The power of the small

March 8, 2021

The story of one SME business and how it supports the North East economy. Have you ever wondered what differentiates successful businesses to those that lose touch with their customers? The answer is insight. If you want to really understand your customers, you need to appreciate the value of insight.

Insight is the output of good quality data generated through market research and engagement.

By engaging with customers, businesses are informed, are on the front foot, and can make strategic decisions about their business to benefit their customers.

Explain Market Research has worked with some of the North East’s most successful businesses to support them to gain insight, allowing them to be on the pulse of the factors affecting their customers.

The skill of Explain is identifying the insight and working with clients to ensure it leads to a tangible action.

As an SME business, Explain, like most, has faced its own challenges over the last 12 months.

One of those challenges was adapting its solutions to continue to deliver what its clients needed. What it didn’t anticipate 12 months ago was that the demand for knowledge and insight from North East businesses would make the last year the third most successful year in the company’s close to 30-year trading history.

In this article, the business shares the solutions it delivers and why it is at the heart of the North East’s business community.

A recap – what is Explain and what is market research?

Explain is a full-service qualitative and quantitative market research agency, based in Newcastle, which delivers projects nationally. The company is owned, run and managed by a team of four directors. As an SME business, each and every member of the skilled team of 45 has a significant role to play.

At its heart, market research is all about gathering information using different methodologies that can be broken down into two categories.

Qualitative research is about investigating and understanding people’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours, and quantitative research is about analysing the numbers behind those thoughts and feelings.

Kim Davis, managing director, explains: “Market research has become increasingly valuable in recent years as a way of informing decision-making by providing a rigorous evidence base.

“The role of the researcher is to be given a set of objectives, to go out and find the information relating to those objectives and then to report back on the findings.

“Many of Explain’s clients work in regulated industries where independent market research is a critical business function that must be carried out regularly.

“In recent years, there has been a big push for these companies to engage with their consumers continually, with engagement being slightly different to research in the sense that it is a two-way conversation and does not always carry the rigorous control of research.”

It’s not as simple as just getting the insight, though. The skill of Explain is embedding that insight in the organisations they work with, ensuring it leads to an action.

The heart of the North East

The strength of commitment and sense of community from North East businesses is something we know sets us apart from other regions. Explain’s ethos is to work in collaboration across sectors and topics.

Explain has uncovered insight to support the success of our region, providing solutions to Northumbrian Water Group, Greggs, Northern PowerGrid, Sage, Newcastle Building Society, Northumbria NHS Foundation Trust and Newcastle University, to name a few.

In true North East style, it also supports some of our regions start-ups, backs local initiatives, such as Tynemouth outdoor pool, and has worked pro bono with St Oswald’s Hospice.

There is always a common thread – insight has supported these organisations to grow, to validate ideas, to connect with customers and to maintain a competitive advantage.

Rebecca Crinson, research director at Explain, says: “The projects we deliver have spanned every sector in the North East.

“We work with the private and public sector, charities and start-ups and have a specialism in delivering research to support regulatory business planning – be this in the utility sector, finance or social housing.

“The skill of our team is in challenging the objectives of our client to get under the skin of how insight can support their success.

“Particularly, over the last 12 months, we have seen the success of businesses largely being down to how they have engaged with customers.

“There has been a heightened need to know how their customer’s needs, behaviours and perceptions have changed.”

Explain’s cross sector work includes:

Private companies
Working within the private sector to engage with customers on new products and services to drive businesses success.

Regionally working with trusts to consult and shape the future of health services.

Pro bono research to support local charities. Start-ups Research and engagement to evidence business plans.

Energy networks
Engagement around reliability, Net Zero and moving to a decarbonised future.

Water networks
Creating active participation with communities to understand what is important from their water company.

Insight in action

From Net Zero to baby-led weaning, take-away drive throughs to ISA’s – no two projects are ever the same.

Businesses have their own objectives and ambitions – the expertise is in generating insight that gives them answers, leading to an action, allowing them to evolve.

Holly Shiel-Redfern, commercial director at Explain, says: “It’s not until we looked internally at our own business, and the changes we made to deliver for our clients over the last 12 months, that we fully appreciated the scale and variety of projects the team delivers, and how much of a role insight has played in shaping North East businesses and the wider economy.”

So, what does this mean in action?

A snapshot of recent projects include:

• Working with Northern PowerGrid to support their regulatory business planning, Explain ran online stakeholder events and explored the topic of Net Zero and a decarbonised future with a range of customers and stakeholders in the North East and Yorkshire – exploring how we, as a region, can achieve Net Zero.

• Northumbrian Water Group are one of Explain’s longest standing clients, having worked with them for more than 20 years on projects from customer satisfaction tracking to large-scale engagement programmes that support business planning. Recently, the team delivered water environments research, co-creating with communities to make the best use of water environments to create water quality, wildlife and accessibility benefits for the North East.

• Working with Greggs, Explain engaged with customers to test the idea of a drive-thru and if this was something that customers would value – leading to a successful launch.

• In the finance sector, working with Newcastle Building Society to engage with a range of customers on products and services, to really get under the skin and understand their customers in significant times of behaviour change.

• Working on a pro bono basis supporting St Oswald’s Hospice to engage with supporters of the hospice to understand their views and opinions on future events to support fundraising.

• Working with start-ups, Explain worked baby food manufacturer Babyled, which wanted to engage with new mums to explore their approach to weaning their baby and their decision-making process.

• In the health sector, the last 12 months have required innovation to engage with communities. Explain works with Northumbrian NHS Foundation Trust, using an online community to allow them to understand what is most important to their patients, particularly during the pandemic.

Why now?

Explain believes that regardless of sector, company size, or your business objectives, market research will enhance success.

Managing director Kim says: “It’s really about knowing your customers. The skill of our team of researchers is to get under the skin of a topic or objective and provide you with knowledge to make informed decisions.

“In some cases, that could be to change the direction of your business plan or model, it could be that we validate a strategic idea, or simply that we are asking your customers, stakeholders or employees what matters most to them. Independent research and meaningfully engaging opens up a dialogue, it raises the bar, it takes away bias and presents you with facts.

“In our experience in 2021/22, businesses will need to regroup, reset and engage with their audiences – that’s where we help.”

If you currently undertake research and engagement to support your business planning, then you will understand the benefits and the strategic advantage it allows you to gain.

Putting your customers, stakeholders or employees at the heart of your decision-making means you are informed, agile, and can make changes that have a positive impact on your business. If you do not currently invest in research and engagement, now is a good time to start.

Most businesses, as we emerge from COVID-19 in 2021, will have a new starting point, a new line in the sand and insight will give you a commercial edge and support your business to succeed.

What next for Explain?

Well, it has weathered the COVID-19 storm. Now moving forward, the future is about getting firmly back on the path towards growth in a way that allows the company to retain everything it’s about – trust, reliability and robust market research.

If you would like to understand how research and engagement can support your business or organisation, please contact Holly Shiel-Redfern at


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