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Getting a Front Row Seat to Customers’ Thought Processes

When Strategic Vision Inc. speaks, clients listen, and listen closely.

The Tierrasanta-based consumer research firm has been advising its clients in a wide-range of industries since 1973 when five partners got together to launch their effort.

Alexander Edwards, the son of one founder, serves as president of the privately held company and runs the automotive division.

“We’re a very San Diego-based company,” said Edwards, and “But we’re a very low profile company. That’s why a lot of people haven’t heard from us.”

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The firm currently employs 25 workers.

Edwards was quoted in a recent Bloomberg Businessweek story that noted that as many as 2 million car sales a year are being lost because the members of the so-called Millennial Generation eschew the purchase of new wheels in favor of smartphones and other connected devices.

“A car is a symbol of freedom,” Edwards said in the story. “But unlike previous years, there are many different ways that a Gen Y person can capture that freedom.”

Besides, many of that generation don’t have well-paying jobs so they find car prices too high.

Edwards’ observations come out of the firm’s annual New Vehicle Experience Study that tracks the opinions of 350,000 new car buyers.

‘Looking Under the Hood’

It is one of the largest surveys in the automotive industry to delve into the psyches of new owners, especially what goes on behind the decision-making process.

He said the research includes tens of thousands of Millennials in the study, from which they were able to compare and contrast responses against previous studies going back 20 years.

“We’ve been able to follow the trends,” he said. In the 60s, he said the auto “was the classic icon of freedom.”

In 2012, the idealism is still true, he said. “However, there are a lot more options out there,” he said.

Edwards said computing devices enable the younger generation to connect with peers online, which substitute for the things like cars.

Part of their thinking is attributed to the high cost of buying and operating a car, plus uncertainties about today’s economy.

“The car is no longer the only channel in which to experience freedom,” said Edwards.

Such deductions about the thinking of consumers are integral to Strategic Vision’s data-crunching process.

“Our clients want to understand how and why a decision is made,” Edwards said.

He said the firm uses a system called “valued centered psychology,” which looks at the structure of how decisions are made as well as the decisions themselves.

“It’s the same process whether a person decides to ride a roller coaster or purchase a new vehicle,” said Edwards.

Once Strategic Vision understands how a decision is made, the information can be used to influence future consumer activity in favor of the client.

He said the company’s research helps clients then “talk to customers in a way that matches their values.”

For example, a dozen years ago, the firm worked with then struggling Korean carmaker Hyundai, which wanted to better compete with the likes of Honda, Nissan and Toyota in the U.S. market.

Hyundai’s renaissance as a desirable car brand came from the research provided by Strategic Vision.

“It started from us,” said Edwards. “We encouraged Hyundai to focus on quality, as well as price and warranty, which then helped them sell more cars in the U.S.”

Besides Hyundai, many clients are Fortune 1000 enterprises, and range from the Coca Cola Co. to Procter & Gamble to Taco Bell. There are other big names on the site including Cadillac and other automakers both foreign and domestic.

“There is no category that we haven’t worked in,” he said. The products can span from candy bars to paper plates. “We’ve done it all.”

Most of the firm’s business is by referral and reputation, and Edwards said he doesn’t market its services.

Electoral Knowledge

The political realm is another important source of work, and Strategic Vision has a base of politicians and issues in the national agenda.

Edwards said recent surveys have found the electorate deeply divided, and in a negative mood.

For example, survey participants don’t like either of the presidential candidates.

With one exception: Edwards said that libertarian-oriented GOP candidate Ron Paul enjoys particular support among Millennials because they think that he really believes in his positions on the issues.

He said that one reason for that attitude might be the use of focus groups, which abound in the realm of politics.

Strategic Vision doesn’t use them much.

The firm prefers to do very in-depth surveys one on one, where it can delve deeply into the subject matter.

Whether researching cars or candidates, however, Edwards said his work boils down to helping their clients understand how their customers make decisions and the impact on their choices.

Next up, Edwards said his goal as president is to grow the company’s sales and profits, and for the first time, will do some advertising to help broaden the client base.

“I am looking forward to it,” he said.

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