Market research has to earn its place at the table—here’s how to do it

by | Aug 23, 2021 | Marketing, Public Relations

Recently I received an email from the international market research organization, ESOMAR, hyping a webinar entitled, “Selling Research Results Internally: Thinking like a marketer instead of a researcher to drive insights into action.” My first thought was, “Wow, a blast from the past!” because it reminded me of something I wrote back in 2007.

And sure, “the past” is relative, but it was 14 years ago! The “blast from the past” phrase refers to something that returns after a period of obscurity or absence, and if one is absolutely honest, the gist of what I wrote back then apparently hasn’t really absented itself from today’s marketing arena. According to etymologists that phrase is normally applied to things that were previously thought of fondly and are making a welcome return, which. As it turns out, ironically isn’t the case now.

It’s pretty emblematic of what we believe research should do, more-particularly now, and I thought it was worth sharing this particular piece of “the past” with you as a learning experience. See what you think.


Quite recently a mailer from a major industry trade organization fluttered into our box, advertising a marketing research conference entitled “Earning a Place at the Table.” The blurb asks, chillingly, if market researchers have a place at the table where decisions are made, whether they’ve earned that place—and if they’d even know what to do if they had it. Wow.

Being notoriously thick-skinned, we overlooked the insult. But this is scary stuff, with an unmistakable whiff of inferiority complex. Why should the organizers ask professional market researchers such skittish questions? Whence this cringing, whining conference theme? Market research is at the very root of all intelligent, directed action—or so we believe. What sensible person or organization acts without understanding context, alternatives, and probable consequences? Only a dope or an egomaniac would dive into a business, social, or military program without due diligence—in other words, without good intelligence. In still other words, without proper marketing research.

So maybe the problem lies in what currently constitutes “proper marketing research”

At another organization’s most recent conference, The Advertising Research Foundation anointed the consumer the “new marketing compass,” assuring attendees that by acknowledging that, it would lead the way to profitability and, one assumes, a place at the table where the decision-making process takes place. The difficulty is, however, that proper research isn’t always the old model stuff, no matter how it gets dressed up for a new Millennium.

Run-of-the-mill mid-20th Century market research is a superb rear view mirror, but a crummy windshield. As a trend predictor, it often produces what we call “excellent answers to meaningless questions.” Using the old model, market research companies and departments tend to crank out wads of analysis that may be impressive; may be phrased brilliantly; may even be true—but which is valueless as a leading-indicator, which is what you need your “compass” to do—point you in the right direction.

Run-of-the-mill mid-20th Century market research is a superb rear view mirror, but a crummy windshield.

Frighteningly, there seems to be a robust market for lagging-indicators. Is it any wonder market researchers are increasingly banished from the table where the decisions are made? Relevant decisions in business revolve around knowing what customers want, so the businesses can create, develop, and maintain brand loyalty. OK, to a limited extent, traditional research can help brands know that.

But there’s much more to the story

The way the world works nowadays, present tense thinking is no longer enough. It’s essential to predict not only what customers want, but what they will want. Who wants you at the table telling folks what happened last time!?

Some marketers are blessed with a great “feel” for the market at any given time, but few can really see the future. And although forward-thinking researchers modestly disclaim their godhood, it’s true that some updated methodologies do a remarkably good job of measuring the direction and velocity of customer values – and identifying the values for which customers have the highest expectations. This makes it easier to leverage those values to the brand’s benefit.

The latest research techniques that are able to slip behind respondents’ unconscious defenses and other right-brained shenanigans can show where customers’ loyalty drivers lie, and which way lies not just present but also future happiness – for the brand as well as for the customer.

Up until 1989, making the customer happy was enough to differentiate a brand, maintain a loyal customer base, and taking measures of that was just fine.  After that “happiness” or “satisfaction” paled into “expectation.” And unless you can always meet or exceed expectations—and measure and report that status—you won’t keep your customers loyal, and you won’t be profitable, the ostensible outcome of the decision-making exercise.

The problem then becomes, what gives you the best chance of always meeting or exceeding customer expectations?

The best way is via research that constantly updates understanding of the direction and velocity of customer values. We deliberately repeat that exact phrase, because understanding the concept – and acting upon it – is what will bring research companies back to “the table.” Sadly, most businesses don’t, won’t, or can’t understand the concept. Most of them realize how little they understood only when their “compass readings” mislead them and the brand goes belly up.

If market research is not impacting corporate decision-making, there are surely reasons. And the blame isn’t always with the researchers. Where were the decision-makers when the research was ordered? Where were the marketing geniuses when the page was blank? For every marketing disaster, there are plenty of fingers to point, and more than enough pointees go around. New Coke and any of the recent Kmart or GAP advertising strategies did not happen in a vacuum.

So, what’s the solution?

How do we get market research back into the boardroom, back to the decision-making table? A good first step is for researchers to recognize – and admit aloud – the limitations of traditional research and the benefits of updated, predictive methodologies. Second, they need to acknowledge that most companies are awash with data but possess little meaningful intelligence, my version of “We-taught-them-how-to-count-now-we-have-to-teach-them-how-to-think!” This will require some guts and some new learning, but the investment in this kind of intellectual capital will reap rewards for everyone.

The next step is to discuss the new realities openly and candidly with our clients. Make them aware that databases are not intelligence; that even the prettiest PowerPoint presentation is useless if it offers no understanding of customers’ evolving values; that closed-circuit thinking is likely to result only in lots more numbers, but very little insight. If that’s all you bring to the boardroom, you don’t get invited to the table. And rightly so.

Ignorance, denial, sclerotic thinking by management—these are some reasons why market research is kept away from “the table.” But let’s be frank. Another reason is how few researchers show up at the table with anything truly useful. This can and must change, and the sooner the better. If not, we’re doomed to year after year of conferences like the one mentioned above.


I’d quote George Santayana about ignoring the past and repeating its mistakes, but the truth is, everyone makes mistakes. Mistakes are a part of marketing life, but they can be costly to your bottom line and dangerous to your brand. Today if you aren’t making any mistakes you probably aren’t innovating. But if you’re making the same mistake twice, well, you just aren’t learning.

This article originally appeared on TheCustomer.net; reprinted with permission.

Robert Passikoff
Robert Passikoff is founder and CEO of Brand Keys. He has received several awards for market research innovation including the prestigious Gold Ogilvy Award and is the author of 3 marketing and branding books including the best-seller, Predicting Market Success.  Robert is also a frequent contributor to TheCustomer.


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