The origins of Market Research – where it all began

First, a very short history lesson; I’m a firm believer that in order for us to look forward we need to look backwards first, so we can learn from what’s happened previously.  

The origins of market research go back a long way.  Likely there are examples of extremely rudimentary qualitative immersions dating back to Stone Age times. “Do you really think that’s the right place to put that rock?” “How about we ask all the rest of the tribe and see what they think?” “Even better let’s go and have a look at what the other tribes are doing and see where they’re putting their big rocks!”   

Rocks aside, it’s generally accepted that the genesis of market research as we know it today was in the roaring 20s when a man named Daniel Starch decided that advertising really couldn’t be deemed effective unless people remembered seeing it and had taken action based on it. Let’s call this the ‘Year Dot’ for market research – its origins. In the ‘Year Dot’ it was really all about quantitative research. Following Starch’s early steps in market research, George Gallup got involved and he introduced the idea of aided recall.  This is all over 100 years ago.  

Market Research goes deeper into the Why people behaviour in the way they do

The next stage of research concerned understanding why people do what they do. This was the era of qualitative research and really came about when Ernest Dichter coined the phrase Motivational research.  This was in the 1950s and 1960s and by this stage we had well-rehearsed methodologies in terms of understanding how many people behave in a certain way and why they do so.

Where to next?

Post 1960s, consumer psychologists and sociologists took an interest in market research. People such as John Howard. They added their own theories to help us understand why people behave the way they do and how this could be of benefit commercially to large businesses. By this stage the milieu of market research was advanced with many behavioural psychologists, mathematicians, social psychologists and academics finding their own particular niche in this burgeoning industry.

This latter developmental stage of market research took us to roughly the start of the 1980s. As someone who remembers the 1980s, I can say with confidence that an awful lot has changed in the world, and despite some of the daily gripes you might hear and see most of it has been for the better.

Is Market Research changing and if so, how is Market Research changing?

Firstly, lets consider if  market research in 2024 is much different from market research in 1984? Not to be controversial, at least not for the sake of it, but I would argue that over the intervening 40 years, a lot of what marketers and market research professionals have contrived to do is to make the market research process more complicated, less transparent, and ultimately more frustrating for everyone. This includes the market research agencies, clients, advertising and PR agencies, and most importantly our market research participants.

In life as in business, we all come across various sayings and ideas that we hold true. The kiss principle is one such idea. KISS, means keep it simple stupid. You’ll hear this variously described as ‘keep it straightforward and simple’ but we’re all adults here so let’s use the original. Ironically perhaps, the acronym KISS was coined by an aeronautical engineer called Clarence Kelly Johnson at the same time as market research was finding its way in the world. He was head of the secret division at Lockheed Martin and as such his day job was to develop state-of-the-art jets for World War 2.  The reason he coined the phrase – keep it simple stupid was that he understood that at times his jets may need to be repaired by normal everyday mechanics on the battlefield. There was no point in creating something so technically advanced that no one knew how to fix, except a small group of highly trained engineers.

I think that many people in the market research industry have decided to usurp the KISS principle with a BTBS theory as espoused by WC Fields, a contemporary of Clarence Johnson. WC Fields said, “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullsh1t.” (The BTBS is nowhere near as catchy as the KISS principle, but you can see what I mean)

Of course, perhaps I’m being a little too harsh in order to make a point.  We have seen great advances in market research since the dawning of the Internet, particularly since the penetration of the Internet has become so ubiquitous.  It has helped us to elevate market research methods such as focus groups, in-depth interviews, online surveys, research online communities and consumer tracking to new levels. However, I would argue we are still market researchers asking questions, seeking answers, interpreting those answers and working with our clients to help them make better decisions.

What about our clients? Having had the good fortune to work client side before establishing a research agency and now working alongside many clients, I get to see behind the curtain and to understand the day-to-day of how a client engages with market research. It is abundantly clear to me thought the KISS principal has long been forgotten. In many organisations, every research project requires multiple sign offs, a new purchase order number, and multiple iterations of a brief. A brief can be an extremely valuable document; however, I believe that too much resource has been wasted over the last 20 years encouraging clients to perfect the brief. It’s vitally important that a client understands what they want to achieve from the market research project that they’re about to embark on; why can those objectives not be discussed together and ultimately written as part of a briefing process. I believe they can. And much more importantly, does every market research project need a brief? Not when a brand needs quick answers. Why? Let me explain.

Market Research in 2024 must operate at pace, to match the consumers’ world

When time is of the essence, as consumers make up their minds, change their minds, discover new brands and reject the status quo, market research must operate in this same ecosystem too. Market research and market researchers cannot be so arrogant as to believe that the world will stand still while they get all their ducks in a row. 

Brilliant brands in my opinion, must have two separate strategies.

The overarching brand strategy is clearly the driver of everything the brand does. Brand strategies aren’t written overnight. They require the best minds that the brand can afford, working on all the various aspects and touch points that may be combined in order to conjure up that brand and how it shows up in its consumers’ lives. Personally, I’m a fan of a brand strategy that can be written down on one page. However, that is just to help communicate the strategy easily. Every aspect of a brand strategy should be pored over, tested and made to earn its place in that strategy. And of course, brand strategies shouldn’t be static.  Whilst they should point the ship in the direction in which it needs to sail in order to achieve its objectives, it needs to be open enough for constant criticism more often positive, sometimes negative. It needs to be able to modify its course if necessary.

How does it know when this is necessary? This is where strategy two comes into play.  Very often referred to as the tactical plan.  To my mind this denigrates the day-to-day in favour of the long-term strategy which many people currently working on the team may not even be there to see come to fruition. The truth is what we do on a day-to-day basis determines our strategy. We’ve all seen the classic experiment where two trains start at exactly the same point on day one, then one of the trains varies its course by just a degree; three months later both trains find themselves in very different locations. The decisions we take every single day should support our overarching brand strategy, but these decisions don’t need to be taken with the same level of consideration and resource allocation as the overall strategy does.  It’s not a case of ‘baffle them with bullsh1t’ but a clear case of ‘keep it simple stupid’. 

Consumer and market segmentations, brand trackers all require quite a bit of machinery to be done right. The trap I believe we, as an industry, have fallen into, is believing that the day-to-day tactical research requires the same level of machinery. It doesn’t.  It’s about using the right tools for the right job and not overburdening already stretched insight and marketing managers with unnecessary tasks.  Tasks that are not revenue generating and are unlikely to drive more value.

The rapid advancements in artificial intelligence, the rise of synthetic data, the evolving nature of work, and the emergence of Gen Z and Gen Alpha, who perceive the world uniquely, signify a pivotal moment for market research. Historically, we’ve transitioned through various phases: the ‘Quantitative Era’ marked the beginning, followed by the ‘Qualitative Era’ focused on motivations to choose, and then the ‘Scientific Era’ with contributions from psychologists and data scientists. The past three decades could be characterised as the ‘Age of Complication.’ However, with the myriad of new tools and a shift in our perspective, we are now entering what can aptly be called ‘The Age of Simplicity.’

Whichever strategy you are currently focused on, your over-arching long term brand strategy or managing your day-to-day strategy. Spark and LifeStars have a solution for you. One that is right and all about you, your brand and your consumers. Get in touch.