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Harvard Business Review – What do Opinion Leaders Think of Market Research?

Do we need to worry about our reputation of the Market Research industry? I would give a resounding "Yes" as an answer. Two recent examples from the Harvard Business Review reinforced this belief.


By Edward Appleton

Do we need to worry about our reputation of the Market Research industry? I would give a resounding “Yes” as an answer. Two recent examples from the Harvard Business Review reinforced this belief.

Firstly: the “HBR Tip of the Day” (an App on my SmartPhone) for 27 Feb. 2012 shocked me – it was about “Put Yourself in the Customer’ Shoes”, and the first sentence read:

“If your company is looking to innovate, don’t waste time analyzing market research reports and delving into data. What customers say they will do is not necessarily what they end up doing. Instead, put yourself in the customers’ shoes” (my italics)

The main message of the piece –  to get senior executives out observing customers first hand – was fine.

It’s the first bit (quoted above) that I found worrying: suggesting that market research reports are

a) not worth reading and

b) pace Behavioral Economics not reliable in any case.

Secondly: an article from the March 2012 hard copy edition of the Harvard Business Review, entitled “The CEO as Mystery Shopper”

The article is by the CEO of Office Depot, and relates how, when he first became CEO, sales were going down but Customer Satisfaction values were excellent. To right things, he visited 70 stores personally in the US to get a close-up view.

His take on MR: the Customer Sat. survey method was great, but they were asking the wrong questions. MR had evaluated things that didn’t matter to customers at all. He quotes that the research had covered the issue of whether the customer felt the toilets were clean  – and pointed out that nobody cared about that issue.

We need to care about these kind of articles: opinion leaders read HBR.

Here’s my take:

1. MR needs to get into the front line, up close and personal, just like the CEO quoted. How many interviews have we client-side researchers conducted ourselves, how many Mystery Shopper interviews have we done? Credibility and reputation are soft but important factors.

2. We need to demonstrate the value of “reports” – re-cut the data, share it with customers and those in the front line. Link up with some impact-related goals.

3. We need to make sure that we’re not asking the wrong questions – so maybe time to review and adjust on some longer standing ongoing quant. surveys such as Brand Trackers and Customer Satisfaction. Time to do some qual. work exploring consumers’ issues and priorities.

4.  Industry Bodies need to represent us well, put across a good picture of who we are: engaged, contemporary, on top of modern technologies, attuned to what’s going on in society and at a market level. Engaging positively with influencers and opinion leaders.

5. MR suppliers need to explore how best to shape report-outs so they do NOT end up in a drawer, forgotten. That can be any number of things: reporting out collaboratively, exploring ways of enticing customers of dipping into the data after project complete, for example.

6. We all need to ask ourselves: just because we did it this way before, does that make it right? Change is happening fast, so simply using history as a justifier can be comforting but weak.

Finally, maybe we need some sort of rapid rebuttal unit. We need to actively manage media relations.

I’m conscious that many MR Suppliers may read the above and think – how can I impact on that? I’d say – next time you have a chance to informally chat with your Clients, ask them what they think, and what you might do to contribute.

In short: we need to at the very least to protect ourselves. I’ve taken up contact with the Editor of the HBR for starters.

Curious, as ever, as to others’ views.


Originally posted on Research & Reflect

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19 responses to “Harvard Business Review – What do Opinion Leaders Think of Market Research?

  1. Wow, always hard to see stories like this…and it stings a bit extra coming from such a well-respected source.

    1. There are, alas, a lot of bad cust sat studies out there. Lots of people do generic studies instead of starting with a phase of determining what drives satisfaction for that brand’s specific customer groups.
    2. I LOVE CEOs who get out there. But they don’t have time to do it a lot, or enough on a continuous basis. And of course, no company can rely on one or two people to be the sole source of customer insight. To me, and I am obviously biased, I think the real take away from this anecdote is that observational research is very important in some industries—including retail—and is worth real investment. But of course, non-MR readers will be all to happy too assume the take away is that formal MR is unnecessary.
    3. I’d love to see a PR campaign from one of the market research professional associations that promote the industry. Heck, I’d even volunteer to help drive the initiative (if you have seen my effort around “Think outside the Survey” or the MRX taglines effort here , you know I am serious).

    Does anyone have a contact at HBR? Can we submit a reply?

  2. Kathryn, thanks for your comments, which I agree with and would like to add to
    1. If MR goes on autopilot, then we easily lose touch with what’s going on up-close- and personal
    2. MR needs to ensure it is not disassociated from the topline sales curve.
    3. Would love to see a top PR firm give us an angle on a good briefing to sharpen up and raise our profile. It’s easy to get coverage if you have big-hitting figures as spokespeople, in which I include CEOs of large companies. What would be our equivalent, I wonder?
    I would have plenty of ideas….!

  3. I concur with Kathryn about the sting of the glove. I have long advocated that executives get out of their suits and suites and get into the trenches. An early gig of mine was with a public transit agency and to get the executives out of their business attire and onto the buses was a hard fought battle, but one that we must undertake if MR is to continue to play a significant role.

    Also, I believe we need to continue to partner with visual designers that can bring life to the data we work so hard to collect. There is a science to visual communication and it is one we should embrace.

    Greg Timpany

  4. Great, provocative article and I can only echo Kathryn’s “ouch”, but I do feel compelled to add one or two points:
    (1) cust Sat is only one small part of the research universe
    (2) questionnaires are neither designed, nor approved, unilaterally…if they are, then caveat emptor….but it generally requires both sides to agree the document, and that usually in response to a specific brief…constructive criticism is always welcome, but why the assumption that all blame lies only with one party?
    (3) achieving c-suite inclusion or participation in any research project can only ever be a positive aid to celebrating what research can and should do; and…
    (4) there are already many examples of national associations having successfully undertaken PR campaigns for our industry…happy to discuss further, if desired.
    From an ESOMAR perspective, we continually seek to “join the dots” of best practices around the globe, and we’d be delighted to discuss this further with HBR.
    Kindest regards,
    Finn Raben
    Director General

  5. I read this piece a bit differently. The HBR tip of the day stated that people will not necessarily do what they say they will do. This is absolutely accurate. Recent work in psychological science, neuroscience and cognitive science clearly demonstrate that most behavior is based on unconscious processes. Market research does usually rely too strongly on people’s stated intents, recollections, and emotional reactions. The HBR view is too strong, stated intents are not worthless but they are incomplete and only tell part of the story. Thus the point is well taken but stated too strongly. The solution they offer (and the second piece offers the same) is for CEOs to observe. This is a viable point of view as well. Who could argue with actual observation of behavior. Of course, CEOs have to time for this but that’s another story. What is really left out of both the HBR pieces and the author’s reaction is that there are methods for assessing unconscious reactions. These use reaction time methodology and/or out of awareness presentations. MR does not use these enough and clearly HBR is not very aware of them. This is an area where we should do more work and educate our customers that there is more out there than surveys and focus groups.

  6. I like the article and agree wholeheartedly with it. I’ve developed a customer-focused form of market research that doesn’t box the participants into a corner or commoditized them as you described, but is completely open-ended giving the customer an opportunity to talk about what’s important to them. After all, that’s why we bother asking them to begin with (at least theoretically). I then pose a problem that the client needs solved and get the participants in the room to solve it. That way the client is hearing how the customer wants to be told and sold. In one instance, the participants had never heard of my client’s name or services (and they were former competitors who searched their competition out constantly) This was a big issue that needed to be addressed by the client before going further. The results I get are amazing:: sometimes the client just wants to take the temperature of their market. Most often they want to initiate branding or rebranding, a product launch, website, or some kind of PR or marketing done with the results. This methodology has brought my clients higher ROI on their resulting marketing efforts because they have listened to their audience(s) and given them exactly what they asked for. One client had a 10 fold increase in business, another a 6 fold increase. The key, I find, is finding a client who is willing to listen and thus take risks as opposed to imposing their will onto a group (like traditional focus groups). That’s the the CEO’s who mystery shop their own stores and similar examples, are the clients who will really listen to what’s going on with their company or product and really do something about it to make it better.

    here’s some more information and case histories:

  7. Ed, this problem, probably more than any other, affects the job satisfaction and earnings of this community.

    But, taking our own strategic advice, PR rebuttals won’t change opinion leaders’ perceptions as much as individuals in this community actually acting differently.

    We at Whyze Group have made large investments since 2001 in methods for vastly enhancing the business value of MR. Our clients testify to the difference on Linkedin ( and on our website (

    We are growing by word-of mouth, helping a cadre of Fortune 500/Global 2000 clients who acknowledge their respective opportunities and trust us as supporting players in their careers.

  8. An important point got buried here.

    Executives crave insights into their customers. And they reasonably believe that whatever a customer says is a source of insight. They are especially wedded to first-hand contact with the customer. Say walking the floor of Office Depot. Remember that they spend their lives in Gucci shoes and secluded office parks.

    It is wrong to assume that they don’t like research or researchers. In truth they don’t care. They definitely DON’T want “inclusion or participation in any research project” – have you seen their calendars? It’s a miracle they have time to tie their shoes (hence the prevalence of Gucci’s – no laces).

    Some skills that are NOT true of the high impact researcher
    – They are buddies or up close and personal with key executives
    – They do not benefit from PR campaigns about the value of MR

    Some skills that do seem to make a real difference
    – Can translate the data into an image or anecdote with the same “customer” resonance as a walk through the Office Depot store. Kathryn and Greg attest to the value here.
    – Can associate findings with the revenue line as per Edward’s point. We are often not asked for this as part of the project brief. So a simple thing to say but a harder thing to deliver.
    – ?????

  9. I’d like to throw in some positive observations too. I’ve been doing research into how business leaders see value in market research and I do see some change in the way research companies are interacting and working with business leaders. Vital Findings is a good example – see their ‘about’ page.
    There are real examples of change in the research community that isn’t just lip-service to a growing and very complex issue (more complex than many market research commentators seem to appreciate). So there’s good news out there also.

  10. I think that most good researchers would agree that there is some truth in what the HBR article is saying. There can be many reasons why outdated questions still get asked on tracking questionnaires. For example, clients can be very reluctant to lose metrics they have tracked over a long time, some of which they may be bonused upon. However, these questions may now be irrelevant as the CEO from Office Depot found out. When the editors of HBR do receive information about good research that can help CEOs better understand their customers, they will publish and promote this.

    At MESH we benefitted from this when Professor Hugh Wilson and Dr Emma Macdonald from Cranfield School of Management wrote about our real-time Experience Tracking in a HBR blog last year.

    Our industry needs to keep publicising new approaches that demonstrate the value of great research then CEOs will change their perception.

  11. Having re-read the comments, I’m energised to attempt to take the discussion further. I’d like to interact on a couple of questions – a) who are the people key to changing the perception of our image as an industry? b) what would you suggest we could do to get them to sit up and think differently. Pls. reach out via LInked In or DM me at Twitter.

  12. Our industry IS changing and the value of market research along with it. With the practice of Consumer Anthropology as a framework for guiding strategic research, I apply the “context is everything” perspective every day.

    It is SO critical (per point #5 in the original post) to understand our client’s context first and foremost: what are their challenges from a knowledge gap perspective and category perspective, but ALSO, what are their operational challenges? What teams and functional areas need to operationalize research? What have been their challenges socializing insights and converting them into strategic activation? What kind of work do the “reports” need to do to drive efficient use of insights?
    and that’s just step 1!

    It is so critical that we always consider socio-cultural context as an input not just to help build the data bank, but to help shape the design of our research projects in an ever-changing consumer world. Our “data set” as researchers is only limited by our vision…the whole world is a data set and we just need to know how to harness it based on the project at hand and the consumer targets we are focusing on.

    It’s a challenge for sure, but as long as we are staying on our toes and keeping our radar open we will poise ourselves for success. And it’s SO important that more seasoned researchers make a point to stay involved in the day-to-day of research projects so we can always be mindful of change and apply it to our practice.

    The keywords in my “book” for sustainable market research industry growth are CONTEXT and EMPATHY.

    And you can read more at my wordpress blog:

  13. Edward – appreciate the read as well as the comments above.

    Bridging the gap between MR and marketing can be simpler and should be more engaging for both groups.

    Our company offers real-time, qual-quant online focus group studies (specializing in qualitative answers) with a geodispersed participant roster…it eliminates group think and individual domination/influence. The results are populated for all invested stakeholders to watch and digest, all in real-time. The MR study becomes an event for our clients, and typically the client site is full of key marketers who enthusiastically request on-the-fly additions to the discussion guides.

    Online focus groups, due to their demographic and question/media flexibility, and comparatively lower costs than face-to-face FGs are becoming more popular and are on the brink of becoming the qual MR norm.

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