Russell Parsons: If marketers really want to understand customers, research cannot be seen as discretionary

Investment in market research is declining but cutting back on consumer insight will severely hinder marketers’ ability to be the voice of the customer.


That marketing is the ‘voice of the customer’ is such a well-worn aphorism it’s almost to the point of cliché. This, however, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be the ultimate objective for every marketer with ambition to be damn good at their job.

It’s not enough to say it, nor is it enough to want it. To be it you have to, you know, go and find out what the hell it is your customers think, feel and desire.

As good as some marketers are, they are not blessed with a divine instinct that will determine all decisions, they have to solicit the help of others or organise themselves to do some research.

Whether it’s focus groups, field trials, observation or interviews, the job of targeting, segmentation, differentiation and communication is a lot more problematic to the point of impossible if you don’t conduct market research.

All decent marketers should be concerned then that an increasing number of their fellow professionals seem to be subject to cuts in the area or worse still, proactively shaving spending themselves.


According to the latest Bellwether report into marketing budgets by the IPA and IHS Markit, of the marketers polled a greater proportion pulled funding from market research programmes in the third quarter than didn’t. In all other areas, either the net balance was zero or positive.

It could be perhaps talked away as a blip if it wasn’t for the fact a similar negative balance was registered in each quarter in the previous 12 months, again at a time when the quarterly report showed net balance increases for many of the things marketers choose to spend their money on.

Times are tough. Confidence is being sapped. Uncertainty over the UK’s trading agreements with the European Union and elsewhere means many companies are keener than ever to save money. The easy conclusion to make for every under pressure marketer and/or their boss is to save money on things that do not appear to deliver immediate returns.

The narrative from the authors of the Bellwether is that this short-termism means money is not being invested in brand building but instead in cost efficient digital channels that promise instant wins on a spreadsheet but no lasting impression.

The counter argument to this is that digital, data and the general passing of time has meant media budget can be spent more efficiently without corners being cut.

The same could be said of market research. There is a plethora of platforms that purport to do what the ‘traditional’ methods of research have historically done. And there’s always ways to do what you do for less money. Marketing Week published an article just last month detailing how different processes, approaches and tools can help you get more from less.

Progress can explain away some of what is been cut back on but not all. However, I’d wager for many research is being seen as discretionary. Why spend time and money really deciphering what your prospective customers are really thinking and feeling when that time and money is not as plentiful as it once was?

Marketers of this mind-set need to resist and rethink. Long-term erosion of one of the essential steps in setting marketing strategy – marrying the attitude and behaviour of customers with the products and services that you produce, price and bring to market – means you risk being left with a portfolio of pretty but pointless innovation, with products that pack an instant punch but quickly peter out.

There was so much soul searching in the wake of the Brexit referendum last year. Earnest editorials about how being cosseted in a metropolitan bubble meant those across the marketing ecosystem were out of touch with the majority of the public. Addressing this disconnect was essential to the future of marketing, it was said.

Market research is key to this and the future of marketing. Scrimping means marketing will be less the voice of the customer more the voice, face and whim of the people sitting next to you in the office.

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  • Simon Carter 23 Oct 2017 at 4:35 pm

    An interesting and somewhat alarming insight… but perhaps not that surprising.

    As a previous brand owner and strategic market research consultancy head, I understand the dilemma – CMOs and Product Managers completely “get” the need for customer research. The problem is that the wider C-suite rarely understand it – in part because in this era where we are measuring everything, there is no tangible output to a piece of market research.

    This is surprising, given that CFOs are all about risk mitigation… and CEOs want to better understand the competitive market in which they operate.

    I also think that in an age where the C-suite struggle to value Marketing, they value professional Market Research even less. In the words of a CEO I once worked for – “the role of Market Research is to teach you what I already know”…

  • jeremy tait 24 Oct 2017 at 10:56 am

    Research has to be insightful. Often missed steps include being clear on the objective, engaging stakeholders and ensuring that action is taken off the back of the work, it can’t stop with a debrief.

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