Does market research need to ‘loosen up’?

In a recessionary environment where budgets are under pressure, market research needs to “loosen up”, show how it fuels creativity and adopt the language of the C-suite, or risk being devalued by business.

Market researchMarket research may have an image problem. From clients who misunderstand what research is for, to those who think they can do it better themselves, market researchers must contend with a host of challenges.

And like many other disciplines, market research is increasingly finding itself on a list of expendable items as companies seek to deal with a floundering economy.

But has the market research industry been the author of its own misfortune and does it need to improve how it is perceived?

Marketing and communications director at shopping venue Liverpool ONE, Donna Howitt, works with a number of trusted research partners, but receives many pitches from market research agencies that fail to impress. Basic factors such as a lack of sector knowledge can quickly become apparent.

“It’s one thing being able to project that you have the academic knowledge and the right approach to research,” she says. “It’s another pitching it in the right way. Agencies and partners need to demonstrate a real understanding of the client’s industry.”

Liverpool ONE has cut back on research during the coronavirus pandemic, partly for budgetary reasons and partly because during periods of lockdown some stores have been closed. The situation encouraged the marketing team to examine the data they gather closely and look more widely for knowledge.

In practice this means using social listening tools such as Talkwalker to monitor sentiments about Liverpool ONE and looking at other external data on a city-wide or regional level for a bigger picture. The changes illustrate how flexible market research agencies need to be if they are to meet rapidly changing requirements from their clients.

If market research doesn’t loosen up a bit, and open its mind about being supportive rather than just marking the work, it will suffer.

Dr Andy Burns, Brand Potential

“I chair the marketing steering group for Liverpool. One of the key areas of focus is how we can gather more data at a macro level to help inform the city’s destination marketing strategy,” says Howitt.

“This is a big piece of work with a combined authority across the wider Liverpool City region. It’s about not having research over there, in a silo. It’s about how research is integrated across the business, or the organisation, or the network.”

Research group CACI has a longstanding relationship with Liverpool ONE. According to CACI vice president Dan Parr, the boundaries of market research are changing based on how clients have traditionally used it, how they use it now and how they will use it in the future.

Client perceptions may be coloured by experiences of market research agencies, but also by where they are on that evolutionary process themselves.

“There are some clients out there who have a very staid view of what they should do and what market research can do,” he says. “But also some very positive uses of it and comprehensions of what it can tell us.”

Intelligence capital

Parr suggests that market research agencies now need to go far beyond telling clients what is happening, towards helping them question what will happen next.

Communicating those benefits to potential clients might be tough. “I think there is a huge job to do,” says Jane Frost CBE, CEO of trade body the Market Research Society (MRS).

After a client-side career that has taken in organisations as diverse as Unilever, the BBC, HM Revenue & Customs and The Fairtrade Foundation, Frost says the market research sector faces some hurdles it is repeatedly required to clear.

One is that practitioners of market research frequently miss out on the credit for their work. “Part of the problem is that if you’re in marketing or advertising, you can show something nice, shiny and sexy. Whereas if you’re in research – even if you have done something that’s absolutely amazing – frequently the client isn’t going to want to talk about it,” says Frost.

Missing the point: Why brands are failing to get the most from customer insight

Fear of giving away a commercial advantage, or simply having their thunder stolen by the agency that commissioned them, is a constant issue, says Frost. She adds that even marketing effectiveness awards will seldom credit the market research that may have been used to prove that effectiveness.

The MRS has produced a number of reports and case studies highlighting the work of its members and the value to clients of understanding “intelligence capital” – part of a push to put market research into a “C-suite-friendly” language.

“The C-suite knows about human capital, it knows obviously about financial capital, so selling them a competitive benefit which is intelligence capital is a good way forward,” says Frost. “We need to start to speak other peoples’ language.”

Just as marketers talk of brand, the market research community needs to encapsulate its worth in a way that clients understand and present its findings more effectively.

If you’re in marketing or advertising, you can show something nice, shiny and sexy. Whereas if you’re in research, frequently the client isn’t going to want to talk about it.

Jane Frost, Market Research Society

Head of marketing for general insurance at Aviva and a steering group member of the MRS, Rhea Fox, can see that standards, credibility and the ability to maintain client spend are variable across the market research industry.

While she is quick to credit the good work being conducted, Fox says there are players who need to learn lessons. One of things that sets the best agencies apart is a sense of storytelling. The presentation of findings needs to be “crisper, shorter, smarter”, argues Fox, who believes the age of the 90-minute debrief is over.

She agrees that understanding a client’s business, including commercial issues such as sources of revenue, is vital and urges market research agencies to look at client and market data, rather than presenting research results in silos.

That sentiment extends to a call for market research agencies to play nicely with others.

“If you are a market research agency and you are doing a lot of work on comms, you should have a casual relationship with the media agency and probably with the creative agency, so you can anticipate their needs and the kind of rounded partner that’s not just turning up to do the research,” says Fox.

Healing old wounds

Historical difficulties may explain why market research’s reputation within creative agencies is sometimes that of stuffy nerds who ruin their fun.

“Creative agencies don’t like market research because it judges their work,” says Fox. “There is also a mismatch, potentially, of working styles and it can be hard to bridge. But not impossible.”

Innovation and insight director at Brand Potential, Dr Andy Burns, agrees that market research has historically had an image problem.

The brand innovation consultancy incorporates research functions, but set itself up with a different structure to a conventional market research agency, including creatives and other disciplines. He says this aims to address the sometimes dysfunctional relationship between creatives and researchers.

“There is a sort of power dynamic there which isn’t particularly healthy. People feel like research is a hurdle they have to get their ideas through. Ultimately, it’s a trust issue,” says Burns.

It’s one thing being able to project that you have the academic knowledge. It’s another pitching it in the right way.

Donna Howitt, Livepool ONE

He suggests that a collaborative approach between the three parties of client, creative agency and insight agency will ensure more harmonious results. But Burns also feels the market research sector has made the mistake of commoditising its services.

“There’s a lot of standardised research and a lot of benchmarks that are needed. That’s very normal, but it doesn’t help the recognition and benefit of how insight can feed creativity,” he says.

For Burns, breaking out of this commoditised box is important for the future of the sector.

“I don’t think the market research industry is going to shrivel up and die, but I think that if it continues to be devalued it will continue to have these slightly unhealthy dynamics and relationships,” he states.

“If market research doesn’t loosen up a bit, and open its mind about being supportive rather than just marking the work, it will suffer.”

However, if it can communicate its value better market research could have a bright future. With the commercial world in a state of rapid change and consumer behaviour and demands changing by the hour, surely now is the time when brands really need to know their customers?

“Now is a really good opportunity and a good time for market research to reposition itself,” Howitt. “This is the time when there is such valuable new insight that can be learnt. And that can fundamentally change the direction of a business.”

If any sector has the expertise to work out how to do that, it must be market research.