Is Market Research ‘Kind of Shit?’

​​I read a very interesting article this week by Adam Ferrier, which explored the potential pitfalls of making major changes to your brand based on what consumers tell you they want.

One reader’s comment in particular got me thinking, because it went to the heart of what I do as a qualitative researcher. The reader asked, “So you are saying, Adam, that the entire Market Research industry is, well, kind of shit?”

There were plenty of spirited reader responses defending research (rightly so), but that doesn’t mean the question should be dismissed entirely.

Because when you think about it, the answer is, “Yes – sometimes”.

Research can be ‘shit’ in two ways: it can be ‘bad’ (i.e. poor quality thinking leading to below par insights) or it can be ‘wrong’ – i.e. it uses the ‘wrong’ methodology.

​I think the latter is what Adam was talking about. The key was in the title of the article, ‘Why brands shouldn’t listen to consumers if they want to evolve’. ‘Listening’ to consumers suggests you will ask them questions. And asking questions can be problematic:

​a. it only taps into conscious, considered thought (and cannot reach the sub-conscious, which often drives behaviour), so asking people to reflect on what they want is superficial and potentially misleading

b. asking questions about behaviour (what did / would you / do you usually do) is even more problematic (relies on memory and speculation about the future)

c. and asking people to explain why they do/did/would do something is even worse (they really don’t know, but are happy to provide a post-rationalised explanation).

So does that mean that there’s no room for question and answer based techniques in research, and using them means the research is ‘shit’?

Of course not, these techniques have an important place in any researcher’s arsenal – still. It’s a matter of ‘horses for courses.’ If we want to understand how consumers are thinking / feeling about something (our brand, road safety, the PM) at a point in time, they’re ideal. If we want reactions to an idea (new product, advertising), equally so (if we focus on reactions not opinions).

But what it does mean is that we shouldn’t be relying on asking questions when we are interested in understanding behaviour. Instead, we need to immerse ourselves in the consumer’s world (observe, ‘eavesdrop’, explore experiences with them in situ). That’ll give us the answers we need.

To my mind, this has huge implications for qual researchers. It means we can no longer be just a skilled interviewer / moderator (for so long the ‘core’ skill of a qualie, and still important), we need to also be a ‘consumer anthropologist’ – adept at immersing ourselves in a consumer’s world, in being able to understand and formalise the patterns of behaviour our clients want to influence.

To produce qual research that is both ‘good’ and ‘right’ our skill set needs to be broader than ever.