Welcome to the Cynical World of Market Research

Guest post by The Pied Typer.

Working in market research can be described as being many positive things; intriguing, interesting, insightful and last but not least; a job which pays (not to be scoffed at, the way things are).

However, it can also be frustratingly cynical and it is this aspect of the industry which I wanted to relate to you, readers of Left Outside. When I began my employment, I optimistically thought I would become a part of an important business process; finding out what consumers want, and how best to serve them (admittedly to increase sales and boost profits).

This sadly, is rarely how I spend my day. Instead I often find my clients are PR companies looking for a stat or two which they can throw at whoever they need to, to convince them that their client’s service or product is exactly what they want or need.

For the purposes of an example; imagine that a car manufacturer has designed an engine which is impressively economical in its petrol consumption but the rest of the car, is well, unimpressive.

That manufacturer may become the client of a PR company to help them sell it, who will commission market researchers to survey consumers and produce results which will enhance the marketing of the car.

The survey will not be genuinely concerned by the preferences of car consumers, but instead it will be concerned only by how their purchasing decisions are influenced by a car’s fuel economy, so that the PR company can say how “xx% of consumers want a car which is …..”

Specifically, how do I do this? And how do I get frustrated by the cynicism of it?

Let’s explore my hypothetical client of a car manufacturer a little closer.

The PR company may want to ask the question:

Which of these factors influence your car purchasing decisions? (Please select all answers which you feel apply to you)

  • Cost
  • Reliability
  • Speed
  • Appearance
  • Comfort
  • Size
  • Fuel economy

A cursory glance of this question may leave you thinking that there isn’t much to be cynical about. However, take a closer look at this question, try to answer it yourself and you’ll find that you would probably select every one of these answers (or at least I would).

Put it this way, I wouldn’t buy a car that:

  • I couldn’t afford,
  • I knew to break down often,
  • Couldn’t go above 30mph,
  • Looked like it had been made by a five year old with a new found love for pentagons
  • Had cactus leaves for seats
  • Was so small that only a contortionist could get into it
  • Could only travel 5 miles on a £50 tank of petrol

Ok, perhaps a slightly extreme look at that question, but I feel my point is made – ask that question and it is likely that almost everyone answering the survey would select fuel economy.

Instead, in an attempt to ask the questions we are supposed to, but do so with intentions bordering on honest well meaning research, I would like for people to only be allowed to pick three answers or even one answer and pick the one which is most influential.

But that would make less people pick the answer our client wants, and reduce that almighty percentage they want to shove down your throats in their marketing.

Who cares about good intentions, honesty or integrity? They’re paying us aren’t they.

After all, if surveys tell us 99% of Market Research companies do it, it must be okay! I think that’s enough of an introduction to the world of market research for now, more on the cynicism (and maybe occasional insight or intrigue) I encounter for another time.


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