Why Research Matters – Annabel Venner

Global brand director Annabel Venner talks to us about marketing research, what it can and can’t do, and why it matters.

Interviews | 9mins read | Michael Gough

Why Research Matters – Annabel Venner
Why Research Matters – Annabel Venner

This is a transcript of an interview from our podcast Why It Matters

It’s for leaders who know that relevance is a moving target. The podcast is a collection of interviews with leaders who are passionate about something that is being overlooked. Sometimes that will be a brand, a product or a service, but it can also be an idea, something that has lost its value for many. And to re–express relevance, you need someone with vision.

Annabel Venner is a global marketing consultant, and until recently, she was the global brand director at the US insurance business, Hiscox. Before that, she was at Coca–Cola.

Michael: Tell me about your way into marketing. And in particular – you’ve spent a lot of time at Coca–Cola but you ended up at the insurer Hiscox. How did that opportunity come about?

Annabel: As you said, my background is in the FMCG (fast–moving consumer goods) world. I’d spent nine years at Coca–Cola, which I must admit was a fantastic time there. I got the opportunity to work on a large number of their brands, so not just Coke but Schweppes and Oasis and Powerade. But after eight and a half years, I started to think about my growth and what I needed to learn, but also the impact I could have on a business. Coke is a massive organization, and it’s often quite hard to really, really grow brands, especially when you’re working on Coke.

 I got phoned up about an opportunity at Hiscox. I must admit I’d never really heard of it. Also, because it was an insurer, I was slightly nervous about making that leap. But once I’d been in and had the interviews, I was completely won over by the people I met there, by the fact that two of them had a similar background. One had worked at I think it was Unilever or P&G, and one had worked at Coca–Cola and Diageo, so I knew they would get my world. Also, as an insurer, it was very, very different. It was very customer focused and really valued doing the right thing by its customers, and it had a massively strong reputation.

The role I was being offered would enable me to be the senior marketer in the UK business, but also give me the opportunity to learn a lot, because the business sold direct to customers. So I could have that end–to–end customer journey management, which I wasn’t able to have at Coca–Cola.



For me, it goes down to the fact that you have to understand your customers. And yes, you can use data that you get from web analytics, or NPS scores, but there’s nothing like going and talking to a group of business owners over breakfast one day, to find out what’s really bugging them. Or what they really think of your business. 


Hiscox has been around for over 100 years. How sophisticated was the marketing at that point you joined? Were they pretty savvy, or was there an educational piece to do to demonstrate the opportunity?

As you say, the company had been around for a long time and had evolved. When it was first set up, it just used to trade through Lloyd’s of London, and then it grew its retail business. Then it started its direct to customer journey and business. I was quite lucky in that a gentleman called Steve Langan joined about four or five years before I had, and he’s marketing. He had worked at Coca–Cola and Diageo, so he’d done quite a lot of the heavy lifting in educating the business about what the impact that marketing can have on growth. When I joined, I was able to pick up from the effort he’d started, and then take a lot of my learnings from Coca–Cola and apply them to Hiscox.

I think sometimes people have this belief that marketing is really different when you move from different industries. It’s not. The fundamentals of it stay the same. How you make a great ad is the same. The need to understand your customers is the same. And therefore, the need to research is the same. You just need to apply it to a different sector.

So why does research matter?

For me, it goes down to the fact that you have to understand your customers. And yes, you can use data that you get from web analytics, or NPS scores, but there’s nothing like going and talking to a group of business owners over breakfast one day, to find out what’s really bugging them. Or what they really think of your business. You need to use research to help you to understand the competitive landscape. What’s going on? How is your advertising landing versus other people’s? You can use it to develop new products and services. So for me, it’s always been an invaluable tool. Coca–Cola spent a lot of money and insisted on it. Before you could release an ad, you had to do this bit of research.

During my nine years at Hiscox, we massively increased the value of research that we undertook, because the business then could see the impact it could have. 

What led you to that conviction? What was it that you were seeing in Coke that was absolutely integral to the process?

Part of it is around the initial understanding of your customers. For instance, our core groups at Coke were often mums and teenagers. Your mums were the ones that would do the grocery shopping, and then your teenagers, obviously, were the ones that were buying the product when they were out–and–about. And you could see the different attitudes towards your brand, and they were often very, very different. Then you could feed that into either working out what your price promotions should be, your pack strategy should be, and what your comms needed to say.

We took that and applied it to Hiscox. We were selling to small businesses, but we were also selling to people buying home insurance. Their attitudes towards the brand would be very different, their understanding of it, what their perceptions were. So you often needed to do this early stage research, and then you would be able to feed that into a brief that you would give to an advertising agency.

How sophisticated was Hiscox when you first got involved? Was research a new idea for them, and thinking about research’s role?

No, it wasn’t a new idea. We just probably weren’t doing the depth of research that Hiscox is now doing 10 years on. There was brand tracking that would go on. When I joined, the only business where we were selling direct was the UK, so we would undertake brand tracking probably once a year. They were using research to develop the advertising, so they would be doing qualitative and quantitative research.

What we did is broaden out what we were looking at. We would do dips of research with our customers. We got a small group that we knew were happy to hear from us and happy to share their input. We did pop–up communities. We did a lot of roundtables, so informal roundtables as I mentioned before, where we might gather some small business owners over breakfast. We would be doing research with brokers because we found that, when we were selling through them, they would often reflect the views of the clients. The breadth of research, we ended up doing a lot more innovation around products and services, so we would also go and talk to small groups. Sometimes you had to be flexible. To bring that to life, we were interested in talking to private tutors at one stage. You had to think quite creatively about talking to them. Or even people doing personal training. But at the end of it, you needed to prove the value of doing the research.

The other thing that we did was a lot of people think that their country is very different, but what we quickly learned was that the needs of a small business owner can be very, very similar, whether you’re in the US, France, Germany, the UK. How you communicate to them is very different. Often, we would push countries to say, “Do you really need to do this bit of research in France? Because we did it in Germany last year, and this is what we learned. And actually, it wasn’t that dissimilar to what we found in the UK.” We would almost develop a center of excellence for research and insight, where we could share all the learnings.

What would be the frequency of that engagement that you’d be involved in? Was there a cycle to it? Were you doing it on an annual basis, or bi–annual basis?

Some of them were done frequently. For instance, brand tracking. At one stage we were doing it twice a year in the UK and the same in the US, which were our biggest two markets. And then in our smaller markets we would do that once a year. The rest of it was probably more ad–hoc, because it would be around when we were developing communication. And again, depending on the level of communication we were developing, we would say you either had to do qual or quant. Our research and insight group was centralized, so you would get requests coming in for work, and then that research manager would work with that local marketing team to work out what they needed. There was no central budget held, it was held by all the business units.

Without research, what’s lost? If you do your marketing without it, what do you miss out on?

I just think you’re blind to a lot of things. You’re blind to how your customers are really feeling and what they really want. I think there’s also a risk that you get very, very focused in your own industry. To bring that to life now, when people think about what they want from customer service, companies like Amazon have driven real change. You’re not benchmarked now versus your competitor, you’re benchmarked versus what Amazon’s doing, or what Ocado is doing. Research helps you understand now, what those needs are of your customers. And you can get early indication if something’s going wrong as well.

Having done the research and got the feedback, what were the key things that you were learning that were helping you rethink the Hiscox brand, and the route to market and the marketing?

If I go back probably six years, the UK developed a very, very successful campaign for its small business customers. The tagline that was used was, “the small and the brave.” If you go and look at it, all the work really tapped into the emotion of running a small business. Prior to developing that work, we spent a lot of time trying to understand small businesses: their hopes, their dreams, why they set it up, what are the negative sides of it, how they wanted to be talked to. What we learned is that they are like other people, and they want advertising that isn’t just functional, and isn’t just about a price message, or this policy enables you to do this, that and the other. They want people to talk to them, to demonstrate that they get them, they get their business, and they get why they set it up.
All of this research was fed into a creative brief that was given to the advertising agency. As I said, they developed this campaign that probably ran for four or five years, and was very successful and won some Marketing Society awards.

Some of the early work talked about the feeling you get when you write your first invoice. Now I’ve recently set myself up as a consultant, and I felt the same way. I posted about it and said, “Oh my gosh, we developed this work and actually, the minute I sent my first invoice was a moment of being very proud.” There was an ad that showed two mugs, that talked about hiring your first employee. Another one that featured a bear with a bit of stuffing missing, and talked about those times where it goes a bit wrong and you take a bit of a battering.

We developed so many insights about these small businesses and it enabled us, as I said, to have four or five years of very, very strong advertising that connected very emotionally with these people, and was very different to what everybody else was using.

It’s easy to think, at this point, certainly in the advertising context, that this is about the P&L and this is about growing revenue, but this is more than that. This is also about brand building, isn’t it? You’re actually trying to shape perceptions about Hiscox as much as create revenue.

But they’re linked – if you think about it, especially if you’re selling direct to customers. A lot of people spend a lot of money on Google. What you want people to do is to put ‘Hiscox’ into Google rather than putting ‘business insurance’. You can bid on other brand terms, but the cost of bringing somebody to your website who has typed in ‘Hiscox’ could be, I don’t know, maybe a tenth of the cost of bidding against your other competitors on ‘business insurance’. We know that having a strong brand does a lot more than just making it cheaper to acquire them. They’re more likely to talk about you, recommend you. They’re more likely to stay loyal you, they’re more likely to buy more than one product. It has this massive benefit.

Part of my role was always educating the business that you need to have the right mix of brand spend and acquisition spend. When you get that right, that drives the best long–term marketing effectiveness. And again, we would use research to prove it. We would do econometric studies to show that the impact of where we’re spending brand and where we’re spending acquisition together can have that impact.

How are you tracking the return? I imagine, if it’s a relatively new concept for the business, that the leadership team are keen to understand what the value it’s bringing.

I pulled together a dashboard that was quite long, because it reflected all the markets. Effectively, what I reported on that was five things. Let me see if I can remember them now. One was basic business metrics, so how much we were spending and how much new business were we generating. Another one was our brand equity metrics. We called them our A, B, C, D, just because they were very easy to remember. One of them was very much focused on acquisition, so how much was it costing us to acquire somebody. Another area was around retention, and therefore you could see links between stronger brand metrics and higher retention. And then, the last one was customer satisfaction, so how well did they find that customer journey, how well were they likely to remember us. We didn’t just focus on that pure ROI. I think it was very important that we had those five things that we could talk about.

It’s interesting. I’ve been talking to a range of business leaders towards the end of last year, when we were in Q4, and the challenge of the last 12 months. What was coming through consistently was a sense that, actually, the priority was very focused on sales – “we need to convert the pipeline to make sure we keep the revenue coming in what feels like a downturn…” In that context, how would you make the case to say that actually brand building and brand profile marketing is just as important as the sales?

I think that, based on the last two years, I’d hope that you’d been trying to do it more than when you’re getting pressure on your budgets. For me it’s an ongoing conversation so people don’t forget it. I think the last 18 months has been unprecedented, and I think lots of different industries have been hit very hard. They have had increased costs, their sales have gone down. You’ve seen it – naturally a lot of marketing budgets have taken a massive battering.

What I would say now is that there is some positivity, and consumer spending will return, and customers are feeling a lot more optimistic. I don’t think it’s a pure conversation around ‘we need more brand spend’, I think it’s around senior marketing leaders being brave now, and taking the opportunity to go out there and be the first one of their competitors to come out with some absolutely great work that’s based on insights they’ve got from their customers. Then they can really take a lead and be in a really good position as consumers start spending again, and as confidence starts growing.

Yes, and as you gather your research, how do you ensure that the things you’re learning are actually being used well?

When I was at Hiscox, I had a small research and insight team, so there was only three of them who had to do all the research across all the markets.

They were very hard workers, and actually they worked incredibly hard because they managed multiple projects across multiple markets. But, one of the things that was always in their objects was making sure that the research was actioned. Their role didn’t just start and stop with delivering a lovely piece of research with a great presentation. They also had to go and ensure that it was actioned within the market. And the head of insight and research produced this template that she could use where she got feedback. Not only feedback from the stakeholders on how well the project had gone, but also what they had done with it, and if possible, then to measure the financial impact of it as well.

It’s vital that you do it. My view is any good research and insight manager should challenge that upfront. What are you going to do with this bit of research? Do we really need to do it, or is it just confirming something you already know?

So it’s answering the ‘so what’ question.

Yes. Otherwise, don’t do it, because it’s a waste of resources – both people and money.

Has research got any limitations? What can’t it do? I’m thinking of Wally Olins, grandfather of branding, who famously said that “market research is very good at telling you problems, but it will never tell you solutions.” You can’t go to the market and ask it what to do. Have you ever seen research misapplied, or be limited in its function in actually having an effect?

I think you have to use your own gut feeling a little bit. You do read of stories of where amazing ad campaigns bombed in research, but actually their marketing director or CMO really believed in it and took it to market. Especially if you’re doing something very different and very groundbreaking, I think you have to go a little bit with your gut, unless it absolutely, terribly sinks in research. It might just be that it didn’t research very well, but if you evolve it a little bit or tweak it, actually you could come up with an amazing idea.
I was listening to the Marketing Society annual lecture, which was all about the development of Gillette’s campaign that got a lot of negativity last year, but also a lot of positivity. They were talking through the process they went through, and the research and everything else. And actually, a lot of the people who protested about it probably weren’t representative in their research that they did.

I think you have to do your due diligence on research, but there’s nothing like that gut feel that you have sometimes, in terms of “I think there’s something in this. I think it’s worth giving it another go.”

A sense of intuition still has a role to play, in your experience.

Absolutely. Otherwise, what’s your role as a marketing leader? You need to make decisions based on the number of years’ experience that you’ve got. Otherwise, you let all the decisions be made by your customers and sometimes they don’t know what they really want – sometimes. It’s a bit like when you’re developing a new product or service. You probably wouldn’t say to them, “Design your own insurance policy.” You sometimes have to work up a few ideas and put it in front of them as a prompt.

One of the things we’re always nervous about is that research becomes something where the audience is holding the pen, at an execution level. The classic idea is that focus groups kill creativity because, you’re right, the assumption is they don’t know what they want and they’re just looking at stuff and saying, “I like it” or “I don’t like it.” What are the key steps in getting good research, and then applying it effectively?

I always talk about the importance of creative brief, and I’ve spoken on this recently a couple of times – saying to people they really need to focus on and put time into that creative brief, and make it the right length, before they give it to an agency.
Again, at Hiscox, the research and insight team developed a brief that they sent out to people that they had to complete before they wanted research. It had to make it very clear why they want to do research. What were they going to do with the outputs? Who were they going to talk to? What were their assumptions going into it? What did they want to learn? I just think putting that thinking into it and being able to articulate what you want is really, really critical.

I think you need to really think about who you’re going to talk to, and whether you want to do qual or quant. Are you talking to your current customers, or are you talking to people who aren’t your customer? Are you talking to people who know you or don’t know you? Because all of these things will have a massive effect on your output of this, and also the benchmarks that you’re going to set.

To bring this to life, at Hiscox we set quite high KPIs that any major campaign had to achieve if we were going to put money behind it. But we didn’t just benchmark ourselves against financial services. Financial services ads tend to score lower than anybody else’s. Think of yourself when you’re watching TV. You don’t sit there and go, “Oh, it’s an insurance or bank ad, I’m going to be more lenient on it.” We would always benchmark ourselves versus all advertising, because that was really important to us.

I think it’s all those things that you need to go through and you really need to think about. Sometimes, in the end, it isn’t just about that gut feeling and that bit of bravery that you believe it’s going to really work.

The last point on that is also really thinking about, if you’re developing any communication, where you’re going to run it. Because the research that you would do for a TV ad would be quite different if you were going to run something that was in the press or digitally, so you have to think about where your communication may be seen as well.



The other point is you can do a lot of research for free. You don’t need to spend lots of money on agencies. If you’ve got the permissions, you can talk to your own customers. If you’re quite happy facilitating a group, you can get a lot of people together. You will find, for a lot of people, they love being ask for their point of view.


For organisations that perhaps aren’t doing this research on a similar scale to Hiscox. If there’s someone in a marketing team that recognises the value of wanting to find out more about what their customers and what their clients think about the business, what’s the best sell that you’ve had or used to position the value of marketing to the leadership team?

That’s a big question about the value. I just think there are lots and lots of external studies out there that you can use. A lot of award entries. And focus on effectiveness of marketing, not just ‘did the marketing community really like it?’. There are lots of case studies. For instance, the Marketing Society, the IPA publish a lot of papers on the effectiveness of marketing, and a lot of those are free to access. There are a lot of studies out there that show when you get that right balance of brand and acquisition spend, what it can really do. I think go out there, don’t be afraid of using those. I did that at Hiscox. We had good marketing budgets, but they weren’t huge. Often, we would use case studies.
The other point is you can do a lot of research for free. You don’t need to spend lots of money on agencies. If you’ve got the permissions, you can talk to your own customers. If you’re quite happy facilitating a group, you can get a lot of people together. You will find, for a lot of people, they love being ask for their point of view. A lot of these things you can do without spending a lot of money.

That’s certainly true. Certainly with the rebranding projects that we’ve been involved in, to actually go out and ask the existing client base, “What do you value about the organisation? What’s working, what’s not working?” You always get a lot of nuance that the leadership team have never thought about. Or they’ve just taken for granted, and assumed that it’s common knowledge. And actually, their clients have said something that helps them to see that here’s some value that they’re not talking about which is important to client base. The business needs to turn the volume up on it, when it comes to positioning the brand.

And also, it might not necessarily be around having to change. Often, what you hear doesn’t mean you need to spend a lot of money on changing your product, or doing a redesign, or changing its attributes. Often, it can be things that need to be communicated in a slightly different way, and then you can do really effective emotional advertising that will really connect with them, that will make you differentiated in the market.

What are the key lessons over the years that you’ve learned, in using and applying research: what are the gold standards of using it?

Just go by your gut, is quite a good one. I worked on a water brand launch when I was at Coke, so many, many moons ago – 15 years ago, 16 years ago.

For those of us that have been in industry, I worked on that. There was probably a couple of things, when we were doing some early research that I should have been a bit braver in bringing forward. I think having that gut feel, you have to go on and not being afraid, I think. If you’re going to commission research with agency partners, pick the right ones. Pick those agencies that will tell you the truth.

The last thing you need is an agency partner who will just tell you what they think you need to hear. You want those ones that are going to be brave enough and go, “Do you know even if you took another three months and spent a hundred thousand pounds, you’re not going to make an ad from this. It’s not going to work.” You’ve got to have that trust and that relationship with your agencies.

The other one is a lot of insights with your key groups are the same. Just because you speak a different language doesn’t mean they feel a different way. I think people do need to push back and just not do research. Don’t do research just to back up something you believe in. Do research when you’ve got a real challenge and you don’t know what’s going on, and you want to find an answer.

When you’re looking for clarity on a particular question. I guess that comes back to your point about the brief, being real clear about what is it that we’re trying to achieve through this kind of opportunity.

And what are you going to do with the findings?

Yes. I’m interested in that balance between intuition and research. What you’re saying is that you do the research to understand what the line in the sand is, or the perception of the organization, but then you use your experience and your intuition to basically take a form of judgment on what the next course of action is.


Just to end on this question, what two things have you been seeing, or you’ve been enjoying, during lockdown, that you think others should take a look at?

I’ve looked at a lot of the National Theater live events. Oh gosh, probably last time I went to the theater, I got to see Cyrano de Bergerac. I think that’s coming live, and it was amazing. It was a modern interpretation of it, so I would thoroughly recommend if that’s on, to go and do that.

There’s two more exhibitions that I don’t know what they’re going to do with them – but there was meant to be, in the next few months, a big Banksy show. Both my kids are into art, so I was going to take them. I’m not 100% certain whether that’s going ahead. But, if that had been I’d have gone.

And I’ve just seen that the Design Museum, in May, is doing a big show about design and sustainability, and I’ll definitely be watching that one. I think that will be very interesting. Again, I think that’s going to be delivered online.

This interview is from our podcast Why It Matters. If you prefer listening to interviews than reading them, here’s the show. Make sure you subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts, to hear future episodes.