How do we counter scepticism of market research?

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As a market researcher, it doesn’t take long to have a number of infamous quotes ringing in your ears, as another research sceptic takes a pot-shot at belittling your profession. Their ammunition is provided by many world-renowned business leaders famous for denouncing the industry’s relevance. It being Market Research Day over the weekend, I wanted to explore this scepticism, understand why it has developed, as well as what can be done to counter it.

To do so, I think it important to note the industry’s role in the formation of its non-believers. Far from an innocent bystander, often services are offered promising outcomes only comparable to that of a crystal ball, and all for the price of a snow globe. On the other side of the transaction, procurers armed with preconceived perspectives, allow loaded research to confirm their genius. The scene is set – an industry struggling to maintain balance leading to over-promising and underdelivering.

To explore and counter the scepticism, I thought it useful to scrutinise the referenced quotes that continue to haunt the profession. My hope, to set clear expectations of the vital role researchers can play in helping organisations to listen, understand and act in the best interest of those most important to them.

Let’s start with the most famous:

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”

There’s little doubt Henry Ford was right. However, the quote’s application to market research is misguided. Research should never be viewed a substitute for invention. If it could, researchers would all be distinguished innovators. Whilst I have the deepest respect for my fellow professionals, this would be quite a stretch.

This doesn’t mean our profession is redundant, however. Broadening the context of Ford’s accusation, we can consider the response of his potential customers when asked, ‘what factors are important in a mode of private transport’. Responses may have included speed, stamina, cleanliness. All elements valid in the development of the product today. Understanding the landscape of a customer’s desires, Ford is unlikely to have made a lesser vehicle.

Ford’s criticism is often compounded by Steve Job’s wisdom:

“People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research”

Once more, Jobs is not wrong, but, this does not make research irrelevant. Whilst it cannot take credit for the market disruption of the iPhone, it could inform which prototype presented the greatest chance of success.

Of course, understanding what people want is helpful, but understanding why they want it, unleashes a vastly more proactive application of research capability. This is where David Ogilvy’s reflection on the challenge faced in market research is poignant:

 “Consumers don’t think how they feel. They don’t say what they think, and they don’t do what they say”

Just as you shouldn’t ask customers directly ‘what do you want?’, asking ‘why do you want it?’ it is equally unhelpful. We all find it difficult to articulate the drivers of our compulsions, however, this doesn’t make understanding how customer’s feelings relate to their decisions impossible.

By setting participants different tasks, in different environments, with different goals, drivers and behaviours can be sought out. With the right investment, in a multi-method approach, alongside an open mind, researchers cannot only outline what customers want, but why they want it. Understanding this, organisations can use their innate knowledge and experience to conjure up the next marvelled invention. And, we find ourselves back at my rebuttal to Ford’s dismal. Market research won’t provide the invention, but it can set the scene, providing the right environment for it to come to fruition.

I finish with a quote from Dame Anita Roddick. Once more, you cannot discredit her view. For most organisations, she is absolutely correct.

“Running a company on market research is like driving while looking in the rear-view mirror”

My response - only if expectations are misaligned, reasonable investment is not committed, or your mind is already made up. A commitment to transparency, quality and open-mindedness are the key ingredients to unleashing the true power of market research. In a time where our industry is perhaps more relevant than ever, I ask every stakeholder, supplier or buyer, to take the opportunity to ensure the current climate does not fuel the next wave of scepticism, moving the profession forward with a newfound respect and admiration, rather than more eloquent but derogatory quotes.

What is your perspective on this?
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