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Blog: How Should Marketing Research Resolve Its Identity Crisis? by Roger Green
Published 07/24/2015

In one of the most famous soliloquies in the history of the English language, Juliet Capulet asked, “What’s in a name?” She was lamenting that the boy she loved was heir to the House of Montague, enemies to the Capulets.

Over the last ten years, colleagues in marketing research have, like Ms. Capulet, lamented the name of our profession. We’ve seen the groups that execute marketing research in major biopharma companies shift their names to labels such as “Business Intelligence,” “Customer Insights,” “Business Insights and Analytics,” “Marketing Sciences,” “Disease Class Analytics”— very nearly anything except for… “Marketing Research.”

Also like Ms. Capulet, we have witnessed bloodshed. As yesterday’s “Research Business Daily Report” noted, disappointing corporate performance has led to extensive layoffs recently at Kraft Heinz, Hershey’s and General Mills. This is just one more example of Marketing Research departments sustaining deeper cuts and challenges than other key corporate functions.

Clearly, we are in the midst of a long, painful identity crisis. Why?

The root of this crisis lies in the perceived value of that thing called “marketing research,” as well as in the evolution of needs at the highest levels of biopharma companies. Value and actionability are paramount. “Research by the Pound” – fat slide decks crammed with page after page of numbers but devoid of insights or “So What” statements – are useless for executive decision making.

When we were exploring changing the name of this firm last year, we did what any good marketing researcher would do and called around to clients (marketing researchers) and their clients (marketers and senior decision makers). Our questions were basic:

  •  What do you buy from “market research” agencies?
  • What do you do with the end products of our studies?
  • What value do good agencies bring to you?

The answers were illuminating, to say the least. Three key themes emerged:

  •  Directors and Vice Presidents rarely buy “marketing research” any more. To a person, Vice Presidents and Directors told us that they buy what they can do with marketing research, not the research itself. As one Executive Director put it, “Marketing research is coal, commercial action is energy. No one buys coal.”
  • Increasingly, this work involves explaining (and even advocating for) external customers to internal stakeholders. One Vice President said, “my biggest challenge comes when someone knows ‘how payers work’ based on 10-year old experience.” A department head said, “I find myself having to teach researchers, brand teams and senior executives how [national healthcare systems] come together.”
  • The value comes not from the research itself, but from the ability to link it with other data elements (including other companies’ projects) to guide better commercial activities. A senior director stated, “My [internal] stakeholders want to know the right decision, the probability it will succeed, and ways to improve its chances for success.” One Vice President specifically said, “My senior management wants to use research as a disruptor for internal thinking.” Another said simply, “Tell me what to do and back it up.”

So…what’s in a name? Or more specifically, what is in this thing we’re trying to call anything but “marketing research”? Depending on the issue, the departments I interviewed seek to provide:

  •  Decision support – the traditional goal of data, analysis and critical thinking to provide management with the tools and insights necessary to drive better business decisions…only defined more clearly.
  • Commercial guidance – a more radical version of “decision support,” in which the goal is not merely to support decisions but to guide decision makers toward converting insight into action.
  • Stakeholder advocacy – as one client put it, “representing the outside in” by helping management appreciate the ways that each key stakeholder community might view their decisions.
  • Disruptive thinking – raising questions and providing analyses that dare an organization to change the way it approaches key market issues, usually by forcing executives to see decisions through stakeholders’ eyes.
  • Integrative data-based thinking – combining insights involving multiple stakeholders with an understanding of how markets work, and using this process to paint big pictures of pivotal strategic and mission-critical issues.

So why don’t departments name themselves after what they aspire to be? In reality, the goal of “Business Intelligence” is to provide commercial guidance, so why not say it? If customer-class marketing researchers defined themselves as “Customer Advocates,” would they get different reactions from their internal stakeholders? And while “integrative data-based thinking” is a mouthful, I am confident that someone with passion can find a pithier name that strikes at the heart of what s/he wants the department to accomplish.

I would like to end with this question:

If you could name your department after the mission you want it to pursue, what would you call it and how would you pursue it?

Please post your answer as a “reply” to this post. If we all aspire together, we might create a more effective vision for our function.

More to the point, go for your aspiration – whatever it is. The profession needs all of us to be a little braver.


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