The Case for Marketing Research

At the June 2018 Insight Innovation Exchange in Atlanta, Michael Cumberbatch from Google noted that his research showed that only about 40% of marketers use marketing research in their decision-making. While this statistic seems strange, further investigation confirms that it may be true: many marketers don’t use marketing research.

As marketing researchers, of course, our response to this is “Why Not?”

Everyone has heard the usual reasons for not conducting marketing research: “It’s too expensive” or “It takes too long.” (The industry over the past decade has introduced a myriad of new techniques and services that make research affordable and faster. So those excuses don’t hold water anymore.) You also run into those executives who believe they don’t need research because they know what their customers want better than the customers. And of course, there are also those who simply do not believe that marketing research can deliver the information they need for bleeding-edge innovation and breakthrough marketing campaigns.

Despite these excuses, the evidence against not using marketing research to inform decisions continues to mount in the form of marketing failures. In truth, marketing failures have always been a part of the scene. Here are some favorites:

  • The Edsel, introduced by Ford in 1957, did have a lot of marketing research conducted throughout the product development process. Unfortunately, the research results were interpreted incorrectly, and the result was one of the ugliest cars to ever roll off the Detroit assembly line.
  • Gerber Singles hit the grocery shelves in 1974 as Gerber’s attempt to enter the convenience food segment. They made baby food in flavors targeted to adults like Beef Burgundy. Simple focus groups could have quickly told them that the Gerber brand would not fly with adult consumers.
  • And of course, New Coke. Introduced in 1985 to huge consumer backlash, New Coke rapidly became the perennial nominee for worst new product introduction ever. Again, New Coke had received extensive marketing research, but again, the right questions were missed by the wrong methodology.

Now, with the ubiquity of the internet, marketing miss-steps quickly become viral sensations. Here are a few more examples – from the advertising side of the house:

  • Heineken recently introduced an advertisement that went viral for all the wrong reasons. In the 30-second spot, a light-skinned bartender slides a beer past a dark-skinned man at the bar, a black man playing guitar, and a black model before reaching the light-skinned woman at the end, using the slogan “sometimes lighter is better.”
  • A Pepsi ad in 2017 ended with Kendall Jenner handing a policeman a can of Pepsi, single-handedly defusing a potential race riot. Cue the social media backlash. Pepsi pulled the ad and issued this statement: “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace, and clearly, we missed the mark and apologize.”
  • This ad, part of a successful 13-year campaign for Dove Beauty Bars, showed an African American model removing her sweater to reveal a White woman underneath. In response to social media outcry, Dove removed the ad and issued this statement: “In an image we posted this week, we missed the mark in thoughtfully representing women of color, and we deeply regret the offense that it has caused.”

Examples like these leave marketing researchers scratching their heads and asking, “What were they thinking?” Why didn’t these esteemed marketers check in with consumers to find out how their work would be received? While the internet brouhahas were short-lived, why take that risk when a limited investment in marketing research could have avoided the situation entirely?

As it turns out – and probably excepting marketers in the small number of large, established CPG firms – most marketers (82%) have little or no formal training in marketing, according to a survey reported on by Martin Thoma. Further, up to 75% of tech marketers cannot demonstrate the value of marketing to their leadership (Marketing Sherpa). To complicate the situation further, companies have cut their marketing research capabilities as part of their continual cost-cutting in search of greater short-term profits.

This is a recipe for disasters like the marketing miss-steps noted above. But it also provides a great opportunity for marketing researchers. By educating marketers about the risk and rewards of marketing research, we can improve marketing, make marketers heroes who can demonstrate their value, and raise marketing research to the prominence it deserves.

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