(This is the second in a two-part blog-exchange on brand decision-making I’m doing with Denise Lee Yohn. I kicked things off last week with a post called Facts or Gut Instincts? What Makes for Better Marketing Decision-Making? Although Denise started her career as a market research analyst, she is currently an independent brand consultant and along her career journey she worked as an advertising agency account planner as well as a product manager. She draws on this wide range of experiences to weigh in with the following perspective.)
Akio Morita, co-founder of Sony, is often quoted as saying, “We don’t ask people what they want; they don’t know.” People usually interpret this to mean that Morita-san did not value consumer insights, and they use it as a reason for not doing research or ignoring its results.
But nothing could be further from the truth. Morita-san was a diligent student of consumers; he simply rejected traditional research methodologies, preferring to observe people and engage in informal discussions with them throughout the course of his day. He would translate the insights he gleaned into product ideas and strategies that created some of the greatest technological breakthroughs of our time including the Walkman and the VCR.
In the same way, marketers should have a natural curiosity about consumers and actively pursue consumer understanding – not data that assuages a risk-averse CEO, or results that document performance for the record, not even analyses that purportedly assesses the ROI of certain marketing programs. Instead marketers should seek out true insights that lead to proprietary perspectives on market opportunities and to new ideas that spark creativity and innovation.
The problem is, the role of data is misunderstood.
Many business leaders expect research to tell them what to do. They want to data that makes it explicitly clear which new product idea is the winner, exactly how much they should raise prices, or a precise ROI calculation on a marketing investment. Not only is this an unrealistic expectation, it’s also a lazy approach. Steve Jobs, another technology pioneer known to disdain market research, got it right when he said, “It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want.” It’s the marketer’s job to interpret consumer understanding into ideas of what consumers want.
People also expect research to predict the future. Although great strides in database capabilities have been made and significant advances in predictive technologies are underway, most organizations don’t currently have the data or the capabilities to generate truly predictive data. So they must rely on data that only tells them about the past. Marketers must then translate what happened in the past into future projections. Like it or not, this requires creative thinking, assumptions, and leaps of faith.
Data definitely can inform these efforts. Research, particularly anthropologically-based methods, helps marketers understand consumers’ lives and their needs and desires. And prototype testing shows whether and how innovations fit with the way people currently live, think, and act. This kind of understanding can lead to hypotheses about how people will react to new offerings.
Database analytics yield rich behavioral profiles and customer valuations. These should guide targeting strategies and marketing investments.
And, research if designed well can also indicate how to communicate with consumers effectively – which messages trigger interest, how resonance varies between groups, how people interpret different communications approaches. But importantly, data shouldn’t dictate creative strategy. By definition, creativity is original not derived.
In the end, the role of research is to inform. The role of a marketer is to develop ideas. That’s why business should be “data-informed, idea-led.”