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Looking Forward, Looking Back – an Interview with Georges Guelfand

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H/T/P France Président Georges Guelfand talks to Sven Arn, Managing Director and Partner, H/T/P Germany about connecting with consumers for over 40 years.

Sven: Good afternoon Georges. First of all: congratulations on having celebrated a rather important birthday last year…!

Georges: Yes it’s the beginning of the 70s for me. But actually I don’t think that much about birthdays…

Sven: You have been working in research since the 70s. I am sure you have seen a lot of changes. But actually I wanted to ask you the opposite question. What has stayed the same?

Georges: I think I moderated my first group in 1969, almost 40 years ago. Probably what has stayed the same since then is the principle of what we do. Qualitative research is about being with a person, sensing and understanding their physical, cognitive and emotional reactions… that hasn’t changed.

Sven: Why do you think this is still so relevant?

Georges: Actually it has become more relevant. Today there is more and more distance between individuals, in their everyday communication. Society has changed enormously in the last 10 years. Before then we had much less interaction over long distances. You had to know people and see them in order to communicate with them and most of our communication was with those close to us, at set moments.

Today we can permanently communicate with people all over the world. The relationships with those around us has weakened as our global relationships have grown stronger. You see this in particular with certain younger consumers. In our society there are people who are in constant contact with the world without actually ever seeing anybody.

That is why real contact with real people has become even more important.

Sven: Are you referring more to how consumers interact or the exchanges between our clients and their customers?

Georges: Both. Even amongst consumers, real contact today is challenging.

Nowadays people interact within specific groups or communities, whose members all share the same point of view. Football fans who meet up to watch a match but also communities who share political views, religion or even artistic tastes. People tend to connect within their communities and at the same time communicate over long distances. This has a fundamental effect on society.

Real life communication tends to be reduced to people who are a part of our group. We are losing the capacity to connect with people who are outside our communities. It is up to us qualitative researchers to bridge the gaps that are growing between different types of consumers and between our clients and the reality of their customers.

Sven: But do you think that these connections have to be in real life? Don’t you think it is possible for us to connect via the new technologies we have at our fingertips?

Georges: It is different.

Firstly people still love to talk! Even more so when interpersonal exchanges have become less frequent in people’s day-to-day lives. We can use technology to converse, but there is always a part of this conversation that remains invisible. When people share their opinions, their experiences or their behavior we see only what is apparent.

But to understand more latent aspects like emotions, sentiments, sensory aspects we need to actually be there. If you look at the issues facing politics today, we see our politicians “knowing” who their voters are, but they are missing a fundamental experience of their realities and their lives.

Sven: So what do you think will be the challenges for us in the coming years?

Georges: To really connect – with people and businesses.

Over the past 30 years we have amassed a vast amount of information about consumers, but it is only by truly understanding their personal experiences that we can really make sense of all this “data” and what is really going on in their lives.

The second big challenge is connecting what we learn through research with the needs of the businesses we work for.

Years ago qualitative research was commissioned by research departments, to understand things better. Today it is often the marketing departments and management teams who are looking for concrete solutions to problems. It is not sufficient to understand why reactions to a certain piece of advertising are as they are. We need to be able to provide a clear understanding of what needs to be done to ensure that the reactions are as intended.

Qualitative research has become a tool, a bit like a Swiss army knife with many tools within it. Today we need to apply all of these tools in a way that connects perfectly and succinctly with the business objectives of our clients. We need to answer questions in a way that is pragmatic and actionable, in two pages rather than 200.

The danger is that with our two page reports, a new generation of marketing professionals ceases to understand the complexity of qualitative research, analysis, synthesis, making recommendations. It all looks so easy…

… and if there is one last thing that has also stayed the same over the past 40 years it is the fact that human emotion, thinking and motivation and the behavior that follows is rarely as straightforward and easy as we might sometimes like it to be.

Sven: Georges Guelfand, thank you!



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