Yesterday Beth Rounds at Cambiar shared an article from the Harvard Business School “Working Knowledge” website titled What Is Customer Opinion Good For?, written by James Heskett, a Baker Foundation Professor, Emeritus, at Harvard Business School. I won’t quote the whole article here like I did on yesterday’s post, (but I do encourage you to check it out, especially some of the comments made by other readers on the site), but it’s certainly worth looking at some key statements.
The gist of Professor Heskett’s question is does the research process as it’s usually applied in fact limit innovation and differentiation? He cites multiple examples from both leading companies like Apple and books such as Blue Ocean Strategy, including this quote from that seminal work:
“To set a company on a strong, profitable growth trajectory … it won’t work to benchmark competitors … Nor is conducting extensive customer research the path to blue oceans. Our research found that customers can scarcely imagine how to create uncontested market space. Their insight also tends toward the familiar ‘offer me more for less.’ And what customers typically want ‘more’ of are those product and service features that the industry currently offers.”
He goes on to quote one other source, and this serves as the culmination of his article:
That brings me to a new book, Different, by Youngme Moon, a member of the marketing faculty at the Harvard Business School. She reacts to the proliferation of products and advertising that are so much alike that they create a blur in consumers’ minds. Her call is for methods that will lead to counter-intuitive product development and marketing efforts—products, for example, that provide breakthroughs by offering less for much less or even more for much less, but products that meet needs that most of us can’t even imagine. She describes how, by testing various product attributes through marketing research and shoring up the weakest, all competitors’ products take on the same characteristics. As she puts it, “Meanwhile, the very instruments that these managers are relying on to establish and reinforce differentiation—competitive metrics, positioning maps, and customer surveys—have devolved into their obverse. They contribute to the herding behavior as opposed to protect against it [italics mine]. It’s as if the entire community has been betrayed by the tools of their trade.”
I have no particular brief for traditional marketing research. But is there a pattern here? Is it possible that “asking the customer” about anything of strategic importance is on the wane? If so, what are the implications for customers as well as those selling to them? What is customer opinion good for? What do you think?
So, is this how the MR function is increasingly being viewed by business leaders and influencers? I think the answer may be “yes”, at least for a growing and vocal minority of our client base. That’s not to say that MR has done something wrong; I think we do a great job of measuring what our clients ask us to measure and providing insight into behavioral drivers of consumers. We do a great job of being the voice of the consumer regarding their experiences and perceptions. But is that enough to really earn a seat at the board room table? In today’s complex globally competitive markets, innovation is the name of the game, and I think we as an industry (with some exceptions) have done a very poor job of staying abreast of this shift in focus and positioning ourselves as the logical channel for consumer’s to engage with brands in the process of generating insights, innovation and co-creation.
This issue of the degradation of the value of MR is not limited to the client-side however. The forthcoming GreenBook Research Industry Trends Q1 2010 Report explored this issue deeply, and an amazingly high percentage of respondents who have been in the industry for more than 10 years believe that the MR function has lost respect.
I think the prime driver for this issue has been our inability to really define the value proposition and ROI model for senior executives. Sure, most companies understand that there is value in listening to customers, ad testing, market sizing, product testing, etc… but many of the offerings of most MR companies do not materially aid clients in identifying new areas for growth, competitive advantage, strategic opportunities, or in uncovering “The Next Big Thing”. In other words, MR is great at looking at the past and understanding the present, but pretty poor at guiding clients into the future. And until we learn to reposition ourselves in order to meet that need, our cache of prestige is likely to continue to decrease as new companies enter the market from outside of the MR space that do a better job of helping clients chart a path for future growth.
Yesterday Annie Pettit wrote a wonderfully erudite and passionate post on her LoveStats blog about Why market researchers can never be marketers. While I understand her position and (mostly) agree with her, I have to wonder if this mentality is doing our industry a disservice in three ways:
- The lines between marketing and market research are increasingly being blurred by MROCs, SMR, loyalty incentive systems for respondents, and of course, client demand to engage directly with respondents, to become co-creators of ideas, content, and strategy. Do we limit our ability to respond to this need?
- This unwillingness to think about our professions in terms of marketing may be impacting our ability to effectively market ourselves.
- Limiting our creativity in defining new ways to still adhere to our core values and principles while meeting the business needs of our clients.
So, are we living in a self-imposed bubble that has limited our ability to truly see how our industry is perceived, what our clients need, and the path for transformation to grow as a profession? I am afraid the answer has been “yes”, but consider that bubble popped as of now. Now let’s get to work on maximizing the opportunities before us!