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Prius vs. Downton Abbey and the Value of Market Research

February 25, 2013

ImageSometimes I look at a product and think that it obviously reflects the benefits of excellent market research. At other times I look at a product and think that it lacked adequate market research because it missed the mark in such an obvious way. Both the BBC and Toyota have clearly made their mark on the world with their high quality “products”. However, in my recent experience one did well (from a market research perspective) and the other definitely did not.

To start with the positive, the automobile manufacturing industry is pretty much a testament to the ability of car makers to fathom and respond effectively to the desires of drivers with ever increasing levels of refinement. I just brought my older Prius to my local dealer for a recall repair. In the spirit of turning lemons into lemonade all was handled beautifully making the chore of delivering and being without my car for a day as easy as possible. Plus, I enjoyed learning about the new features of the newer Prius models during the short time I spent in the shop while drinking their excellent coffee and waiting for my shuttle ride back to my office. In a surprisingly no pressure manner a salesman briefed me on the differences, leaving me with the impression that there was a model for just about every type of car owner as well as some really cool new features I would enjoy using.

In contrast, the ending of the last episode of season three of Downton Abbey is an example of an obvious lack of market research. (Spoiler alert… if you do not want to know what happens in the final moments of this last season’s episode do not read further.)

If you are not among the millions familiar with the story you need to know that in the last few minutes of the show one of the key characters dies in an automobile crash. For many reasons this plot turn seems random, illogical, cruel and redundant to the existing story line, not to mention counterproductive to developing the story in coming seasons. It also totally altered the mood of the story they had built to that point from sweet to tragic.

A Google search shows a long list of articles about the outraged reaction from viewers with headlines such as this one “Is it time Downton died and went to TV heaven?”, which pretty much reflects my feelings immediately after the show ended. Apparently the negative reaction was strong enough that the same search also shows explanations from the producers and from the key actor involved. These explanations tell me that the character Matthew had to die because the actor, Dan Stevens, was not willing to sign a contract for the next season. If only they had put a similar level of creativity into addressing this situation as they did to the many other aspects of the show.

The Huffington Post’s one question survey asking:  “Is Matthew’s death good for “Downton Abbey”? is currently running at about 83% agreeing that it is not a good thing. Surely, a proper market research effort would have uncovered the likelihood of this outcome and identified better alternatives prior to alienating a large part of the audience.

The moral of this post is that when business circumstances surprise you test your response options so that you don’t disappoint your “viewers” or customers or clients with your own unstudied and unpleasant “surprise”.

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