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The Misleading Desire for Market Research Innovation

The Misleading Desire for Market Research Innovation

The other day this New York Times article popped onto my radar. While I wasn’t surprised by the content, it reminded me that today’s innovation obsession leads people to sell dramatic change regardless of whether it’s appropriate.

Take research. Is there any good reason to expect that there’s a “magic pill” that makes market research dramatically more effective? Research learns about a marketing fundamental that cannot be completely knowable: how to get people to buy products.

We would all be wise to reject any magic pill claims for research. There are a great many excellent research techniques – the key is applying them in ways that are effective and evolving them wisely as technology allows.

None-the-less the NYT article starts down the yellow brick road of research innovation.

Our article today starts with the researcher attempting to justify seeking innovation.

“We’re savvy, we’re jaded, we’re tired of advertising,” Ms. Sanna said.

Isn’t it odd that the agency and research people spit this phrase out with the most angst? (I once called this attitude on the part of agencies “self-loathing”. That finally got the attention of some of my colleagues.)

Certainly consumers aren’t always thrilled with advertising. But listen to them with an open mind and you’ll hear their primary frustration is that advertisers have stopped saying anything meaningful.

Even worse, the claimed research innovation has nothing to do with resolving any consumer frustration with advertising. So what is really going on here?

Is this drive for research innovation really just looking for the different answers – the ones we’d rather hear? A great deal of the market research used today should be criticized for applying a good technique in the wrong situation or for poor execution. But that doesn’t set up a need for research “innovation”.

Obviously, the desire to innovate is the desire to set your research firm apart and make loads of money. Innovation does that by feeding directly into a major problem for some agencies and clients: Their research reveals that products or ad campaigns have problems.

So the easiest way to sell innovation to agencies is to sell the hope that a more “innovative” method will return a better liked answer so they wouldn’t have to confront their own shortcomings.

Let’s consider the specifics in this article. This sounds like a fun thing to do – creating collage art. But to justify it as research based on it’s being more “spontaneous” than focus groups is absurd.

First, there is no reason why spontaneity should be an end in itself. And, a well run focus group has always been quite spontaneous.

Even more, I watch a lot of people as they approach art. Adults are generally incredibly self-critical and demand a perfectionism that provides a full stop on any theoretically “spontaneous” theories. Has this researcher really ever worked with real people around art?

Of course, the NYTimes wouldn’t write about something as powerful, but already understood, as focus groups. So this team uses innovation to get page space.

Is it a smart innovation to have people express feelings through art? No. Art is a very poor communication medium for most people. I’ve worked a lot with art and the subconcious process. Years of drawing classes. Years working with and around psychologists. Decades as a musician. Twenty years in advertising and 12 years teaching advertising. Married to an artist and good friends with many. In the process today (2019) of making a documentary about one internationally respected artist and his process.

Very few people express effectively what’s hidden for them through art. But that is a minority group – probably no more than 10% of the population. Most artists, though, when they do express things well couldn’t tell you what their expressing or why they are expressing it. Art theorists are the ones who take it upon themselves to tell us what the artist “must have” been thinking.

Apart from the thoroughly skilled at communicating through art, most people are easily influenced by comments from the researcher, other people around them, or, in the case of collage, the materials offered. If anything appears to come clear in their work, it’s an accident into which very little should be read. (There was a fad to do research under hypnosis – but this is a complete fail because, among other things, people are so suggestible under hypnosis. I think this research has the same problem.)

The Most Fundamental Weakness: You’ll never know how your moderator influenced a collage. The single biggest danger in research is that the researcher or client influence the answers. That’s more likely with art based research.

In the case described by the NYT there’s tremendous influence imposed by the Barbie – a symbolic element that carries a wide range of powerful meanings. The researcher might have thought Barbie was a brilliant stroke. I think it invalidates the entire process.

A Barbie is such a strong symbol that it will work subconsciously. For example, maybe they tell you an upside down Barbie represents life out of control. Unconciously, the participant may have placed Barbie to show resentment for the way the doll influences body image expectations. Or it might reflect self-criticisms, a bad marriage, or rejection of a role expected by society. Placing her upside down could have been an act of anger that wouldn’t ever be acknowledged to a stranger – a stranger like a researcher.

Collages probably tell us more about the researchers. What a beautiful Rorschach if we wanted to learn about everyone interpreting the research – the researcher, the client, the agency, and anyone else. A collage interpretation probably reflects the researcher’s own prejudices more than those of the research subject.

It’s sad they abandoned a reliable qualitative research mechanism like focus groups or individual interviews. But they have an answer for this. And it’s silly. Consider what the article impugns:

“Experts say…”. WRONG!!!!! The writer should have said “…people selling a new research idea told me…” Nothing wrong with it. But the author should remember that these people have an agenda that affects their income.

“Responses can be influenced by the marketers presence.” Of course they can. But only if you really screw it up. What had these researchers been doing – holding the groups inside client facilities?

“…One person may dominate a whole group”. Only with pathetically poor moderators – who have you guys been working with? It’s fundamental moderator training to ensure a balanced discussion. And it’s simply not that hard.

My favorite focus group critique (not used here) is: Focus groups are a problem because people influence each other. To which my reply is: Of course they do. That’s why we bring them together in a group.

Here’s why focus groups find important things: What one person says helps another dig deeper, then that one helps a third, then the third leads the first to consider something else, and finally a fourth reveals a deeply buried truth that’s very critical. And you can’t get to that truth WITHOUT them helping each other discover it.

“‘There’s no better way than nonverbal communication to understand how people feel,’ Ms. Freeman said.” My god. Didn’t she think about that comment before she said it?

Let me recommend my blog post (here) about the extreme danger of placing interpretations onto things you can only observe. We need to be constantly aware of how scientists reading the purely observational fossil record have been so wrong so many times. Which of your personal prejudices led to your personal interpretation of someone else’s “nonverbal communication”?

Research must deliver actionable truths – those that will accurately be used within your strategy to choose the best course of action or to reject a poor course of action. Does this new research advance us along that path in any significant way? No.

So the next time someone suggests we need “new types” of research, take a deep breath. Then send them to your competitor. It’ll serve the competitor right.

Copyright 2019 – Doug Garnett – All Rights Reserved

Originally published in 2011

Categories:   Big Data and Technology, Brand Advertising, Business and Strategy, Communication, Consumer Electronics, consumer marketing, Consumer research, Innovation, marketing, Marketing Research, Media, Research & Attribution, Retail marketing


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