Step away from the customer, you're too close
Plenty of clients think they know their customers - or their brand - so well that they don't need research. If you're a small client with a small budget this might be true. Years of experience dealing with the same customers is probably a good sign you're doing something right and what's not broke don't need fixing.
What if the market is changing? What if you need to find new customers with different tastes, who see the world and use their media differently? What if you need to move up to the next level in your business life cycle? Do you really know how to navigate that new terrain?
I've been dabbling with a website design recently (my usual web designer bangs head on table as he reads this) and can see a perfect metaphor for why we all need research.
I'm utterly incapable of making clear decisions when it comes to web design, because the assumptions I make when creating the site become hard-wired into how I evaluate what I've created.
In my world, the menu I've designed makes perfect sense. To me it's logical to click a certain button when I move to specific pages and sections. To me it's obvious that the signposts I've designed will lead the viewer effortlessly through the information, and it's physically and mentally impossible for me to see the website otherwise. As such, I can't see through the eyes of a first-time user. And yet, and yet, the temptation - no, belief - is to assume I know how others behave.
Fortunately, some small part of my brain knows better, so, before I press 'publish' I ask my friends what they think.
They spot a bunch of typos, explain why it's unnatural for the pages to run in the order I assumed made sense and point out that the button I designed to take them to the credentials section is completely invisible. It isn't difficult for them to see these flaws, yet, for me it is impossible.
The same is true of brands, propositions, advertising, design and copy. Clients are often too close to their problems and this closeness and emotional involvement precludes them from seeing clearly. Often too, their ego gets in the way or they fear having to deal with things they'd rather ignore. And sometimes they just don't want to spend the money.
I've recently been suggesting that even a small amount of consumer insight is better than none and that relatively small and inexpensive research projects can go a long way to keeping a brand on the right track. I'm not trying to be cheap or suggest more information isn't welcome, but I find this 'suck it and see' approach often leads to larger projects as clients learn to trust me and see the value.
But to get even to first base, you've got to be humble enough to understand you don't know everything - and sometime the thing getting in the way of knowing more is actually yourself.