Market Research in the Age of Uncertainty

Martin Oxley
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I recently spoke at the Insight Intelligence conference in London on market research in the age of uncertainty. The irony is, as I write this short article, we have just had a general election in the UK which returned a hung parliament – the electorate’s way of saying they are uncertain. A perfect illustration of the theme of the conference.

Here are some of the key considerations I shared, starting with a light-hearted quote borrowed from Woody Allen, that great American film maker and comedian. The more observant of you will note how I slightly adjusted his words and replaced ‘mankind’ with ‘market research’, but either would work I think.

“More than any other time in history, Mankind Market Research faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly”

This quote is both funny and apt as it describes some of the pessimism surrounding market research as we know it. We don’t know which way to turn. We are in a state of flux – sometimes with a silent “L” – and we sit in the shadow of the future.

Maybe I am a rational optimist, but I don’t think we have anything to really worry about. Understanding the human condition and what drives sentiment, attitude and behaviour is, if anything, a greater challenge today than it has ever been. We know more but understand less. Let’s face it: Brexit, Trump, North Korea, The Great British Bake Off and Kim Kardashian are not easy to understand.

Understanding change is critical in an uncertain world. Often, historical context, expressed in the following quotes that illustrate how we all think we live in similar times.

 

Heraclitus

Trotman

Mohammed

 

With the right historical context, nothing seems really new. Basically, we are trying to understand people and that is never easy. Blaise Pascal the 17C French philosopher makes this abundantly clear:

“What a Chimera is man! What a novelty, a monster, a chaos, a contradiction, a prodigy! Judge of all things, an imbecile worm; repository of truth, and sewer of error and doubt; the glory and scum of the universe.”

Some things don’t change, do they?

I think MRX is focusing too much in the wrong place. An obsession with behavioural economics and neuroscience is, I think, leading us in a rather blinkered direction. Looking inside our heads is not the only place to look and find insight.

I listened to a podcast with Daniel Glazer, the neuroscientist, who when asked what FMRI scans mean, said something like, “we have no idea”. “So, what do you do?” the interviewer asked. “We ask direct questions!” said Daniel. I thought this was fascinating especially as, no doubt, he used direct questions.

Dial forward to today, and the mantra of most companies today is, ‘we put the consumer first’. In fact, paralleling the growth of ecommerce, many consumer manufacturers are selling direct to the consumer. They are obsessed with consumer understanding.

So where should we look? Much of what humans think and decide happens between brains. It’s a collective phenomenon. It’s what the author, Matt Ridley, called a “declaration of interdependence”. I believe this is the place to look for real understanding of social animals like us.

Although Yogi Berra said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future”, I believe MRX has a very bright future as synthesiser and psychologist of what makes people tick. A bricolage for the future.

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