Transferring the lessons of Brexit

By Jane Frost, chief executive of the Market Research Society

Britain looks very different now than it did a couple of months ago. We’ve seen long-held assumptions challenged beyond recognition and debates springing up that cut to the core of our national identity. Combined with economic and commercial uncertainty, it’s a situation which could make a retreat inwards, both in terms of outlook and investment, seem incredibly appealing to business leaders.

But if the past weeks and months have made one thing clear, it’s that there have been crucial misunderstandings of the range of public opinion and the diverse factors which drive it. And it’s not only politicians who must take heed. The citizen and the consumer are, after all, one and the same, and the lessons of Brexit can just as easily be transferred to the commercial sector. Chief among them is the need to listen and understand. Turbulent times combined with shifting perceptions make this both more important and more difficult.

As researchers we are constantly finding new ways to understand people as both consumers and citizens, from neuroscience to social listening, but understanding your audience doesn’t necessarily mean investing in something new. It’s often not about collecting more and more data, but adequately analysing what you already hold as innovation comes not only from disruption, but from a deeper understanding of the consumer and of citizens. In uncertain conditions, creating opportunities for growth outside the usual channels is what will set businesses apart.

Following the wave of excitement around big data, we’re realising that data alone is just not enough. The European Union referendum and subsequent turmoil is a stark reminder that numbers cannot tell the whole story or reflect the often complicated mixture of anger, fear, hope and aspiration which lies behind them.

In the face of all that Brexit brings – the good and the bad – those best placed to benefit will be the businesses prepared to listen

The answer is to integrate qualitative methods with the numbers – an approach that is beginning to happen, according to the Market Research Society’s recent independent report on the research market, The Business of Evidence, conducted by PwC. Asking the right questions, combining different evidence sources, will require experimentation and intelligent curation. Big data is after all only useful once meaningful analysis transforms it into smart and actionable data, which can then be used to enact change.

But robust evidence is about more than accuracy, it’s a matter of respect. Brands and politicians fall down when they don’t give the consumer or the citizen enough credit; when they take for granted how they will respond to certain products or policies. People are unpredictable, which means listening needs to be ongoing and diligent. And the respect shouldn’t end there; it means gaining the proper permissions, storing data responsibly and using it ethically. We need only look to recent data breaches to see the cost of a slip-up and without the public’s trust our ability to listen is severely impaired.

Although thorough research may represent an upfront cost you’d rather avoid, it’s likely to save you time, money and a considerable headache in the future. In the face of all that Brexit brings – the good and the bad – those best placed to benefit will be the businesses prepared to listen.