In fields as diverse as medicine, physics, and archaeology, researchers are gods. From their tireless curiosity and investigation stem breakthrough cures and innovations, and answers to ‘big’ questions like where we come from and the possibilities of where we can go.
Yet in the context of brands and marketing, this idolatry is decaying. Market researchers are increasingly viewed as backwards-looking, closed-minded number crunchers. The heroes of business are those who dismiss data and the consumer, and instead rely on their instincts to create the future. Market research is, in short, the antithesis of innovation.
But it need not be so. Even as budgets are shrinking, market research remains a multi-billion industry, and corporations big and small continue to rely on data-driven insights to control risk and make decisions. What is required, then, is a fundamental shift in how we define and execute market research.
Steve Jobs is the poster child of research-less progress. What many don’t realize, however, is that for all of his talk about ‘skating to where the puck is going’ and ‘consumers not knowing what they want’, Jobs was a researcher – an excellent one, in fact. But like everything he created, his research was baffling in its simplicity. The Apple iPod, for example, was a product of research, rooted in two observations Jobs made about the world around him:
- Everybody on this planet expresses themselves through music
- None of the available portable music players are good enough
That’s it. No million-dollar, 500-page data dumps. No concept testing. No consumer permission metrics. Just a spirit of inquiry and empathy that compelled Jobs to perpetually ask: “How can I make people’s lives better?”
Market researchers must embody this same spirit and constantly strive for a deep understanding of people’s lives, pain points, and unmet needs. Like Jobs, they must also understand when it’s time to step back, stop asking consumers questions, and let engineers, designers, and marketers take hold of the insights and innovate in a constraint-free environment. Clients, meanwhile, must un-train themselves from the ‘more is better’ mindset and instead value research based on the extent to which it acts as a focused yet unrestrictive stimulus for the strategists, creatives, and creators who are responsible for bringing it to life.
Market research must also evolve by going beyond brands and product categories to glean insights from culture and society at large. So often are researchers caught up in the category context and competitive landscape that they forget about the fundamental human needs, fears, and values that brands are uniquely positioned to address. Iconic brands like Coca-Cola and Harley Davidson have long understood this, creating brand platforms around concepts like unity, optimism, and rebellion that stemmed from a keen understanding of the cultural tensions that defined a particular generation. Most recently, Old Spice has shown us how unearthing a cultural reality – the fear of emasculation during a time of high unemployment and economic uncertainty – can revitalize a brand that is falling into irrelevance.
Finally, market research must learn to occasionally abandon the ‘market’ in its name and look within organizations to uncover insights. From a company’s founding principles and beliefs to the values and motivations of its current employees, internal insights can serve as powerful reminders of a brand’s reason for being and spark new ways of thinking about the true value it adds to the world.
When IBM had lost its way near the turn of the century, it was this kind of internal exploration that helped the company completely redefine its business. Researching its heritage and codifying its employees’ values and beliefs led to the realization that no matter what IBM was producing over the course of its 100-year history, there was a common thread that ran through its DNA: the hunger to build a smarter planet. Today, IBM’s ‘product’ is virtually uncategorizable, and it is among the most valuable brands and businesses in the world.
There is no better time for the market research community to begin this journey of redefinition and revitalization. The young talent that once flocked to Wall Street still yearn for the fast-paced thrill of the business world but demand higher meaning in their work. By imbuing itself with human empathy, cultural and societal awareness, and organizational introspection, the industry will have no problem attracting this new generation of whole-brained thinkers.
But first, it must conduct some research of its own and acknowledge the one insight that underlies any meaningful innovation: the current state of affairs just isn’t going to cut it.
Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider By: Eric Tsytsylin, Senior Consultant, Millward Brown Optimor
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