Pollster grew by targeting the corporate market

Jean-Marc Léger built political pollster into Quebec's largest market research firm

During presentations to business audiences Jean-Marc Léger likes to drop tit-bits he's picked up from polls that his research firm has conducted during the past decade.

"We know that 20 per cent of Quebecers cheat on their spouses," Léger will say, pointing at five nervous audience members. "So that means there's a good chance that one of you has had an affair."

The stunt usually generates good laughs, but with it Léger makes an important point, which is that he knows a heck of a lot about Quebecers. As president of Léger Marketing, Léger organizes hundreds of polls and focus groups each year, to help his blue chip clients determine what products to market, change or discontinue.

The stakes are enormous. New product launches can cost millions of dollars, and simple things such as using the wrong packaging, color or advertising can severely hamper the chances of success.

As a result, market research has become a big industry. According to ESOMAR, a world association of research professionals, Canadian companies spend close to $600 million each year getting inside their clients' heads. And Léger Marketing has been getting a big chuck of that money. This year, the company's 80 full-time professionals and 270 call center employees will generate close to $20 million in revenues.

The grocery industry supplies a big chunk of Léger Marketing's client base. .

"We conduct regular consumer tracking," said Josée Bédard, director of corporate communications at Provigo Inc. "It helps us decide many things ranging from how to layout stores to what products to stock."

Léger got his start as a political pollster. His father, Marcel, was a Parti Québécois, cabinet minister. When he retired in 1986, the two co-founded the company's predecessor firm Léger Léger, which conducted the P.Q.'s internal polls.

With his inside knowledge of political trends, Jean-Marc Léger soon became one of the province's most recognizable talking heads, appearing as an analyst on countless public affairs programs.

"Our firm has a 92 per cent name recognition among the Quebec public," Léger said with a smile. "That's even higher than the Prime Minister."

But political polling pays poorly, and after his father's death, Jean-Marc realized that the big money was in business research. So in 1996, he changed the company's name to Léger Marketing, and began branching out by courting business clients.

"Companies need to track consumer perception on a regular basis," Léger said. "If they don't, they will quickly lose touch of emerging trends and ideas."

According to Léger, Quebec consumers are beset by a several of conflicting paradoxes and businesses are struggling to respond. For example Quebecers are entering a new, young, digital world, yet the population is aging. Quebecers live in a leisure society, yet consumers feel that they don't have time to do the things they want. They carry too much debt, yet continue to over-consume. And to top it all off, markets are increasingly globalizing, while consumers are hyper-segmenting themselves.

But keeping up with consumer trends is not easy. Not everyone will answer pollster's questions. Many who do, are deceptive. To top it all off some give pollsters different answers depending on how a question is phrased. And many subjects, particularly those dealing with personal finance are off limits.

"When we first started our business, to become known, we asked Quebecers a lot of questions about sex and we found that people were surprisingly open," Léger said. "But if you ask them about their net worth they clam up. So you have to phrase money questions delicately."

To get around phraseology challenges, Léger often conducts in-depth focus groups, in which hosts can ease into subjects want to know about by gradually building confidence with the participants. Although focus group sample sizes are smaller and cannot be used to extrapolate information acquired to the population as a whole, they typically provide invaluable qualitative information about consumer attitudes.

As for the future, Léger wants to continue the Leeger Marketing's steady growth. In recent years he's added offices in Toronto, New York and he's even dipping his toe in the Chinese market with a small office in Shanghai.

Eventually he wants to take Léger Marketing public, to finance further expansion in the U.S, possibly through acquisitions. But he denies that he is looking for an opportunity to cash in some chips.

"I love what I do and I am still young" Léger said. "If I sold my shares, how would I keep busy?"

Photo caption: According to Jean-Marc Léger, president of Léger Marketing, pollsters have to prod delicately to get the information they need. For example many Quebecers are more comfortable talking about their sex lives than their finances.



Sidebar: The evolution of market research

According to Léger, market research techniques and applications have become increasingly sophisticated during the past three decades, moving through four stages which he broadly defines as the what, why, how and what if phases.

During the 1970s, researchers focused on "What?" questions such as "What brand of beer are do you drink?" These helped track market share.

During the 1980s, additional "Why?" questions were added to surveys such as "Why do you drink Molson Export?" These helped implement new strategies, such as experimenting with packaging colors, or changing a product's name and taste.

The 1990s saw the increasing use of "How?" questions, such as "How did you start drinking Labatt 50?" These questions helped marketers determine how brand loyalty is created.

During recent years questions are now increasingly of the "What if? variety, such as "If we cut the price of beer by 10 per cent, how much more would you drink?" This enables companies to minimize the trial and error involved in evaluating potential initiatives.


Fact box:

Company Name: Léger Marketing
Founded: 1986
Products: Market research including polling and focus groups
Offices: Montreal, Toronto, New York, Shanghai
Number of employees: 80 full-time professionals and 270 call-center staff
Sales: Approximately $20 million





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