The Strange Fear of Truth in the Marketing Profession

A marketer’s goal is to find the best way to present and sell products and services.  Right?  Probably not.  That is because job politics, job-security concerns, and a strange inertia form a world-view that can be far from the real world.  Look at current communications research and how it is used.  And remember that consumer communications research is the window to the market and to decision making.

The first issue is the methodology of current research. Most companies have their own special and well-used research systems.  Or else they purchase a system from one or two  ‘safe’ companies. Most of those systems use core methodologies (whether cognitive or even psychobiological) to give answers acceptable to management.

Whether or not those systems give complete or even truthful answers, they are acceptable because management has digested the systems and so the answers are never surprising.  The systems provide comfort.         

But what if there are surprises?  I remember a product test that indicated that people trying a new form of OTC stomach relief immediately went back to the old formulation or completely away from the product. In other words, hopes for brand expansion were dashed. Response:  Management ignored the results as a fluke even though the testing system was retained.  The difficult “surprise” was rejected because it damaged the comfort with the research system.  “It must have been a fluke”—but it wasn’t.

‘Comfort’ has little to do with success.  The existing systems of market information can be incomplete.  They are not the ends of the line, however; newer and better things are here.  [Remember the nineteenth century physicists who proclaimed that there was nothing new left to be discovered.  That was before the atom was penetrated with startling advances in knowledge.] Advances in cognitive research (e.g. questionnaires, focus groups) and technologies that explore psychobiological systems can probe deep into consumers’ needs and responses. They can give more complete and complex answers.  They can give direction where the old systems gave (at best) risk-reducing hopes.  And combining the two kinds of approaches can give startlingly accurate measures of response.  But these new results can be complex.  They do not give comfort as much as they give disconcerting knowledge.

Then why don’t researchers and their companies rush to the better research?

A major reason is fear of the unknown.  Will the answers make ‘acceptable’ sense?  Will the communications that have proved positive in the older systems continue to do so?  Will both researchers and management look foolish if their tried and true methodology proves to be tried but not necessarily completely true? Will recommending new approaches by researchers imply that what was done in the past was not the very best?

And managers, who often depend on research to validate what has already been done, may feel qualms about something that could call their decisions into question.

So, the politics and fears of the new leave many marketers clinging to the old.  As risk-averse as companies are, how can they change to accept the more cogent truths of these combined research approaches?

One way is from top management, through efforts to improve performance. Another is from (usually third-party) researchers who, against the odds, somehow contact and persuade middle management.  That is a very difficult job given that middle managers are the most loath to take risks.  [One management book called middle managers’ occupations “clown work”.] Finally, researchers in companies can have something like a religious experience and become converts to the new and better.  But that is quite unlikely unless they are both researchers and persuaders.

Overall, the most promising approach is to get media coverage and reportage of the new research approaches. That responsibility falls to research firms, notoriously bad at publicity.  However, if they can bite the bit (or the bullet) and together make assaults on powerful media, they might have the best chance of all.

Fear and knowledge don’t fit well together.  Fear leads to rejection of knowledge and ultimate failure.  Knowledge and knowledgeable decisions lead to success.  Overcoming what resembles inertia but is rather fear of accepting new and complete research systems can eventually lead to the kinds of success that research has promised for so long and can now finally deliver.