There always has been and likely always will be a contentious relationship between creatives and number-crunchers. Market surveys, and even focus groups, which require more art than science to analyze, are often seen by designers and writers as a gauntlet to be survived rather than an opportunity to gather unbiased information. Some advertising firms like Crispin Porter & Bogusky now eschew focus groups entirely (the firm does employ other forms of qualitative research).
It takes a certain level of fame (or an extraordinarily trusting client) to launch a campaign or logo aimed at a broad audience with no external validation whatsoever. But, my friends, there is a middle ground. It’s not a choice between falling on your sword for you ‘perfect’ idea or letting the masses make the decision for you. If you ask the right questions in the right way, you can get the information you need to make the right choices.
First, you have to know specifically what it is you want the research to accomplish. Do you want to measure preference? Do you want to compare the attributes of different ideas? Do you want to understand why certain shapes/colors/words elicit certain reactions? Each of these questions imply different methodologies. Your objectives must shape the research you use. To search for an answer without a specific question in mind is like looking for a needle without knowing where the haystack is.
Second, you have to know whose opinions you care most about. Reactions to creative ideas are like weird uncles – everybody’s got one. You’re going to have to weigh the most important ones, be aware of others, and ignore the rest. But don’t make the mistake that Oberlin College might be making. It’s great that their message resonates with recruits, but if students and faculty don’t make it a part of the university’s culture, it’ll be just another skin-deep marcom makeover.
Third, remember that it’s not your baby – it’s the client’s. Research provides one set of data. A good agency’s professional recommendation is another set. But it’s the client who has to live with and live up to the creative. If an agency talks a client into an idea they can’t or won’t deliver on, then that idea will go nowhere. And don’t forget that at the end of the day, it’s the company, the product, and the service that make the brand, not the other way around (Google, anyone? Blackberry? Anyone? Bueller?).
Look, most people can’t imagine, much less describe, how they’ll feel about an identity, a slogan, an ad, or even a product until they experience it in the real world. They can’t answer hard questions for you. They can’t tell you the future. But they can give you information, if you know what to look for and how. And no creative should be afraid of that.