Most of us appreciate that business success and repeat sales have always been a combination of having a compelling proposition and targeting the right people in the right way with activities and resources. However, the world has changed dramatically in the last 5-10 years, and with nearly every purchase decision today involving some form of trade-off, either instinctive or considered, a real need to understand and aim relevantly at the desires & needs of one’s customers has been heightened.

Permeating everything is perceived ‘value’.  A pressure for ‘ticket price’ value has come from the recessional backdrop and the scalability of on-line purchase & delivery channels, but ‘digital’ has also changed how consumers increasingly interact with, view, and engage with brands. Many customers now expect some form of relationship, recognition and value as a customer. This convergence of rational (fiscal) and emotional (good) value is leading many companies nowadays to feel the chill of a mismatch between what they offer and what their customers actually ‘buy into’.

In the short-term this ‘value gap’ leads to reduced sales and reduced margins/profits but in the mid to longer-term, it can be the beginning of the end. If one’s working practices and culture maintain the same thinking and actions, then the same in–market mismatch and deteriorating performance will also continue. Those companies not ‘aiming’ and ‘firing’ accurately are never sufficiently ‘ready’ and experience continued sales erosion and lower customer retention.  They perpetuate commoditisation, fail to innovate pertinently and have high employee attrition as well as usually losing out on the best candidates who might be able to turn things around.

The days of offering a single static ‘mono brand’ choice “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black” (Henry Ford, 1922) have long since gone and it has become necessary for most organisations to have a clear, and on –going, ‘stage-gate’ process and decision funnel for keeping their proposition and sales on course. What a company knows, and uses, is often more important than what it owns. This superior insight facilitates proposition development as well as relevance and those companies who dip a deeper toe in our market research world and “knowledge economy” are usually the most successful.

Without this structured and grounded process of contemporary understanding and insight, the ability to respond to market conditions and customer/target group preferences, diminishes. The stage-gate process provides the structured basis and timeline to align to customers and target groups.

At its simplest a stage-gate process has 4 stages where research agencies & consultancies are involved:

1. Insight – what do people want, need or desire and which trade-offs are they prepared to make

2. Verify – checking assumptions and revising propositions & approaches

3. Select – winner(s)

4. Test – final pre-market launch, often including tone and style of communications

Sometimes known as Develop; Check, Screen, Measure


Scoping knowledge to reveal insights can come from many sources – e.g. desk research, retail audits, qualitative and quantitative research, talking to users, key opinion leaders, multi-disciplinary workshops, analysing your sales figures and customer database etc. The more one knows, in competitive context, the better one is able to answer the necessary business questions and know which parts of your brand proposition and narrative are working and are fit for purpose.

This is what some people call ‘harnessing the truth’, essentially leveraging the ‘what’ (your offer) with the ‘how’ (experiences with you). Those firms that adeptly use their knowledge resources to further understand the WHY are the most likely to be the most innovative and the most successful, truly turning knowledge into profitable wisdom.


Beyond sizing & profiling who has, and who has not, bought your product/service, the preceding Insights stage gate helps the project team establish the common language and platform to work together positively through possible proposition avenues and reasons to believe, for future customers & sales.

It is common here to include a stage of multi-disciplinary workshops to identify improvements and new propositions for subsequent verification in-market.  Beyond ensuring all organisational knowledge is included, this workshop process helps enlist necessary internal buy-in and commitment to the process as well as working through envisioned push backs and challenges. Often this stewardship and structured creativity is entrusted to independent external agencies (like Insight Engineers).

The next step in this ‘verify’ stage gate is to verify emerging new propositions via qualitative research – if there is more time & it is early in the schedule (and if the ideas are new or more distant to your existing offer).

If closer to the current state of play and more defined and clear these propositions lend themselves to more robust verifications & screening via quantitative research – usually on-line community panels.

We access these platforms across most countries in the world, last year we conducted such research across 16 major economies/countries. This type of early quantitative research can be as simple as putting things in order of interest/appeal or likelihood to buy/use or comparing to previous references on brand success factors such as relevance, credible, uniqueness, trust etc.

Nearly every decision made today involves a trade-off, choosing one offer/feature/benefit (rational & emotional) in preference to others.  In our market research, we use 2 common approaches to help select and define the final offer/proposition.

The first extrapolates the full spectrum of trade-off solutions using conjoint techniques to simulate real-world situations. This avoids “everything is important” (to be more discriminating) as consumers choose preferences between many individual attributes or bundles of attributes that could make up a product, service or offer. These can be more macro factor level attributes (e.g. brand; colour; price), or levels within brand architecture (e.g. The Coca-Cola Company; Coca-Cola; Coca-Cola Zero).

A statistically robust predictive model is created from these inputs, a dataset that has a high level of variance explained (low randomness) and, that is highly predictive (of choices). This conjoint based   model describes how much each individual attribute or bundle of attributes contributes to preference in comparison to any other. Ultimately, therefore, it reveals the best package of levers to pull/push.

The second is a simpler approach called Triads. In this simpler trade-off approach, target market respondents are asked to think about which features or benefits they prefer when buying a specific product or when in a particular situation. People look at all of the possible feature/benefit claims in the marketplace, presented in sets of three (‘triads’), and decide which one they prefer the most. Each individual feature/benefit is presented several times overall, but never with the same other two features/benefits. Across the total sample, thousands of different combinations of ‘triads’ are presented for trade-off and in the summary analysis, one can immediately & simply understand the absolute (ordinal ranking) and relative preference, at a total level and for specific target groups – this approach helps clients optimise their value propositions with the right bundle of features/benefits, i.e. those most important to consumers and is often used for designing future promotions and reward schemes.


It is typical then to conduct a final acceptance test on the final offer before going live to market. This is what some clients call a final-stage disaster check. Again this assessment can be conducted via either qualitative or quantitative research and is at its most relevant if the elapsed time line across the Insights, Verify, Select stages has taken longer than 12-18 months.  This final stage check is also common in multi-country launches where you want to double check the new offer will be resonant in the least & most mature markets.  This final Test stage generally has 2 elements – firstly to ensure the needs that have driven the offer still remain valid and secondly that communications such press ads, brochures and sales aids are hitting the spot in terms of design, content and tone.

Checklist 1 – the business questions your stage gate process should answer 

Over the years, we have distilled the key business questions we have heard from our clients into the following checklist, essentially covering the 5Ws (Who, What, Where, When, Why), What if and How:-

  • Who are our customers?
  • What products/services do they have and how much do they use?
  • What products/services would they like?
  • Why and how do people become customers?
  • Why and how do people leave us for the competition?
  • How much will people pay for our products and services?
  • What is our customer experience?
  • How do people react to our messaging?
  • What do people think of us?

Checklist 2 – the stage gate framework in use by most leading companies 

Whilst we have written in this article about the 4 key stages in the research agency involvement, this avenue is clearly part of the wider client ‘go-to-market’ planning, so we thought it might be helpful to share with you what we have seen as a typical client-side stage-gate and decision meetings structure:-

1. Trends and Strategy

  • GATE 1: ‘Basis for Interest’ document

2. Insights & Ideas

  • GATE 2: ‘Project Establishment’ document

3. Concept development & planning

  • GATE 3: ‘Build Review & overcoming challenges’ document

4. Commercialise & pilot

  • GATE 4: ‘Project Commitment’ document

5. Launch & scale up

  • GATE 5: ‘Launch Agreement’ document

6. On-going Post Launch assessment

  • GATE 6: ‘Delivery on Expectations’ document

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