Don’t Discount “Market Research”

13 Sep 2013|martinrp

During a recent train ride home, I enjoyed an article outlining the organizational principles needed to instill a culture of innovation and creative thinking in large enterprises. In advocating for a “human centric” approach to innovation, Dr. Morgan Gerard eviscerates “market research” as a discipline. After calling it “inhumane” as a methodology.


 “Market research leads companies to talk about consumers (not people) or, worse yet, targets. It sequesters us in focus groups to ‘study’ us for actionable insights. It puts us into segments or describes us with personas, both of which reinforce the institutional illusion that there is a real understanding of our lives. And with all the rubbish agency talk of deep dives and 360 degree views, it makes companies feel like due research diligence has been followed. It hasn’t.” (read more here)


I’m afraid Dr. Gerard has it all wrong. But I couldn’t agree more.


Let’s start with where we agree.

Without an infusion of new thinking, techniques, and approaches, traditional market research does risk becoming obsolete. Too much of what passes for “market research” today is shallow. Research agencies make claims about the “validity” and “depth” of their research, but execute that research as if consumers’ relationships to brands hadn’t changed since the ‘50’s. In this sense, it does, indeed, lead to a false “understanding” of consumers’ lives. This is a disservice to both marketers and consumers and it should be addressed.

And, unfortunately, that’s where our agreement ends.

Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water just to be provocative. Blaming “market research” – or even focus groups specifically – for this state of affairs is like blaming the medical field for doctors’ malpractice. Let’s agree that standards for good research and good consumer connections need to be changed. Let’s think long and hard about how research can and should evolve in light of the changing interaction between brands and the public. Let’s talk about how the presence of a 70 year old market research industry has affected that public, who now are more savvy – and cynical – than ever about marketing, brands, and research. But let’s not go overboard.

We’ve been having these discussions at Added Value, and we’ve come to believe a few key things about research:

1. Fundamentally, it’s valuable. When we use the right approach for the right question, it’s worth the money! It may not always be sexy, and it may be a popular whipping boy for innovation consultants. But when we and our clients take the time to sit together and speak openly about the strategic context for a research initiative and how it supports broader goals, vision, and even a company’s emotional needs, then market research is valuable.

2. Moderators have to change. Traditional models of market research established a dynamic of a schoolmarm-ish moderator overseeing child-ish participants. But consumers are too savvy to be treated this way. We don’t believe that a moderator can be just an objective observer. We believe we have to engage consumers – have a real dialogue, push, pull, question, challenge, provoke. Moderators will really understand participants’ world when they roll up their sleeves and engage those participants as people rather than “subjects” of the early market research days.

3. It can’t be done well in isolation. Identifying rich insight requires us to draw from a variety of sources to understand what’s happening in the world. It’s irresponsible to simply take participants’ at their word, and we can’t simply relate what we hear in an ethnography or a focus group uncritically. Culture. Industry trends. Historical developments. Expert opinions. All of these are crucial, and we have to continue to abandon slavish adherence to what was “heard in field” to formulate “insight”. That’s old thinking, and it has to stop.

4. Research is foundational to good innovation. Maybe it’s the combination of the words “market” and “research” that has such negative connotations, but an understanding of consumers, context, and culture has been a well-established tenet of innovation exercises for years. Let’s call it something else if it helps, but we believe that trying to disentangle market research from the innovation is foolish and premature. We believe the two are valuably and healthily linked.


I agree with Dr. Gerard that traditional research – as developed in the 1950’s – should be critiqued and challenged. But I don’t know of any company that would agree that market research – properly defined and properly done – isn’t valuable. In fact, organizations like Levi’s®, P&G, and SAB Miller all have well-established processes of basing innovation – at least in part – on market research. David C. Robertson and Bill Breen’s recent exposition of LEGO’s market resurgence indicates just how important market research is to core innovation processes.

Market research doesn’t treat participants “inhumanely”. It doesn’t demoralize organizations, and it doesn’t give false securities. It’s at its most enlightening best when it’s undertaken for the right reasons, by the right moderators, in a broader cultural context. In that context, it provides exactly the insight successful enterprises need.


Written by: Tommy Stinson, Added Value Cheskin, San Francisco US

prev next