Picture this: You walk into a conference session forty-five minutes before lunch, and in your seat you find a delicious smelling, bread stick flavored air freshener (yes, seriously). At this moment, I was quite confident I would be thinking more about lunch than the presentation. Much to my surprise, the session engaged and intrigued me and I left with an unexpected enthusiasm for an “old-school” research method.

We all return from conferences a little jazzed, enthusiastic and motivated. We have new tools and techniques to share with our colleagues and an appreciation for innovation in the category. However, one of the methodologies that stuck with me after the excitement fizzled away was a traditional qualitative technique Olive Garden used with its executive team. I learned about this approach in the “Olive Garden Brand Renaissance” session, under the innovation track. The session covered key strategies for influencing Brand Marketing and methodologies used to inspire Olive Garden repositioning. The approach was referred to as a “Customer Library.” Olive Garden’s CI team collected an impressive number of “stories” written by executives who conducted in-person interviews with Olive Garden customers. Additionally, the executive team read the stories their counterparts had written. I know, you must be thinking, “my CEO would never have time to do that,” but how amazing it is that Olive Garden’s executive team was so supportive of this repositioning mission, they were willing to immerse themselves in the research?

The executive team was tasked with getting to know their customers via in-depth interviews. Discussions involved getting to know a customer beyond “a-day-in-the-life”, by understanding what makes them tick, what fears they have, and what they worry about when they go to sleep at night. The interviews were to go much beyond why they choose to eat Olive Garden.

This approach didn’t employ a new tool, didn’t require much technology, and certainly isn’t “new” in the world of market research. Olive Garden recognized its customers are real people, with real stories, and without a deep understanding of who their customers are, they couldn’t properly reposition their brand. This approach, coupled with several others, was incredibly impactful and successful in bringing Olive Garden’s target to life.

I’ve been wondering about the impact of research studies if executive-level teams participated in a more involved way. How powerful actually going to spend a day with someone can be, rather than reading about it in report. Furthermore, how can we, as research consultants, push our clients to involve stakeholders more?

TMRE always teaches me something new, but this year the conference pushed me to think about something ordinary in a new light. Can’t wait to see what next year holds!

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