Having tried just about everything else, the best way we've found to work through the complex, emotive, subjective world of brand, identity, language and character is still the face-to-face focus group.
And that's a problem when the service you're working with is completely new. It's very hard to present in a focus group and, even if you succeed, a room far from home and full of strangers is probably not the ideal place for people to think their way into how and whether they might personally use it, let alone what value it might offer.
We've found a solution in a system that drip-feeds the new idea to respondents in carefully managed stages leading up to the group sessions and lets us communicate with them in a continuous way before we meet them. They start by focusing on the alternatives they use today – what the new service is aiming to beat - this lets us develop hypotheses about unmet needs. Then they work on the main features of the new service one by one, this lets us develop hypotheses about benefits.
Finally they work on the whole idea: what does it add up to and how is it going to change their life? Now everybody's ready for the focus groups and for us to really start work on the brand.
We've developed this system over the last year or two and we're now using it regularly and with great success on development research programmes for new-service brands in markets as diverse as Internet of Things, Media Multiplay and, most recently, Online Estate Agency.