Finding A Balance Between Innovation And Pragmatism

In his March Media Post column, SLRG President Jon Last speaks to how research can spearhead innovation.

As marketing researchers, a good portion of our work involves being “informed pragmatists.” By definition, we are tasked with questioning things, being skeptics and trying to separate fact from conjecture.

Often, our work includes the testing of new concepts, developing and assessing the feasibility and demand for new products or services, gauging consumer price elasticity or measuring the potential resonance of brand messaging. When the overwhelming majority of new products fail, and we all grapple with the adage that half or more of all advertising is ineffective, the role of the researcher can often be at odds with the task of embracing innovation. It can fly in the face of the entrepreneurial spirit that is often the hallmark of breakthrough creative.

While I am a marketing researcher by trade, I also started my company and consider myself to be entrepreneurial, creative and one who relishes the promise of technology. A couple of years back, I was honored to be named one of the most innovative people in golf by an industry publication. So, I’ve often bristled with the above researcher’s reputation, and have sought to diffuse the negative stereotype by espousing the benefits of research as an engine for innovation, that effectively deployed, spawns ideation by offering a coveted window into the mindset and wants of customers.

But while I relish the opportunity to really look under the hood of a new concept, I also recognize the basic conflict between the traditional reputation of research and those who prefer to shoot first and aim later, or build it and assume that they will come. The question is where do marketers draw that line.

It’s a particularly relevant question for all of us as we continuously seek to bring to market cutting edge new applications of technology and fresh ways to engage fans and break through the clutter in developing activations for our sports marketing clients. Just last week, I participated in the North American Golf Innovation Symposium, and a pervasive take-away for me was that rigorous and sound data collection and analysis are becoming more embraced at the heart of developing innovative breakthroughs that can fuel expansion and maintain the vitality of a market.

A personal highlight of the event was the opportunity to meet and listen to Jerry Yang, a poster child for the go-go Silicon Valley technology boom of the turn of this century. Perhaps you have heard of a couple of businesses that he founded … Yahoo and Alibaba. Wearing my informed pragmatist hat, I braced myself for another assault on the golf industry as slow to change and mired in a bygone era.

Instead, I was pleasantly surprised by a perspective that seemed to subscribe to a healthy call for due diligence and thoughtful discourse that could and should be applied throughout sports marketing. In summarizing, the potential for the diffusion of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, robotics and the application of big data, Yang suggested that one needed to look to technology as enablers while questioning to what end. Such a perspective truly resonated with me as one who has seen all too many solutions looking for problems.

Yang went on to echo what much of our recent consumer and fan research has revealed regarding the use of technology by sports marketers; calling for its application in creating sharable accomplishments and experiences that are easily accessible and with low barriers to entry. Yet, he quickly provided a caveat that these applications would only succeed if they didn’t “cheapen the game,” i.e., they needed to simultaneously be respectful and mindful of the essence and core values that are inherently part of what we are marketing or activating around. He concluded that the “secret sauce” (my quote) was finding the right balance.

And therein lies what I see as marketing research’s rightful role as the facilitator, rather than the inhibitor of innovation in sports marketing. As I’ve often lamented in this space, too much sports research today is cookie cutter, poorly designed measurement that is descriptive rather than prescriptive.

Rather than simply asking people to directly evaluate something that they may or may not have asked for and often can’t assess in finite terms that we presume as marketers, let’s embrace the nuances that can often be found in well-designed, qualitative work. By being creative in the research design, you can often surface latent demand that goes beyond the initial premise. That’s the holy grail for those seeking to be innovators.