Deconstructing qual: the Unilever Qualitative Researcher Accreditation Programme

There was suspiciously little competition for the canapés at the Association for Qualitative Research’s AGM on Wednesday. Hunger was stunted.

A delegation from Unilever had come to quell the hearsay about their qualitative research accreditation programme.

Concerned at the variation in quality of qualitative insight across its territories, Unilever set the illustrious Rebecca Wynberg to review global practice. She concluded that, whilst pockets of excellence exist, there was significant variation in quality. All too often qual was being used tactically (launch/don’t launch) rather than strategically. The commissioning teams were briefing poorly and only junior execs were getting involved, leading to a vicious circle of under investment on both sides, with the quality of insight falling short as a result (“…four of the six respondents liked the stimulus”).

The accreditation programme is part of Unilever’s response. Combined with internal training programmes, Manish Makhijani described how the company has now moved to an individual accreditation model for qualitative researchers in an attempt to work with the best. A team of 5 assessors will judge their peers on an 80 attribute assessment to produce a skills report, examining the quality of their thinking and how they go about solving problems. For objectivity, fairness and transparency the same process is used globally:

  • Unilever issue a test brief;
  • The individual responds with a proposal and suggested discussion guide;
  • The individual is then invited to talk this through in detail, justifying their decisions;
  • The individual then moderates a live group discussion, skills ablaze;
  • The assessors observe, and discuss how the moderator would approach analysis afterwards.

The detail is where the controversy lies. Agencies are responsible for the cost of the test – probably £1,500-2,000 per person. The pass rate varies by market, from 10-50%. Seasoned, trusted partners must work through the accreditation process the same as a recent graduate. Anyone who fails is given a list of development points and is welcome to try again in 12 months. Accreditation is for life. There is no formal roster after the process, but individuals are free to build relationships with Unilever teams.  Unilever want as many people as possible to go through the accreditation process – but inevitably incumbent agencies get priority.

Contrary to the tumbleweed that often follows industry presentations questioners from the floor had several points to make and were reluctant to release the roving microphone. The atmosphere was at times fractious as assorted industry grandees took their turn to be exasperated. The language reflected the combative nature of the proposition. Q: “Are we being treated like babies?” A: “No, this is a response to an industry problem – it is needed to stop the bleeding!”

Take emotion out of the equation and ask three questions. Does the industry have a problem with quality? From my standpoint, no. The competitiveness of the marketplace means you don’t get the chance to drop the ball with a client more than once.

Secondly, is accreditation needed? I’m agnostic on this one. The programme is just an expression of the desire for more transparency about what quallies do and what skills are required. We work in an industry without standardised training and certification. Whilst this freedom tends to suit the practitioner and has never stood in the way of talented people doing inspirational work, it is obviously incompatible for a global FMCG firm trying to “codify their insight processes”. Some form of accreditation might have benefits for us all, if only providing a rebuttal the challenge ‘It’s only asking questions. Couldn’t anyone do that?

Thirdly, will this approach work for Unilever? Only time will tell. In practical terms the 3 hour assessment may be limited in judging moderator fitness even without the risk of having ‘one weird group’. Or the inconvenient fact there’s more to the quallie toolkit than groups.

By Christmas the first tranche of results will be out and the first accredited researchers will start playing their trade. Unintended consequences – like the anointed few being overworked and over approached by headhunters – may well abound. The only certainty is we’ll be hearing lots more on the subject in 2012.




About Simon Shaw

I'm a Director at an insight consultancy. I'm interested in marketing, market research & consumer psychology. The views expressed are not necessarily those of my employer.
This entry was posted in Market Research, Marketing Research, Qualitative research and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Deconstructing qual: the Unilever Qualitative Researcher Accreditation Programme

  1. Simon Riley says:

    A useful summation for people like me who couldn’t be there. I was approached by an agency I’ve freelanced for on Unilever work to do the accreditation, but haven’t heard anything about it in months. I am a bit skeptical too but ultimately will give it a go as it makes sense as a freelancer to be as widely accredited as possible. But I did have a very bad experience many moons ago with a couple of rogue Unilever people (everyone else I dealt with from there has been great) who blamed me for a slow and difficult group who also (by coincidence) didn’t like their pet idea and wouldn’t engage with it. They went into a kind of huff after the group, it was remarkable, and I got a lot of grief from them afterwards, which really took me a long time to get over, though I knew they were being silly. Needless to say they claimed to be experts in qual, have seen hundreds of groups etc. Hmm – it didn’t seem like it. I must say that was my only bad experience but it does make me slightly wary of who is going to be sitting in judgement. But if you want to make an omelette, eggs must be broken, so if still asked, I’ll be going for it.

  2. Simon Shaw says:

    Cheers Mr Riley

    It was my first AQR experience and certainly one I won’t forget. The atmosphere was akin to a residents association opposing a property developer’s plans to build on the village green!

    Irritatingly I can see this one from both sides. It may be tough on the incumbents who don’t all get through the process whilst providing an opportunity for newbies who perhaps have less to lose. We’re all up for it at Brass.

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