Automotive industry veteran Bob Lutz and Nielsen CEO Dave Calhoun discussed how research can get top-level attention in business at the ARF Re:think conference.
Calhoun said research needed to define a bigger role for itself. “Research, for me, is a very narrow, very domain-specific word, that puts us in a place that is not going to get us CEO-level attention,” he said.
Lutz, who served as vice chairman at General Motors and also spent time in the senior management of Ford, BMW and Chrysler, said company bosses tend not to be interested in research results because they’re used to dealing with things that are more easily quantified. He said: “They rely on numbers that are supplied to them and are not terribly interested in shifting trends in the marketplace – attitude trends, desire changes… because all these things are unquantifiable or seemingly unquantifiable, and not in the hard measurable world. They don’t have an appetite for it because it doesn’t fit their quantitatively-defined paradigm.”
Having said that, automotive company bosses tended to be “vitally interested” in research about new products and ads, because so much depended on the decisions they took. Former Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca would “personally reviewed the pretesting” for new ad campaigns, said Lutz.
But that doesn’t always mean the research was well used. Lutz said he had seen numerous car ads “put through the research blanderizer”. “This is the problem with a lot of business decision-making,” he said, “and I don’t know whether it’s because of the American legal environment – always afraid of getting sued – but we tend to err on the side of caution, and take all of the appeal and all of the edginess out of something in order to be safe, and then you have a product that interests nobody.”
Calhoun said the question that CEOs need research to address is: “How do I think about the front-end of my company differently, and is there a way to reorganise it, rethink it so that information plays a bigger role? Companies are taking stabs at it, but I think it can be informed and led, and the challenge for us is to do just that.”