The Consumer: Don't Fear the Research

  • by November 22, 2005
Every year it's the same. I wait too long to get started on the holiday shopping, and then I go through the blank-sheet-of-paper hell of wondering what to buy for all of the people on my list. It lasts right up until the moment I stop for a second and think about what they love, what their passions are, and what makes them most happy. That always seems to do the trick. A little consumer understanding and the right gift ends up with the right person. Seems like a no-brainer, really. The better we understand a person, the more likely we are to please them.

Which makes it ironic that at the same time as we talk incessantly about the need to engage the consumer, we appear increasingly reluctant to use research to understand them.

Moaning about research is nothing new in our industry. And there are many good reasons for ignoring it. At the top of the "ignore this" list would be the kind of research that evaluates marketing programs in order to cover the asses of the people involved in creating them. David Ogilvy commented on this when he noted that people too often "use research in the same way a drunk uses a lamppost: for support rather than illumination."

Research as a crutch should be avoided. But good research can illuminate, too. It can provide clues and, dare I say it, insight into what drives people. It can interpret what they say in a way that provides context for what they do. That kind of interpretive, exploratory, illuminating research is worth paying attention to. Next on the "ignore this" list would be research so broad that it becomes useless. Research is like a kitchen knife: You are much more likely to injure yourself with a blunt instrument than a sharp one. Unfortunately, there are a lot of blunt instruments in the research drawer. Too much quantitative research is poorly thought out and imprecise. And too much qualitative research never gets deeper than superficial answers to obvious questions.

But there is research that can make sense of complicated things -- that can get below the superficial answers that people give when their motivations aren't interrogated.

And that kind of considered, thoughtful research is also worth paying attention to.

In addition to the methodological issues that separate good and useful research from that which is neither, there's a philosophical point that's often raised. This is that many really great brands -- the ones that are always used in case study presentations -- don't use research and rely more on intuition and inventiveness.

That's a pretty good point -- until you think about the kinds of brands that are referenced, and the kind of research they do and don't do.

Nike is often mentioned. So is Apple. But what separates them from the brands that make up the majority of the marketing universe is that they are run by passionate, messianic entrepreneurs who are the same sort of people as their customers are. If, like Phil Knight of Nike, you are a runner who trains with other runners and hangs around with runners on the weekend, then convening focus groups of runners to talk about your new shoes is going to prove redundant.

Equally, if you are a technologist with enough insight to invent things that people have never seen before, it's not going to help you to ask people what they look for in new technologies.

Most marketers aren't members of their target market, however. Very often they'll be significantly better educated and significantly better paid. And very often they'll live in big blue-state cities, while their consumers live in small red-state towns. For those marketers, good, thoughtful, well-structured research can provide insight and context they wouldn't be able to access in any other way. Intuition is great. Invention is great. But research can be great, too. And until the marketing world is exclusively populated with passionate entrepreneurs who identify absolutely with their customer, a little more consumer understanding would be a gift to us all.

Paul Parton is the brand-planning partner at The Brooklyn Brothers, a creative collective. (

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