Making Market Research Cool

The New Head of the ARF Won't Call Researchers 'the G word' (Geeks), but He's Hoping to Up Their Popularity

By Jack Neff

The new chief research officer of the Advertising Research Foundation wants market research to be seen as cool. You can stop laughing now. As everyone in marketing knows, agency creatives are the trendsetters. The brand marketing and general management types are the jocks, generally at the top of the pecking order. And the researchers, well, they practically scream chess club.

But jocks often grow up to have potbellies and berate children loudly at youth-sports events. The popular kids frequently make bad lifestyle choices. It's the geeks who have the best chance of becoming Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Page, Sergey Brin or Mark Zuckerberg.
And that, of course, is pretty cool -- which is the point Joel Rubinson wants to make. Math, analytics and research are the bases upon which the major marketing success stories of the past decade largely have been built and fortunes made, the ARF chief said. (Not wishing to offend anyone, he avoids uttering what he terms "the G word," but he acknowledges the image.)
Research's sexy side
So to dispel the discipline's dorky reputation, he's encouraging the industry to actively recruit on college campuses and to target not just finance programs but also psychology departments. He's trying to give research a more actionable image by steering the ARF away from endless academic debate on ultimately unsolvable riddles, such as the definition of and universal metric for "engagement," and instead clearly pin down its benefits. And he wants to play up some of the sexier sides of research, such as ethnographics and "cool hunting," and hype research's role in building cool brands such as MTV's reality show "The Hills" or ESPN.
A name change might not hurt either. "The only thing uncool about research may be the word associated with it," Mr. Rubinson said. "So maybe we need to find a new terminology."
Like what? "Consumer insights" is popular, he said; "strategy" can work too, but likewise is a little limited.
The ultimate appeal is in humanizing research. Researchers, after all, are the ultimate people persons. "People are really interesting -- people as consumers," Mr. Rubinson said. "They're so chaotic. It's wonderful."

Hands in pockets
Asked if she believes research can be seen as cool, Alison Zelen, director-consumer and market insights for Unilever deodorants North America, said: "Right now, absolutely not. I think there are pockets of it that are very cool. But a lot of it is mired in the baggage of old-school research. But what I fear a little bit is losing the fundamentals."
Ms. Zelen has about as exciting a job as practitioners get, having led the research behind Axe body spray in the U.S. from 2002 through today.
But she despises the term "market research," which she described in a 2006 interview as a "huge industry of billions of dollars that anyone basically can do." And she's spent at least some of her time since she left another cool posting at Chicago's Teen Research Unlimited and joined Unilever trying to wean package-goods managers from their addiction to quantitative research to back every decision.
Unilever has focused on consumer-connect initiatives in which multifunctional teams spend extended periods alongside their consumers learning about them as people. Even managers who don't get to go along on such ethnographic expeditions get the feel of having been there, she hopes, from DVDs she has produced showing consumers in action and in interviews.

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