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Nahin Nahin, Abhi Nahin – when NOT to do market research

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Market Research is a proven practice for deriving actionable insights. Many successful brands use market research as a prerequisite to approving any marketing initiative. From testing new brand commercials to new product launches and from brand positioning to packaging, consumer-market research can give valuable insights that help to make informed decisions and hence increase the chances of in-market success.

However, there are certain situations where commissioning consumer-market research isn’t really justified. By being cognizant of these, marketers can not only save precious time and money but also salvage a nascent idea or initiative.

5 situations when commissioning market research needs a rethink

1. When the research objective is unclear

There are situations when brands embark on market research with a vague problem statement. There is neither a clear problem statement nor a hypothesis that one wants to test. Generic objectives like ‘Understand consumer behaviour’ or ‘Is health food a big trend’- may not lead to an actionable research outcome.

Before commissioning market research, it is important to do some pre-work to identify the critical business questions that research should address and have a line of sight on the actionability of research output. The lack of these indicates that the brand isn’t clear about why it wants to commission a research project. Research, for its own sake, is never a good idea.

2. When a cheaper alternative is available

Even if the objective is well-articulated, before commissioning research, it is important to understand if meeting the objective requires formal consumer research at all. Remember that not every business question can be answered by consumers, and not every consumer-relevant question requires formal consumer research.

There are many low-cost and potentially more effective methods of addressing business questions. Interactions with field teams on-ground or domain experts, analysis of consumer behaviour on apps or websites, consumer reviews on app-store and marketplaces or a workshop / internal ideation session with cross-functional teams can also give valuable insights.

3. When the right stimulus isn’t ready

Even if the research objective and hypothesis are clear, marketers need to be sure that consumer research can really address the objective. Though the market research discipline utilises many cutting-edge tools and methods, even the most robust research methods have their limitations. The output will only be as good as the input.

Whereas in real-world consumers react to a brand in its entirety and not just to the research stimulus, in a research setting, when posed with stimulus and ‘probed’ about it, sometimes respondents tend to overthink and give feedback that may be far from how they would react as real consumers in the market.

For instance, if a brand is trying to take a call between launching two flavours of breakfast cereals, just orally asking consumers would they prefer chocolate more or strawberry, without actual product tasting, would be a futile exercise. Similarly, in the case of pathbreaking products, asking consumers about their opinion without at least exposing them to a product prototype- no matter how rudimentary- may lead to exaggerated opinions and overclaims that would again paint a wrong picture.

4. When existing research is available

Some brands get into a ‘recursive research’- where they want to finetune a product or an initiative till it ‘passes’ the research criteria. They forget that the primary purpose of research is to give guidelines for improvement. Hence, so long as we have taken the learning from research and implemented them, it’s better to avoid successive research for the same purpose unless it’s an organisational mandate or the stakes are too high. Recursive research trap hampers agility, delays innovation and could become a drag on resources and time.

At times, when brand managers or marketing heads change, they commission new research, discarding a recent research work addressing the same objective. This is purely a case of ‘ego research’, and we all know what purpose it serves.

5. When you are already committed to your product or idea

An open mind is a prerequisite for any research. If research to understand the feasibility of initiative X starts with an innocuous but biased question: “Which brands will initiative X gain share from?” (Note that question already assumes that initiative X will be a success), it is a big red flag.

Before embarking on research, marketers need to ask themselves the question: “What happens if research invalidates our hypothesis? Are we ready to go back to the drawing board or make course corrections?” If the answer to this question is NO, you need to rethink commissioning research.

Companies sometimes research a finished product, fervently hoping that it comes back with positive news. But doing research to prove what one is already committed to is an exercise in futility. As Ronald H. Coase, a renowned British Economist, said- “if you torture the data long enough, it will confess to anything”. Hence such an initiative often leads to biases in sample, data or analysis- compromising research integrity.

Also, being committed may not always be bad. Commitment sometimes indicates confidence- and it could prove abundantly useful, provided one is open to learning from the reaction of the market. In such cases, rather than research, it is better to do a soft launch, gauge actual consumer reactions and then make iterative corrections.

In conclusion

Consumer Research is a great tool, but it needs to be used discerningly. In an age when marketers are surrounded by tera-bytes of data being generated in real-time, it is important to ask the right questions, develop a clear hypothesis and then check the gaps before embarking on research. Market Research is justified only when it’s done with proper groundwork, clear objectives, optimal stimulus and an open mind- as only then is it likely to deliver actionable insights.

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