In the late fifties ICI was Britain’s only truly global conglomerate and in its Paints Division there was already a free-standing market research company, called Household Product Research Ltd.

As management trainees there, four new graduates were put through the mill with a steep learning curve, tackling the really big questions such as ‘How big is the paint market and what is the company’s market share?’  They could get very rough estimates from surveys, from which it became clear that the market was huge and their share very small.

The method of doing consumer surveys would cause some amusement nowadays, using the Electoral Register as the sampling frame and for the analysis ICI Paints had a computer, about the size of the average drawing room. It stood in a dust-free sealed space, fed data by means of punched cards.  The output was a volume of sheets of numbers, translated into tables. There were no calculators or desk-tops, but slide rules were good for working out percentages.  Report writing involved typing with mechanical typewriters, and a report could take many days to produce.

As time went by, they learned from their research what was wrong with the Dulux marketing.  Distribution was a clearly problem and a census of the retail trade revealed that their business model was idiotic.  It was based on giving a Dulux franchise to one retailer in each town or shopping centre.  The consumers just did not operate like that.

One of the young researchers then wrote to the Board, explaining that they were crippled by the franchise system, which had to be scrapped. And the product was not right: consumers wanted bright, clear colours, not the technically durable but rather muddy colours currently being offered.  Also, Dulux paint cans were very uninspiring at the point of sale.  Finally, there was a big image problem.  Although consumers respected ICI for its scientific prowess, they did not connect it with the human emotions of home-making.

He expected this bombshell would earn him a kicking from on high.  Not a bit of it — this was exactly what the Directors wanted to hear.  They were pleased that their adventure into market research had yielded such valuable insights.  The rest is history.  Bill Schlackman, the American psychologist recently arrived in London, was engaged to redesign their paint cans.  He was a refugee from the founding qualitative research guru Ernest Dichter, with an appealing common-sense approach.  His guiding principle was that the new design should be received by consumers as “an old friend in a new suit”.  So they ran a real-life consumer acceptance trial by shipping to the Isle of Man a load of merchandise in the “new suit” and putting it on sale.  It worked.

Having scrapped the franchise model, they wanted to pull the product through the shops with advertising. The ad agency reacted to the brief about humanising the brand and came up with a campaign featuring the Old English Sheep Dog.  This researched so well that when the agency proposed a different campaign the next year, it was rejected.  Meanwhile, Dulux’s market share rose from 3% to 33%, making a huge amount of money, propelling the Paints Division Chairman to the head of ICI.

So it is pleasing that sixty years later the Dulux dog is still charming home-makers, even though ICI has disappeared.

It just goes to show that even without all the modern, digitalised equipment of the 21stCentury, way back then market researchers could make a massive contribution to marketing policy.


This article is derived from a longer piece available in the AMSR Archive:

 

Contributed by Peter Bartram
Date posted: 23rd February 2024.

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