Confessions Of A Market Researcher: Sometimes It’s Good ‘Being Switzerland’

Not that I’ve heard a plethora of jokes about marketing research, but perhaps the best one centers around a CEO ripping his hair out trying to figure out the answer to 1+1.  After being further frustrated by the esoteric answers of his CFO  and head of engineering, he calls in his insights chief to receive the answer: “What do you want it to be?”

Maybe the joke unfairly subscribes to the old adage that one can make numbers tell any story that you want them to. But I’d maintain that a more ethical and valuable approach when working alongside executives with strong and unwavering opinions, is to seek validation from a neutral third party who’s a surrogate for the voice of the customer.  That’s one reason why it’s always incumbent at the start of a research study to know its objectives.

Sometimes what’s necessary is merely providing a detached voice of reason.

I distinctly recall one of my first encounters with this phenomenon, early in my career.  A powerful non-staff  member “influencer” of a prominent sports property was pushing for a particularly expensive and high-profile project to be green-lit by the company.

My colleagues and I had run a number of pro-formas and demand analyses that made it crystal-clear this idea was dead on arrival. Our boss recognized that we were right, but said it was still necessary to engage an outside research firm to validate our conclusions.

At the time, I was furious. Why were we being forced to spend a chunk of our budget on such folly? Wasn’t our work sufficient? It took me a few more years in the business to understand why it wasn’t.

Now having been on the research provider side for twelve years, I’ve seen enough of these types of scenarios, where it’s clear that understanding the context and motivation behind a particular study is absolutely critical at the onset. Even in scenarios where the research is preceded by the strongest of gut-level convictions, there’s value in better informing that strategic direction and providing a level of objectivity and impartiality that checks the box for due diligence.

Another old research joke creates the metaphor that marketing research is like a lamp post:  It can be used for support or illumination. Actually, some of the most intriguing studies that I’ve been involved in contain elements of both.  After all, even the most rigorous marketing research is not beyond reproach. Done effectively, it adds clarity and context to complex marketing decisions.

The effective researcher is fearless in his or her willingness to step from behind the security blanket of numbers that inevitably contain some margin of error, and assert a point of view that helps to advance the marketing agenda.