Exploring the World of Water - Danone R&D Case Study
The world is in constant evolution…
Consumer behaviour is evolving rapidly…
But are our methods, techniques, research design and skills evolving
Danone wanted to understand the use of water in daily life and highlight
consumer expectations for water consumption in general, in order to
determine the main consumer perceived benefits. It was important to focus on
the scientific objectives (also afterwards in clinical testing) to prove and
understand 4 certain effects of water. The final output Danone was looking for
needed to confirm that water can bring real benefits for consumers and
to show which benefits would be most impactful in the market when
proven. In order to investigate water consumption from different angles, we
implemented a ‘fusion research’ design. Fusion research is a research
design where multiple (contemporary) research methodologies are
combined in order to study a certain research question from different
angles. By applying triangulation, a holistic view is achieved around the same
solution or marketing problem. Each of the selected methods adds one piece to
the final puzzle and serves as input for the subsequent phase.
Contemporary consumers ask for
contemporary research methods
Response rates in traditional research projects are in decline, as is the good image of our work among research
participants. As an answer to this negative trend, the market research industry wishes to move from
‘transactional’ to more ‘relational’ types of research. Researchers need to (re)bond companies with
consumers (our participants) through more ‘connected’ research methodologies (Schillewaert, De Ruyck and
Verhaeghe, 2008). Additionally, we may state that the context in which consumers live has changed drastically
during the last decade. It has affected their behaviour accordingly (Van Belleghem, 2010). The contemporary
Empowered: Today’s consumers are more eager to share their opinion (even if not asked for it) and
make or break brands and products on a scale never seen before. They also choose their
own tools and moments to do so.
Consumers’ online and offline lives are blending, they use different multi-media interchangeably
(cf. life caching), are always on the go and create their very own ‘cocktail’ of attitudes.
That’s why they have become more difficult to grasp!
Taking into account this new reality, we are convinced that the way we do research, in terms of
skills, research methods and techniques, needs to be adapted. As Kim Dedeker stated during
the 2008 edition of the ARF Leadership Forum: “My call to action is that we would figure out the way
to return to the consumer’s backyard. We have to rebuild that trust. We need to listen to them on their
time and in the ways they want to communicate with us.”
Today, consumers want to interact with marketing professionals. More than
half the Europeans want to co-create products/services with companies.
For far too long, emotions and social behaviour were concealed behind closed
doors and ignored in favour of rationality and efficiency (Hill, 2009). Today
we are more aware of this and tapping into these dynamics has become ‘easier’
through new media (e.g. social networks and communities) and research
technologies (e.g. text analytics and implicit measurement tools).
We summarised our vision on the future in our
’10 commandments of contemporary market research’:
1 Conversations and stories of consumers should be at the heart of our marketing and research
thinking as they are key in generating insights; it is the main way innovations, customer experiences and
marketing campaigns are being spread (Van Belleghem, 2010).
Researchers need to create more opportunities for participants to say what is on their minds,
even if it is not directly part of the survey or topic guide.
Research should give participants a more active role throughout the entire research process and
not only during the interviewing phase. They like it and it will deliver richer and better insights.
Research methodologies should be adapted so they are able to grasp fragmented consumer
behaviour (both over time as on the go).
5 Methods should be combined to fusion designs in order to capture the whole picture and create a
360° view on the consumer (Blades, 2009).
We should unveil the goals of a research project and clients should show their ‘face’ more to
Researchers should feed back intermediate results to research participants so they can influence the
final outcome of the study if desired. Next to that it will motivate them to keep participating.
Participants should not be asked to provide us with new information if we can obtain the same information
indirectly. We should therefore recycle our data if possible. Tons of data is available on the web or in
customer databases (Verhaeghe, Schillewaert, Van den Berge, 2009).
9 We should stimulate a good rapport and trust between participants and researchers, next to bonding
among peers in order to obtain higher quality data and more emotional insights.
10 Contemporary market researchers need DJ skills. They are responsible for keeping research
participants enthusiastic. They need to have the ability to choose the right methods and data sources and to
throw them in the right mix. Last but not least, they need to perform well in the boardroom by playing the
most relevant tunes to management.
This way of designing and conducting a research project will be
illustrated by a multi-stage research project we conducted for and
with Danone Global R&D (Paris): ‘Water World’. In the second
part of this paper, we will elaborate on the way this has an impact on the
relationship with the client, the research team and the skills they need.
Water world: going on a three-month
journey with participants!
Danone wanted to understand the use of water
in daily life and highlight consumer
expectations for water consumption in
general, in order to determine the main consumer
perceived benefits. It was important to focus on the
scientific objectives (also afterwards in clinical
testing) to prove and understand 4 certain effects of
water. The final output Danone was looking for
needed to confirm that water can bring real
benefits for consumers and to show which
benefits would be most impactful in the
market when proven.
In order to investigate water consumption from
different angles, we implemented a ‘fusion research’
design. Fusion research is a research design where
multiple (contemporary) research methodologies
are combined in order to study a certain research
question from different angles. By applying
triangulation, a holistic view is achieved around the
same solution or marketing problem. Each of the
selected methods adds one piece to the final puzzle
and serves as input for the subsequent phase.
When studying the research objective of Danone, it was clear that there was a real need for this ‘fusion’
1 Not only did we want to find out how often people drank water; we also hoped to investigate why they did
so and what effects they believed the water had on their body and mind. The goals of the research
required both quantitative numbers (‘surveying’) and a qualitative deep dive (‘discussions’).
2 The topic of the study was a commodity: water. Drinking water is an activity which most consumers
engage in without a lot of cognitive effort. People drink water all day long and since it is so habitual, it is
often difficult for consumers to recall situations and explain their behaviour post hoc. As a result, we also had
to implement an ‘observational’component in our research design.
3 The ultimate goal of the project was to find strong claims for communication that could be tested by
the Danone R&D centre. These claims could increase the consumption of water per individual. There was a
strong need to go beyond the obvious by detecting new and more latent reasons for drinking water. In order to
find a variety of benefits, we thought it would be interesting to study heavy water consumers in particular.
However, at the same time, we had to select the most powerful claims that were also applicable for a larger
target group. So we had to include light drinkers too and bring them together on a social platform.
Taking all conditions into account, we choose to set up a design (see Figure 1 - Research design overview) which
contains a user-generated brainstorm (Verhaeghe, De Ruyck and Schillewaert, 2008), a quantitative diary,
multimedia ethnography (Verhaeghe, Van den Bergh and Colin, 2008) and a research community (De
Ruyck, Schillewaert and Caudron, 2008). It is clear that we were starting a really long research journey. In order to
make it a successful one, it was critical to take into account the ‘commandments of
contemporary market research’ described in paragraph one.
Figure 1 - Research design overview
Exploring new territory
As researchers, we often assume that we are
perfectly capable to translate the research goals into
a topic guide or questionnaire. In search for
understanding the consumers’ minds, it might however
be worth to take one step back and to ask them what
they think we should be asking in the study. This
consumer involvement does not only indicate potential
blind spots in our own thinking, it is also an
interesting way to detect consumer vocabulary
for the research topic. So, we started our
exploration of the water universe with a ‘user-created
brainstorm’ (n= 300). This research tool enables
consumers to generate general reasons for - and
beliefs about - drinking water at certain
moments in time. Two steps take place: first the
participant is invited to write down his own reasons and
Secondly, the answers from other participants to the
same brainstorm are displayed and people get the
chance to select their favourites amongst those answers
As a result, the list of reasons and beliefs gradually
grows and the best answers are voted to the
The user-created brainstorm plays both on the co-
creation expectance and on the power of the
contemporary consumer. By involving participants in this
phase, they have the chance to influence the rest of
the project both in terms of questions and in
research design (Verhaeghe, De Ruyck and
Schillewaert, 2008) and they are therefore helping to
shape the set-up of the research. Moreover, they are
doing the exercise in group, giving them the ability to
decide with one another whether certain answers are
more valuable than others.
Getting our numbers right
Phase 2: quantitative survey (diary approach) and screening
for the qualitative phase. The objective of this second part of
the project (n=1039) was to identify the right profiles to
participate in the observational and qualitative phases:
heavy and light water drinkers. Next, to a first validation
and prioritisation of the reasons for drinking water, generated
during phase 1. The quantitative questionnaire asked for
reasons for drinking water and attitudes towards health
issues. The data resulted in a user segmentation. Additionally,
we had a three-day ‘fluid diary’ on plain water consumption to
determine who fitted our target profile for phases 3 and 4. The
researcher personally invited the participants to take part in
the survey and he unveiled the research subject partly in the
invite e-mail. Secondly, we fed back answers to the open-
ended questions on a daily basis to the participants, in order to
keep them engaged during the three-day diary research (see
Figure 2 - Feedback visualised in a word cloud
Revealing the unknown
Consumers are poor witnesses of their own behaviour.
Especially when talking about drinking water, it seemed
particularly difficult for consumers to recall or even
remember their own motives for drinking it. We
believed that we could only accurately capture the related
physical and mental experiences through observational
research. In order to obtain a rich set of benefits, we only
involved heavy water consumers (n=22) in this section.
The commandments were applied by choosing multimedia
ethnography. Multimedia ethnography is a type of
observational research where research participants are
asked to observe their own behaviour and
environment by taking pictures or making videos.
They feed back the observations to us on an ethnographic
blog (see Figure 3) where they can interpret their own
images, provide full descriptions of the situation and answer
additional questions of the researcher. The process consists
of four different phases:
Figure 3 - Screenshots of our ethnographic blog
1 In a first step, participants were invited to a kick-off discussion group online, where we explained to them how
the observation would take place and what the goal of the project was.
2 Next, we had the actual observation. Participants were asked to take pictures every time they drank
something and to report about it on their personal blog. The picture itself could be tagged with smileys
to refer to important elements. Respondents were stimulated to describe the moment and context of the
picture in as much detail as possible. In order to identify the different markers, we also provided the
opportunity to indicate on a picture of a human body where they actually experienced the effect of the water in
their own body. Since we recruited only heavy water drinkers, we knew that a lot of the pictures we would
obtain would depict water consumption. Studying the consumption of other drinks at the same time provided
us with insights on benefits water was not able to claim.
3 In the third phase of the process, the respondents were invited to decrease their consumption level
of water for a limited period of time. The rationale behind this so-called deprivation exercise is that it
might be easier to become aware of certain drivers if you’re missing out for a few days.
4 In the final phase, all observational data was analysed with the aid of text analytics and concept
boards of the different benefits were created. The concept boards were presented during auto-driving
sessions. Auto-driving sessions are online discussion groups were the same participants get the
chance to give feedback on the conclusions that the researcher made, based on the analysis of all
the pictures. We checked if all benefits were recognisable and there was time for additional probing.
Additional questions about each benefit were answered by the participants in order to enrich the final concept
Multimedia ethnography fully respects the characteristics of the contemporary research participant:
Empowered: We gave power to the research participants by letting them do the observation
themselves. Unlike in traditional ethnography, participants are free to report whatever
fitted the task - where the data collection is always coloured by the vision and interpretation of
the researchers. Some research participants, for example, sent us mainly detailed close-up
pictures of the quantity or types of water they were drinking, whereas others stressed the
habitual aspects of their consumption.
Cosmopolitan: The observation phase lasted for two weeks. This allowed us to capture a long-term picture
of their behaviour. It is possible to capture water consumption not only during moments that
we would also encounter during an in-home visit. We obtained pictures from people spread
across the whole day at a varied set of locations (see Figure 4).
Figure 4 - Examples of user-generated observations
Emotional: A typical problem with traditional ethnography is the hawthorn effect. The presence of the
researcher at the place of observation enhances the risk of the research
participant to adapt their behaviour. Typically, more rationalised and socially desirable
behaviour is manifested. In multimedia ethnography, the researcher is not physically
present. All communication happens via the online blog, which minimises the influence on
the natural context. As the observation lasts 14 days, there is sufficient time to create a
rapport between researcher and participant. Already in the kick-off discussion groups
online, they are introduced to each other and both participant and researcher share personal
information. During the field period, several personal messages from the researcher are also
sent, to stimulate the bonding. As a result, we see the emotionality and richness of the
answers changing over time. Initially participants were stressing the functional benefits of
water, such as taking away rests of the meal or being good for one’s digestion process.
Towards the end, more emotional benefits were also shared, such as reducing stress or
regulating one’s mood.
Throughout the auto-driving sessions, the participants were involved in the project as
real consultants. They were the ultimate judge of the validity of the results. As such they had
the power to adapt or modify the final report from the ethnography part, if required.
Making decisions and co-creating an action plan
in a community research
Objectives of this final stage were to challenge and refine results from the exploratory phase and the
ethnography part. We needed to identify arguments for convincing light users of waters. It also helped us to put all
the results from the previous research phases into the right context. The community ran for 6 weeks, with both heavy
and light users (n=50) who did not take part in the ethnography phase. Two additional online discussion groups with
heavy drinkers (n=12) were held to go in-depth on certain topics. Again, the research community enabled us to
adequately deal with the contemporary research participant:
1 Group bonding through kick-off discussion groups with the participants and some specific exercises
(e.g. writing a story together) and the strong relationship with the moderator kept the
participants going for six weeks.
2 Listening to the conversations that took place on the platform was as important as asking
questions. Social dynamics taking place on the platform were taken into account, adding a
more social view on the research subject. The very first confrontation especially between light and
heavy water users in the project was very rich. The heavy users needed to find arguments to convince
the light users to start drinking more water. This task helped us a lot in the prioritisation of benefits
when it came to relevance and specific reasons to believe.
3 We gave feedback at several occasions: all participants got insights into their personal
drinking profile benchmarked with those of their peers through a small tool that we provided
them with. We introduced ‘Doctor Daniel’ who brought findings from the study to
the group, speaking in name of the R&D department of the company behind the study. He
also asked follow-up questions during a last activation exercise (light users drinking more)
and deprivation (heavy users drinking less), which was very important in getting more details
on the benefits and scientific hypotheses.
4 Members of the community had the chance to make final judgments and interpretations
on the outcome of the study: what are the most impactful claims/benefits of water and why?
This made them co-creators of the final outcomes of the project.
A three-month project in which different research methods are fused and where results need to flow into the next
phase is very demanding for all parties involved: the client, our team of researchers and the participants. How did
we make it work?
Participants: They were involved in almost everything we did and we motivated them through
small gifts and especially a lot of feedback. We engaged with them over a very long period
of time, something that is opposite to the trend of asking less and less from our research
participants. We believe that it is not what and how much you ask from them that counts, but
rather the specific way in which you ask it and what you give them in return! Additionally, the
participants had a direct line with the researcher to ask for help if required.
Client: We started with a half day kick-off workshop at the client side to build internal engagement for the
project and to get input from all stakeholders involved. In between the phases an interactive
workshop took place with the clients. Goal: bringing the voice of the consumer into the
boardroom after every phase and giving direction to the next stage based on the
Team of researchers: We noticed that two things were very important: 1) having the people with the right skills
on the right method (e.g. observing and analysing pictures is totally different from managing
a large group of people over a longer period of time in a research community); and 2) having
a lot of team debriefs at the end of every stage. It is really important that the community
moderator also knows everything about the very first phase of the project, in order to do the
What did fusion research bring to the
table for Danone?
The goal of the study was to identify physiological & mental markers related to the water consumption of
heavy water drinkers. In total we defined 20 clusters of benefits that lead to over 60 hypotheses to be tested in
further scientific research. We succeed in our mission! For Danone there were three main success criteria for
this research approach in which a whole set of contemporary research methods and techniques were
1 Process in several stages: Organising the test in several steps is very pertinent. It allows to
precise questions, to progress in the analysis. Especially with a broad topic like this, that was a
very important one. Additionally it allowed Danone to bring consumer selection into the
scientific research process: determining which benefits are and will be most impactful
according to the consumers themselves.
2 Authenticity and accuracy: It was key to base conclusions on real consumption (from the
diary), real situations (from the ethnography part) and real conversations leading to final
insights (from the research community). This was important because our research served as
input for further scientific research that requires very detailed input.
3 Use of words, images, social and individual techniques: The possibility to explain the
benefit with several means as a research participant also added to the success of the project.
Looking at the same subject from different points of view (via observing and via interviewing, in
isolation and through social research methods) added a lot of richness to the final concept
boards and hypotheses.
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Schillewaert N., De Ruyck T. and Verhaeghe A. (2008), Connected Research: towards common understanding
about how market research can make the most out of ‘Web 2.0’, International Journal of Market Research
Van Belleghem S. (2010), The Conversation Manager, Lannoo, Belgium
Verhaeghe, De Ruyck, Schillewaert, 2008, Applying 'User Generated Content' to quantitative research,
International Journal of Market Research
Verhaeghe, Schillewaert, Van den Berge (2009), Getting answers without asking question, ESOMAR Online
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Head of Innovation
Tom De Ruyck
Head of Consumer Consulting Boards
Expert Consumer Science
Danone Global R&D France