What is very likely the performance lighting industry’s first market development research has just been completed at LDI in Orlando. With a successful first phase accomplished at PLASA2005 in London two months ago, this US-focused research sought to add further understanding and richness to the uncovered hidden dimensions of product design requirements, product performance characteristics, and customer satisfaction.

Wybron, inventor of the scrolling color changer and the industry’s first automated spotlight tracking system, sponsored this groundbreaking research.

“We desperately need a more comprehensive way of understanding our industry,” says Keny Whitright, founder and president of Wybron. “Technology is impacting our business in ways that were almost unthinkable a decade ago. To some, technology provides for easier ways of doing what we could only accomplish with long costly hours in the past. But today’s and tomorrow’s technologies are also providing opportunities to further enhance audience involvement, to absolutely ensure repeatable effects, and to provide new mechanisms for creative interplay. This research program is already providing Wybron with a focus on product development accomplishable in the short term as well as with an integrated vision of the longer-term industry requirements.”

Sitting over coffee a year ago, Whitright was lamenting the difficulty he faced trying to get accurate feedback on new product ideas from designers and other professionals within the performance lighting industry. At the other end of the table sat Dr. Stuart Agres, a recently “retired” marketing executive and market research guru.

Stuart’s answer was shocking to Whitright. The reason that you can’t get accurate feedback is simple: they don’t know the answers. People simply don’t know the weight that they give to elements of a complex decision. Worse, some of what they tell you is actually dead wrong.

But it was the next comment that really got to Whitright. It’s a research problem that has been solved, refined and solved again and again in the consumer products world. Breakfast cereals, candy bars, artificial sweeteners and even automotive design issues have all succumbed to research methods that ask people to do comfortable tasks, and then use high-order mathematics to get at the underlying issues that are always present. Years ago, when we first began contemplating and then doing this type of research it would take mainframe computers seemingly endless hours to calculate a simulation. Today, on a laptop, we can run almost endless simulations in an hour. The key is in getting the questions right, and asking those questions to people who really know, even if they don't know that they know.

Agres began his career in the nascent field of “Consumer Psychology.” The primary focus of activity was always to uncover the basis of consumer decision-making when consumers were unable to articulate them, and then to translate the findings into actionable ideas.

In the past decade of his 35-year career, Stuart led the development and commercialization of the first research activity that actually related people’s articulated perceptions of brands to the brands’ future financial success. The analytic methods developed are still in use and form the basis for the recent FORTUNE magazine article (10/31/05) entitled “Breakaway Brands” (authored by Al Ehrbar).

Margie White, 25-year market research veteran and president of Acromatics Market Research, was brought in to work with Agres, Whitright, and the rest of the Wybron development team. Agres first met Margie while working at Young & Rubicam, and they had collaborated on various market research projects over a 10-year period.

Because Whitright wanted to speak with the most knowledgeable and influential people in the lighting industry, it was decided that the research would best be conducted at trade shows with the highest concentration of these people – PLASA and LDI.

In order to delve beyond what people say and uncover the hidden basis for decision-making in the lighting industry, numerous sophisticated statistical and analytic techniques were required. Premier lighting designers were asked for points of view, helping to frame the discussion points that would later prove critical. The surveys consisted of one-on-one interviews, followed by an online survey taken on a computer. A California market research firm with on-line interviewing capability was called upon to execute some of the special questionnaire design issues specified by the team.

Finally, with hundreds of iPods ordered to be given as incentives for those respondents who qualified and participated in the research, invitations were sent out, appointments organized, and at an Acromatics booth, the research conducted.

First stop: London. The first day of PLASA provided a sharp learning curve for the team. The Acromatics booth was situated right next to the DJ Competition and the noise level made conversations, much less thinking, nearly impossible. Nevertheless, the participants were patient and took the survey seriously. At the close of the first day, the booth was torn down and rebuilt in a quiet corner on the upper level, much to the delight of everyone involved.

What struck the research team immediately was the enthusiasm of the respondents after completing the questionnaire, and it wasn’t because of the iPod. One comment that was heard repeatedly was that the research questions really made them think about things in a new way.

Because of the overwhelming response, Wybron is planning an ongoing research effort. It will likely involve online surveys posted on the Wybron website and a raffle for participants.

While findings from the US study just conducted will not be available for a while, some insights from the research conducted in Europe are available at this time. Unexpectedly, reports Whitright, tenure in our business is not a driving variable of how people come to appreciate and value our “tools of the trade.” There are two equally important sides to this finding. First, the result suggests that younger individuals pretty quickly come to understand the creative value of the tools available. Second, the finding suggests “old dogs can learn new tricks.” Neither the benefits nor the concerns of new lighting are dependent on something as simplistic as age alone.

On another front the European research tells us that lighting professionals have only partial understanding of their decision making when it comes to working with vendors and manufacturers. What people claim to value and what is actually driving choice are not necessarily the same. This tells us that there are unarticulated and hidden dimensions that lead to customer satisfaction and vendor selection.

The degree to which the just concluded USA study mirrors the findings obtained in the UK is critical. “Do we have essentially the same type of industry here as overseas?” asks Whitright. “Are the differences large?” Knowing the answers to these and other questions can have a significant impact on internal processes, in general, and how we go about achieving superior customer service.

The results from the LDI surveys are sure to produce a wide range of conclusions, questions, and opinions on the lighting industry. At the end of the day, the important issue is what will be done with the information. Stay tuned to find out.

Wybron would like to thank everyone that participated in this project, whether or not you were able to complete the entire survey. If you have an interest in contributing your opinions in the future, check the Wybron website at www.wybron.com in the near future for details of upcoming research opportunities.