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The Limiting Adjective of “Marketing” Research


All in all, it’s been a pretty challenging decade for marketers.  The role of the CMO is being diminished; traditional brand channels are being marginalized.  And the CEO has seemingly fallen in love overnight with social media alternatives.

And what’s bad for marketing should be bad for marketing research.  After all, we are merely a supporting act for the marketing department.

According to Wikipedia and the AMA, Marketing Research is defined as:

the function that links the consumer, customer, and public to the marketer through information — information used to identify and define marketing opportunities and problems; generate, refine, and evaluate marketing actions; monitor marketing performance; and improve understanding of marketing as a process.

Well if marketing is going to hell in a hand basket, where does that leave us?  And why would we want to play on like the band on the Titanic?

Even the AMA has dropped the word “Marketing” to promote their annual research conference.  After 30+ years the “Marketing Research Conference” is no more; the event is now being called the AMA Research and Strategy Summit.  When even the American Marketing Association is running away from the word “marketing” how many more hints does it take before we realize that the times are a changing?

Seemingly each day, the pool that represents this traditional understanding and definition of marketing research is shrinking.  And a new pool is forming, one that is not limited to this narrow definition of our services.  In fact, some of the most successful firms (e.g. affinnova) and bloggers (Tom Anderson) of the past five years fall outside of our narrow definition.  These are folks who don’t consider themselves traditional market researchers.

If we take the root desire of corporations to be wildly successful (Adam Smith and the invisible hand of greed still reigns supreme!), then an industry based on information collection and processes would have to be considered dull and insignificant.

Heck, who cares about the tools of data collection?  Data explosion has become the enemy.  The new sheriff in town needs to be a data curator, someone who can synthesize the myriad of data options and tell us what it all means and what we should do now.

Let’s use a qualitative laddering exercise and get to the heart of what our corporate clients truly yearn for.  Beyond making a sound decision, they wish to be seen as invaluable within their organization (i.e. recession proof) and someone deserving of high compensation.   The Strategic Insights team is all about catering to those higher level intrinsic needs.

Being at the forefront of the action and being able to strategically guide decision making, now that’s sexy!  Because if you can make me look good, my company will make tons of money and my core reasons for working (career satisfaction, providing for my family, early retirement) are being positively driven by the research team!

Now think of the buzz words sweeping through our industry!  And try to find the word “Marketing” or “Research” in any of them.   If you were playing Wheel of Fortune and you’re looking for a vowel and two consonants to crack our puzzle, go with the letter “I”, the letter “C” & finally, the letter “S”.

“I” Words

  • Innovation
  • Interactive
  • Insights
  • Integration
  • Ideation

“C” Words

  • Collaborate
  • Co-creation
  • Curators
  • Community
  • Crowdsource

“S” Words

  • Smart Phones (OK, this could go under “M” for mobile, but work with me on this one)
  • Social Media Analytics
  • Strategists
  • Solution Providers

Despite this apparent upheaval, the Linked-In groups and conferences that cover our industry are still trying to put a band-aid on the limitation of our core noun by simply adding more adjectives.

  • Next Generation MR (NGMR)
  • New MR
  • Tech Driven MR

Where do we go from here?  I fear we will simply up the hyperbole:

  • Next Millennium MR (NMMR)
  • Ultra Modern MR
  • Tech Defying MR

This is akin to jerry rigging a problem rather than addressing a solution.   The Venn Diagram that has contained MR for the past ½ century is no longer applicable.  The new understanding of our profession must include product/service ideation and the integration of multiple data sources to provide holistic recommendations.  And yes, it is recommendations we need to provide and not more data.  We have to think of ourselves as navigators and not map developers.  It’s not good enough to hand someone a map and essentially say “it’s all there, figure it out.”  Who has time for that?  How does that pay for my kids’ summer camp, let alone help my career advancement?

The best way to change our mindset is to attack the root, the very essence of who we are.  And that starts with our industry name.

While marketing research is and remains part of who we are, it no longer confines and defines us.  Rather, we need to stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us.  We need to reclaim our rightful role as conduit to the customer and the guardian of rigorous scientific principles.  But we also need to seize the moment and become strategists integral to our clients’ success.

The seat at the table awaits us and if we hesitate, other departments, divisions (e.g. CRM teams) will usurp our role by bringing social media insights under their control.   For our industry to succeed we must first evolve and that begins by stripping away any preset limitations.

The name Marketing Research (MR) and the image of market researchers as back office fact finders is limited and outdated.

If MR is outdated, how do we define our new larger reality?  The range of potential tools and applications under our new umbrella (everything from ideation development to social media monitoring to Crowdsourcing) becomes difficult to pin down.  Still, if you’re going to say something is broken, you should offer a solution.

I propose a two stage, democratic process.

I.       Let’s put the matter to a vote.  Have everyone who works in our industry weigh in on the subject:

“Does the name “Marketing Research” still represent our entire industry or has the time come for a more inclusive descriptor?

o Yes! “Marketing Research” is still a viable and effective term for our industry

o No! The time has come for a more inclusive and far reaching descriptor to reflect all the new listening tools & applications of our industry

Supporting arguments for each viewpoint can be provided, similar to the documentation one would see at the voting booth on a proposed amendment

II.        If, and only if a majority of researchers feel the time is right for change, then I suggest we issue an industry wide challenge to come up with a new descriptor that will hopefully, serve us for years to come.  I suggest we crowdsource this challenge so that any new descriptor would originate, evolve and be vetted by the entire research community.

As for the timing, I see this moving like a potential amendment.  It should take at least a year for the issue to reach critical mass. I know that seems like an eternity nowadays.  But we need to allow sufficient time for all researchers to weigh in on the subject and (if appropriate) reach agreement behind a new industry descriptor.

Shakespeare wrote “What’s in a name?” But I would argue that a name is more powerful and confining than one might think.  We need a new descriptor for our industry, one that respects our past, but speaks to our present and our future.

It’s time for a name change!


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12 responses to “The Limiting Adjective of “Marketing” Research

  1. Congratulations on a very thoughtful and balanced explication and suggested approach to an issue we all recognize but have been spinning in place for years looking for a viable response.

    Very impressive, and very welcome!

  2. It’s a good question an done we have all been discussing for years. I think the reason why we keep staying with “market research” and “marketing research” is that like many category names, it is impractical to change the name every time the wind shifts (even if the wind feels like a hurricane). Just like I find it silly when I hear a company say it is a “Social Media Makreting Agency”–in a year, the SM part will be patently redundant. I think our efforts would be better spent educating people about what market research is—which is a LOT more than surveys and focus groups.

  3. Hi Kathyrn,

    First of all, glad that you enjoyed the piece. You make a good point about the wind shifts that impact our industry and how impractical it would be to continually reinvent ourselves. Just look back at any fashion catalogue from the 70’s or 80’s and consider its relevance today.

    Still, my argument is based on the politics of inclusion. I am concerned when I keep reading about new ideation and social analytic firms that don’t consider their services to fall under the definition of marketing research.

    When P&G says they will largely stop doing surveys in 10 years and replace it with social media listening, will they consider these consumer insights to fall under the heading of marketing research? I’m not sure of the answer.

    If, as you suggest, that we need to start educating people about all the applications that marketing research is capable of addressing then we should change the current definition of MR, which is strictly limited to the support of the marketing function.
    Or, we could consider a name change.

    1. Actually Sean, Kevin Lonnie wrote this post, not me. His post was meant to ask whether MR is an accurate descriptor of an increasingly complex and fragmented evolving market that is far different than what it was just 5 to 10 years ago.

      That said, Kevin’s concerns are regarding MR’s positioning against new competitive forces such as business intelligence and social media metrics and in no way are meant to denigrate MR, and he brings up a lot of points that bear consideration. BI for instance is a $30B global industry backed by IBM,, Google, etc.. and is increasingly supplanting MR from a budget allocation standpoint because it is simply easier to prove ROI on those initiatives.

      The idea of repositioning our industry is a serious one that the global leaders like Nielsen, Ipsos, WPP Group, IRI, and others are embracing with fervor, Those firms may have research divisions, but their overall market positioning is aligned with business intelligence and most are hard at work on developing “big data” plays that MR is a part of, but not the driving force of.

      We asked Kevin’s question in the current iteration of the GreenBook Research industry Trends study and so far 42% have said yes, we need to develop a new term that is more reflective of what our business truly is today. While not a majority, it is a strong minority of industry professionals who see the writing on the wall and are thinking ahead of where we may be 2 to 5 years down the road. they should be applauded for courage and vision, not castigated for some misguided lack of loyalty.It will be curious to see hoe these results break down by segments and firmographics.

      Already Google and Facebook are making inroads into MR and are launching their own insights practices, and I guarantee you they are not positioning themselves as MR suppliers regardless of whether that is what they are actually offering.

      We need to honor our heritage but not be held back by it, and that applies to our own branding as much as it does to the tools that we employ to drive value for our clients.

      Thanks for a good debate Sean; we need more of this.

  4. Could you let me know about some methods/methodologies that can find out the mindset of the consumers in Quantitative research. Something that can give similar results to panel discussions in Qualitative Research. Any Focus studies available in Quantitative Research?

    Bomi Doctor.

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