What’s In a Name?

Posted on 15 April 2010

Does the term “market research” accurately capture what the industry is doing today?

Is the term advantageous for the industry?

I have written about this before as what I describe as the “linguistic” challenge to the industry.

This is why it was so good to read Andrew Jeavons’ piece in the February edition of Research World (page 11). Jeavons is NOT arguing that the market research industry is dead or dying, but he is arguing that the term feels a bit like antiquated terms such as “VHS”, “fountain pen”, etc. He argues that we think more about owning the term “customer” (the people we generally study) and focus less on the “market” or the process by which we gather the date. I think he is completely right.

Many in the industry have already shifted toward the term “insight”, “insights” or “customer insights”. As I’ve written previously, I’m not sure that’s the best language. I think we can do better, but I think the associations need to take a leadership role in rebranding “market research”, and I think a name change is in order. As a researcher working in Washington, we test new language constantly, and more often than not counsel significant changes in our clients’ lexicon. I’m certainly not alone in doing this. It’s time we take our own advice.

As I have noted before, I believe that the term “market research” has been incredibly detrimental to the industry, because it focuses on the data collection process and NOT the value of data-driven strategy. This is a significant error. The term “market research” has minimized the industry’s influence within the corporate decision making structure by reinforcing the idea that the industry is all about the process and data dumps and not about the strategy that flows from the data. In my view it has put the industry into a cul-de-sac. Moreover, focusing on the physical act of the “research”, but not the value that is delivered, puts the industry into a commoditized data collection box. When the industry’s core strength is data collection in a world where data has become plentiful, then we have positioned ourselves poorly.

This gets at a much wider point. When I started in “market research” and polling, data was scarce, difficult to obtain, and difficult to analyze in anything remotely approaching a fast manner. This is manifestly NOT the case today. In the past, when data was scarce, mastering the process of data collection and being the expert in data collection methods was a wonderful niche. But, data is now abundant. It is so abundant that most of our clients feel that they are awash in it. The Economist ran as its cover story recently the title “The data deluge.”

But, what should we call ourselves?

This is a difficult question.

The “market research” industry is at a significant crossroads. There are so many new entrants (listening experts, management consultants, etc.) that I’m not sure many of the new players would consider themselves to be involved in “market research.” This is a telling sign. If the future of the industry isn’t likely to think of itself as part of the industry, then we’re seeing a quantum shift. This is why I think we’re likely to see a larger number of people analyzing customer centric data in order to build strategies that advantage their firms or clients, but these people may not think of themselves as “market researchers.”

So, again, what do we call ourselves?

“Insight” or “insights” is workable, but omits what will be done with this insight, is silent on strategic implications and does not place the focus on the future. Perhaps we should modify “insight” by adding “strategic”.

“Fact-Based Consulting/Strategy” is better, but feels a bit cheeky, since it implies strongly that everyone else is just going on gut (which they are). Still, I view this as a strong option and it is the positioning GfK is going for.

“Data-Driven Strategy” is one of my favorites, and feels stronger and more active than “fact based consulting.”

Another option is “Strategic Foresight”. Of course, this technically means something historically different from market research. But, if I’m correct, what we call “market research” today will over time merge with what we think of today as “strategic foresight.”

Of course, any real rebranding effort would utilize research among our buyers in the c-suite.

But, I’m interested in your thoughts.

What should we call ourselves?

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