the years since your prospect audience passed through their formative years. Remember that for all of us, life is a narrative. Your job is to figure out how the lessons learned in your prospect audience's early life determine their reactions to their continuing personal histories.

When you have done all of this work, you will develop some hypotheses concerning your prospect audience's current approach to contemporary brands, products and/or categories. Remember, just because you develop hypotheses does not mean they are correct. As such, you will want to test your hypotheses using qualitative and/or quantitative projects. In any case, your hypotheses will be a useful starting point for strategic thinking.

D. Lifestages

One effective way of understanding a consumer segment is to look at their lives in terms of their lifestages. By this we mean that a large proportion of consumer purchases are made as a function of the necessities people deal with in terms of family development or career path. Relevant questions on family development to ask include: Are they married? Do they have children? If so, young children and/or independent children? Relevant questions to ask on your consumer segment's career path include: Are they starting out? If not, are they considering retirement?

There are a number of ways in which one can segment lifestages - as it is always arguable where one stage of life ends and the next begins. I recommend that you formulate a model that is meaningful in terms of the category of interest to you. For example: in the toy category, the differences between pre-adolescent, adolescent and post-adolescent perspectives are very important. However, if you are looking a people purchasing a family car, the age divisions of prospect's children may be less important and thus, less precise.

E. Psychological Development Models

Throughout our lives we go through a number of common psychological passages. Each stage brings its own set of psychological issues. Depending on the identity of the prospect audience who you intend to understand, it may be worthwhile to take a look at the variety of available psychological development models. These models can elucidate:

  • Developmental process among young children - useful for marketers endeavoring to create age appropriate toys and games.

  • Maturation stages of adolescents - useful for marketers of clothing, music and other passions of youth.

  • Passages by decades (e.g., people in their 30s, their 40s) - useful for understanding adults of all generations.

II. Category Research

In addition to helping marketers understand prospective customers, secondary research is an important way of developing an understanding of the status of a category. The following projects will often be the responsibility of other members of the product group (e.g., librarians), but you should be aware of what they can provide.

A. Literature Search

If you are working on the introduction or roll out of a new product, service or feature, you will need to understand the category environment. A review of existing and proposed options will help you to define a unique position for your offering.

In particular, to understand categories that are being driven by new developments, it is essential to be aware of trends as they evolve. A literature search is the best way to go. By collecting articles from relevant periodicals, one can put together a pretty good account of the status of a category. In even the most close mouthed categories, innovators and speculators spend a lot of energy spotting and promoting new offerings.

Of course, the exact construction of the search will be a function of the desired information. If you are working with a new technological innovation, you will look through technical journals and popular technology magazines. If you are looking at food trends, you may find relevant information in culinary magazines. A search of the web is a good way to begin.

B. Communications Search

It always makes sense to come to an understanding of the communications efforts in your chosen category. Through an exploration of the past and present of category communications themes, you will be able to insure that your planned creative efforts stand out from the category's communications context.

The best communications searches will review both current campaigns and a history of a category's creative efforts. In this way, you will insure that you do not recreate communications themes that are already associated with other category entries.

A Suggested Procedure

There are a variety of ways in which one can craft a communications search. The following is one suggestion:

  • Begin by assembling everything you can get your hands on. As you probably know, there are companies that specialize in collecting advertising, so you won't have much difficulty getting what you need. One caution, though: if you're at an agency doing this search for a new business pitch, assembling a large collection of advertising can be expensive. My advice is to collect one video for each major competitive campaign and get other work in storyboard form.

  • Once you have assembled your collection, you need to look at every campaign and discern the main underlying strategy for each one. If possible, do not do this by yourself. Work together with an ideal team consisting of media folks, account people, and managers who have any experience with the category.

  • The next step is the most difficult. You need to establish a grid on which to "place" communications themes. Conceptually what you're doing is a factor analysis of the communications themes that you have identified in the previous step. In some categories, your grid will lend itself to a simple two-dimensional quadrant analysis. In others, you will have to think in three or more dimensions. My advice is to start with the most prominent dimensions and work from there.

  • Finally, you can fill in your grid with communications themes. I highly recommend that you include coworkers in this process to insure that the result does not reflect only your personal prejudices. You can conduct this as a brainstorming session - presenting each campaign and working with coworkers to "place" it on the category communications grid.

Once you have completed the above process, you can see communications' positionings that have not been addressed. This will give you some suggestions as to where you should be developing initial positioning ideas.


How It's Done: A Research and Planning Handbook for Marketing Communications Professionals. Seth Ginsburg. New York: ANA, 2005.