Chris Dowsett is researching the value of research to business. It’s early days for the project, but already he sees an uphill battle for the industry to avoid becoming a commodity provider.
Escaping the commoditisation trap
Two years ago, Volkswagen’s insights manager Steve Gatt summed up market research as “inadequate, reactive and out of touch”. A year later former GSK marketing director Tim Brooks said too many agencies were “too downstream” of the issues that really affect clients and were too focused on tools and methodology to provide companies with the help needed to make big business decisions.
It shouldn’t be like this. Market research can be beneficial to business leaders in many ways, so why are we hearing that the industry is out of touch with their needs?
To be sure, market research is facing a number of internal and external pressures that threaten to devalue our work. Technology has become both an enabler and a competitive pressure, giving rise to DIY survey tools that create an expanded, informal market for survey services. Internally, agencies have more methodologies than ever before, many untested for scientific legitimacy, but now there are more research companies, each competing for their share of work.
“It may be that some aspects of the market research industry have already been commoditised, and regaining some of that lost value is going to be hard”
It’s not hard to see why our industry’s blogs and journals are filled with calls for change to prevent research from becoming a commodity. The Autumn 2010 wave of the Greenbook Research Industry Trends study found weakening confidence in the value of market research. In an April 2011 piece James Verrinder summed up the feeling among agencies that “clients don’t appreciate the value of their work, that they put speed of delivery ahead of quality and cannot tell the difference between top-drawer and mediocre market research”.
But the fear of becoming commoditised isn’t a new concern for market research. Pouring over journal articles, I’ve found references to commoditisation since the 1990s (Crane, 1996), including concerns about researchers becoming “order takers” serving up data requests to a demanding and undiscerning clientele like short-order cooks in a diner.
A way out
So how do we maintain the strategic value of market research and prevent commoditisation? Various suggestions have been put forward. One is for researchers to be more social and network more, to spread the word about the value of market research to businesses. Some have called for an end to PowerPoint presentations – which wouldn’t be a bad thing in and of itself. Others have told researchers that they need to take a page from the management consultants’ handbook and do more research into the strategic discussions taking place at board-level. And some veterans have acknowledged that the researcher’s value isn’t in advertising our ability to write good survey questions. Instead, it involves innovating beyond surveys to include more modern, more “attractive” research methods, such as online communities, gamification and more besides.
These seem like helpful suggestions, at least on the surface. Twelve months ago I started researching how business leaders perceive market research and what value they place on market research data. It’s the beginning of a massive project but, early on, it’s clear that there are no simple solutions to the problem of commoditisation.
It may be that some aspects of the market research industry have already been commoditised, and regaining some of that lost value is going to be hard. Fortunately, market research has always had the authority of reflective insight. It’s hard to argue with strong data points based on a robust research methodology. And that will always be valuable to business leaders whether supporting decisions, confirming past decisions or looking for additional unknown opportunities.
Over the coming months, I’ll be running a series of qualitative and quantitative research projects with directors and senior business leaders to examine what they think about market research. I’m deliberately focusing on business leaders who are in broad positions such as leading a product division, or writing strategy for branding initiatives. That way, I can uncover the views of people who might incorporate market research into their business activities. The goal is to understand what they value from the research community, what types of data help them and how they see market research developing to meet their needs.
I believe this will be the start of gaining additional direct insight into the issues impacting the value of market research, and shed light on the complexities driving commoditisation. My hope is that this insight will help us better leverage, as a community, the suggestions for improvement already mentioned as well as employ new ideas generated from the data. The ideal outcome is to avoid research becoming a commodity while also helping businesses to utilise market research in better ways.
Chris Dowsett is marketing intelligence and social platforms manager at Quantum. He’s studying a doctorate with USQ (Australia) that examines the value of research data to business leaders, how research is used in businesses and the value given to different types of data.
Crane, V., 1996, “Reengineering research: making it the best of times”, Quirks Marketing Research Review, webpage, accessed 3 December 2011, published March 1996,
Verrinder, J., 2011, “Crisis of Confidence”, Research-Live.com, published 21st of April 2011, accessed the 4 December 2011,
Verrinder, J., 2011, “Mutual understanding”, Research-Live.com, published 16 May 2011, accessed 9 March 2012,
Bain, R., 2010, “Time to put your foot down”, Research-Live.com, published August 2010, accessed 9 March 2012,