Market Research Society Conference speech, 2005

  • Date: 2005
  • Commissioned by: Market Research Society

Jeremy was president of the MRS in 2005 and set out his stall in a keynote speech. Why, he wondered, was he slightly in awe of research and researchers? What was the fundamental value of research? And to what extent, if at all, should researchers feel responsible not just for the reliability of their data but also for its interpretation and implementation?

Good morning.

For a speaker, of course, there’s nothing more flattering than a return invitation – to be invited to speak to an important conference for a second time; so I am indeed, extremely flattered to be with you today.

What you may not know (and I’m quite sure Andy doesn’t) is that the first and only other time I was invited to address this conference was in 1965.  Well, once every forty years seems quite often enough to me – and indeed, to you, I imagine.  And I do realise that its not in the nature of the Market Research Society to rush into things.

So I’ve had a long – and somewhat irregular – relationship with the MRS; although the one thing I hadn’t realised about them was that they had a sense of humour.  That changed about a year ago when this Society invited me to be its President; and obvious prank, I thought.  Until I realised to my astonishment that it wasn’t a prank at all.  And it become even less of a prank when they invited me to give this keynote address.  So I’m still not sure if they have a sense of humour.  And when I say ‘they’, I now, of course, mean, ‘we’.

I’m sorry to have to tell you that this won't actually be a keynote address.  Please picture me as an extremely interested outsider – and mostly an extremely respectful one: - sitting in my dinghy, rowing slowly around research, eyeing it up, speculating about its purpose and its value, and with a mind wholly uncontaminated by knowledge.  Nothing as grand as a voyage around research; more a gentle paddle.

I started this paddle with three apparently disconnected questions in my head.

Why, I wondered, was I slightly in awe of research and researchers – and why did I expect the highest of standards from them?

What, I wondered, was the fundamental value of research; what exactly was it that research delivered – that made it worth clients paying for?

And finally, to what extent, if at all, should researchers feel responsible not just for the reliability of their data but also for its interpretation and even consequent implementation?

As may or may not become apparent over the next 20 minutes or so, these three open-ended questions turned out to be related.

When I read in the papers about a dodgy businessman, a corrupt solicitor, a fraudulent sports promoter, an advertising executive of no fixed address, I feel no great sense of surprise or outrage.  Yes, certainly – I feel a world-weary confirmation of the fallibility of man and I’m glad they’ve been nabbed; but otherwise, well, that’s life, innit?

But when I read about a bent policeman, I feel a real sense of fury. There seems to me something wholly contemptible about a uniformed individual, held up as a symbol of social order and paid to uphold the law – who then knowingly, wilfully breaks it.  it may be irrational, but I expect higher standards from policemen than from other mortals.

Almost as irrationally, I realise I feel the same about the business of research and the behaviour of researchers. And the only explanation I can find is otherwise baffling prejudice is this.

Research, of one kind or another, provides the basis for most of the decisions that the control our lives. Anyone who makes those decisions will also inevitably make mistakes.  Decision-making is an imprecise science; so decision-makers are fallible – and so, however reluctantly, we may forgive them.

But we should not as readily forgive anyone who knowingly or carelessly provides dodgy data on which those decisions are founded.  Drawing a map of the immediate past may be difficult – but it is not nearly as difficult as affecting the future in a planned and benevolent way.  So, yes; I expect higher standards from those who inhabit the world of research than I do from other mortals – and I sense I’m not alone in this.

It’s then that I begin to wonder about the boundaries of responsibility. If the researchers’ responsibility ends with the stark presentation of data, they will be quick to remind us of that fact; that they cannot fairly be held responsible for any unfortunate consequences when others draw conclusions from that data and then act upon them.

And yet, and yet: isn’t there something ineffably smug and self-serving about such an approach?  Can there really be an inviolable threshold over which no pure researcher may tread – a threshold that neatly divides the collection and analysis of data from all speculation about it?

The dilemma can be seen in microcosm within every advertising agency.  The account planner who comes up with an immaculate ad scrupulously dispassionate relief map of the brand and its market – and absolutely nothing else – will not be greatly loved by the creative ground.  By definition, a good creative brief contains a bold hypothesis – and to generate hypotheses you need to speculate: you need to progress from the known to the unknow.

And when a wonderfully inventive advertising campaign gets comprehensively rubbished in qualitative research, it’s an unwise account planner who, in course of the de-brief, distances herself demurely from the rejected work. If she’s been part of the strategy, shouldn’t she share the grief when that strategy is convincingly challenged?  (She should also, of course, lead the way when, in the light of new knowledge, a new direction has to be charted.)

So what does a client, who has spent may tens of thousands of pounds on research, expect from the fortunate recipients of all that money – the researchers?  Just the data?  Or something a bit more?

Which leads me to my third thread of wondering.  Just what is it that research clients hope they’re buying when they decide to buy research?

Theodore Levitt’s endlessly quoted dictum remains endlessly useful.  “People don’t want quarter-inch drills; they want quarter-inch holes”

There are, I suppose, somewhere in the world, a few nerdy quarter-inch drill collectors; bidding feverishly on e-bay for a rare Chilean masonry drill or swapping a couple of late 20th century self-centring drills for one modern, high-speed titanium model.  But mostly, as Professor Levitt so tellingly reminds us, the people who buy drills are people who want holes.

In just the same way, there are I suppose, somewhere in the world, a few client companies who do actually want to buy research; so that they can lead groups of visitors into vast libraries and data storage cool rooms and say grandly; “Of course, we have huge quantities of research here.”  But mostly, people who buy research are people who want something else.

Partly, it seems to me, they want the equivalent of a Global Positioning System: they want to know where they are, where they came from; where their competitors are; which way things seem to be moving.  Without that absolutely basic data, you’re flying blind; you’re lost in the desert without a compass.

But people who buy research not only need to know where they’ve come from; they also need help in deciding where to go next.  And sometime in the course of those forty years since I last had the dauting pleasure of talking to you, a new word has crept into research vocabulary.  Encouragingly, it’s much more of a hole word than a drill word and it is of course Insight.

I’ve asked around quite a lot but am still not sure I’ve found out exactly what an insight is universally agreed to be.  But I observe that people now sell insights and buy insights and there are even a great many people wo actually manage insights.

What I take an insight to mean is this: a new understanding, probably of human behaviour or attitude, as a result of which action may be taken and an enterprise more efficiently conducted.  And when, as I paddled around you in my dinghy, I began to think a little more deeply about insights, I came to the tentative conclusion that insights come in two very different levels of potency.

For instance, do you find this observation familiar?  And I quote:

“Product satisfaction arises less from inherent construction and performance than from consumers’ internalised perceptions of personal utility”

You probably find it faintly familiar; and more than faintly obvious; and not in the least inspiring.  Because what that sentence represents is an absolutely accurate reconstruction of a phrase I’ve already quoted this morning.

What I did was this:  I enlisted the help of my good friend, colleague and collaborator Stephen King – himself a frequent star performer at these conferences.  Stephen has always had a wonderful ear for the measured sonorities of marketing language – so I asked him to rewrite Theodore Levitt; which he wonderfully did.

If, thirty years or so ago, Levitt had told his students at Harvard Business School that “Product satisfaction arises less from inherent construction and performance than from consumers’ internalised perceptions of personal utility,” I do not believe he would have made any lasting contribution to an understanding of marketing.  And I certainly wouldn’t have thought to quote him today. 

Which, on the face of it, is odd.  Because I have to tell you that the Stephen King version is more precise and more truthful that the rather glib Levitt assertion that people don’t want quarter-inch drills, they want quarter-inch holes.

Because Levitt is factually wrong.  People don’t want holes any more than they want drills.  They want bookshelves or picture hooks or rabbit hutches: and King very responsibly covers this point with his reference to “internalised perceptions of personal utility”.

You may also sense that the King version has lost a little of something: and I’ll be looking at that later.

Way back in 1982, I wrote a short piece about brands in which I said: “People build brands as birds build nests, from scraps and straws we chance upon.”  And I’ve been extremely gratified ever since to find that phrase picked up and quoted approvingly – sometimes even with n accurate attribution.

I’ve also been surprised that no one has challenged it – because, as I reveal today for the very first time, it’s demonstrably untrue on at least two counts.

As every ornithologist knows, birds don’t build their nests from scraps and straws they chance upon; they know exactly what raw materials they need and they set out deliberately to find them; mud, sheep’s wool, moss, twigs – are all knowingly sought out and secured.  That is how birds build nests; which is not, of course, in the least how consumers build brands.

Nor do we chance upon most brand clues: they are laid in our path by the brand’s owner – the packs, the promotions, the price, the advertising – in the cunning hope and expectation that the brand we thereby build will be the one we’ll want to buy.

For 23 years now, I have misled thousands of brand managers and I feel deeply ashamed.  Once again, I turned to Stephen King: please reconstruct this irresponsible dictum, I said: what should I have said?  How can I re-phrase this insight so that it’s accurate, all embracing, responsible?  And Stephen said: It’s perfectly obvious.  What you should have written is this:

“Stakeholders form the framework of brand concepts less from holistic perceptions than from the convergence of disaggregated structural elements”

Now why hadn’t I thought of that?

It’ no new game to mock marketing language though it’s always worth doing; but the point I want to make this morning goes further than simple mockery.  I believe that at some level of consciousness, we have accepted the misguided beliefs of some of the early philosophers.  We believe that the rigorous scientist or researcher deals only with the matters of fact; always defines terms; and aims for the total elimination of ambiguity.

And by pursuing these worthy objectives, we can indeed produce robustly defined insights: for example, “Stakeholders form the framework of brand concepts less from holistic perceptions than from the convergence of disaggregated structural elements.”

I said a few minutes ago that I was beginning to conclude that insights come in two very different levels of potency.

At its best, the low-powered insight is accurate, potentially helpful, intellectually coherent.  It is meticulous in its use of words and phrases with commonly agreed meaning and inferences.

The low-potency insight sounds like this: “A distinction may be drawn between the producer’s value-engineering of functional, physical or service-generating features and the consumer’s acquisition of an integrated cluster of end-user benefit attributes.”

Where the low-potency insight utterly fails is in instant, heart-lifting revelation.  It never elicits the immediate, exultant response: Yes, of course!  That’s exactly how it is!

And the difference between the low-potency insight and the high-potency insight lies entirely in the manner in which they are phrased.

Stephen King’s early work on brands contained the following definition: “A product is something that is made, in a factory.  A brand is something that is bought by a consumer.”  That was, and remains, a high-potency insight.  His recent reconstruction of that same thought, which I’ve already revealed to you, is not: “A distinction may be drawn between the producer’s value-engineering of functional, physical or service-generating features and the consumer’s acquisition of an integrated cluster of end-user benefit attributes.”  That is a very low-potency insight indeed: and it shares with all the other low-potency insights one huge disadvantage.  They don’t travel.

High-potency insights, because of their immediacy – because they evoke as well as inform – behave like viral ads on the internet.  They are infectious; we only have to hear then once to remember them, to apply them, to pass them on to others.  By contrast, the low-potency insight sits there sullenly on it’s PowerPoint slide, moving absolutely nobody to enlightenment.

The result of all this, I believe, is that the vast amount of potentially valuable knowledge already exists; but has yet to find high-potency expression.

It could be argued, I suppose, that the researcher’s responsibility has been fully discharged when an insight, however opaquely phrased, has been identified; and that it’s then up to somebody else to make it sing.  An analogy could be made with an ad agency; whereby the account planer identifies refreshment as the core communication message (a pretty low-potency claim); and then leaves it to the creative person to translate that insight into the inspiring thought that Heineken reaches the parts that other beers can’t.

But I’d be sorry if researchers, having succeeded in digging up insights, were then satisfied to leave the most effective communication of the to others.  It reduces the role of the researcher to that of the miner; who digs up the diamonds in their rough ad undistinguished state – but then takes no part in cutting them, shaping them or making them glitter.

Despite the fact that they contain an identical truth, the high-potency insight is far more valuable to the client than the sullen, low-powered one.  Surely researchers should reap both the credit and the income?  Powering up an insight is not a easy thing to do: but it helps if a few working hypotheses are accepted.

The strict avoidance of marketing jargon is a considerable help but it’s not the whole answer.  The answer, I think, lies in the opposite direction from that favoured by the linguistic philosophers who hold that every word employed should be underpinned by definition; which in turn means that every definition employed needs to be underpinned by definition – and so on into what is called infinite regression.  In the pursuit of economy and precision, we achieve instead circumlocution, opacity and chaos.

It’s a great deal more fruitful to accept the limitations of language; and to agree with Arthur Koestler when he says that “Words in themselves are never completely explicit: they are merely stepping stones for thought.”  (It’s a wonderful sentence that; not only an important insight, but an elegant example, in itself, of the very truth it contains.)
Insights framed in high-potency terms invariably avoid the direct and the explicit.  They stay close to the original meaning of wit: communications of great economy achieved through the use of unexpected associations between contrasting or disparate words or ideas.  Koestler calls it bisociation.

Metaphors, analogies as similes invite the receivers’ participation, as in a joke; so that the point is not rifled relentlessly home but is ‘seen’.  Examined forensically, most high-potency insights won’t even be semantically accurate. That’s because they work through allusion not description.  They will, however, convey a greater truth.

Giving high potency to an insight is an intensely creative act: it requires a massive injection of imagination.  As with any other creative act, it also demands an understanding of what is already in the receiver’s mind; and just as importantly, what is not already in the receiver’s mind.  If I don’t speak French, I will not laugh at a joke told to me in French.  Metaphors, similes and analogies work only when the reference point is already familiar to the audience.

Poets, of course, do it instinctively.  That’s why the works of Shakespeare contain so many familiar quotations.  For a short, cheap course in evocative communication, the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations can be highly recommended.

As by now I hope you will have gathered, I believe it to be true that the value of an insight, the utility of an insight, is dependent not only on the originality and accuracy of that insight but at least as much on the potency of its expression.  There’s even a famous quotation that encapsulates that thought: from Alexander Pope:

“True wit is nature to advantage dress’d, 
What oft was thought but ne’er so well express’d”

I believe it likely that, already paid for, there’s a great Aladdin’s cave of knowledge: but as yet unlocked by consummate expression.  If that s true, and accepted, then certain things should follow.

The research business will recognise, somewhat to its own surprise, that it has valuable skills to learn from poets and comedians.

Clients will get much greater value, at no greater cost, from the research they commission.

Researchers will have the considerable satisfaction of knowing that a higher proportion of their work has been put to fruitful use.

They may have tiptoed over that line that divides collection and analysis from interpretation – but at no cost to their integrity.

And because it’s an extremely difficult thing to do, there’s a huge sense of personal satisfaction waiting for those who can do it.

Perhaps everything I have recklessly ventured to say to you this morning is itself best summed up by an insight: an insight about research itself; a high-potency insight.  It was first articulated by that legendary advertising thinker and practitioner, the great – and sadly late – Dave Flower.  And this is how he put it.

“The best research is like a fridge.  Every time you open it, a light comes on.”

I wish you all a fascinating and instructive conference.