By: Jameson Pinette
Countless textbooks describe the necessity of market research, yet could they all be wrong? Henry Ford is quoted saying, “if I would have asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” Consumers may not always know what they want, merely because they are unaware of what does not exist. For innovative companies, breaking the mold may have to be done more ways than one. The purpose of market research is to successfully bring a new product or product extension to market. Some aspects of data collection and analysis might be obsolete for some products; however, can a company prosper without any buyer information?
Apple’s previous CEO and founder, Steve Jobs, lived by Henry Ford’s philosophy above. In an article from Marketing Researchers, “Does Apple Use Market Research?: Industry Strategists Weigh In,” Mary Flory discusses Steve’s approach to consumer research through ethnography. Ethnography, the description of one’s customs and culture, is gathered through surveillance of individuals within Apple Stores. This process enables management to analyze how potential customers utilize and interact with new software and devices. Through this strategy, the iPhone, iPad, iPod etc., have become remarkably popular. As such, the amount of emphasis a business places on market research may be directly linked to how novel the idea is. PepsiCo, for example, would most likely fail developing a Quaker Oats extension without some form of customer driven market research. Nevertheless, this all may be a case of semantics, for customer satisfaction as well as customer experience data is still collected from Apples users, just through different means. Moreover, behavioral and observational data is studied, just as with any other company.
Traditional market research leads companies into a predictable format, which includes attitude and usage surveys as well as focus groups. As Mark Schulman states: “Market research is not particularly adept at measuring new concepts. It’s good at brand extension. It’s good at customer service. However, there are kinds of insights that market research, polling and focus groups can’t deliver.” This methodology has worked for Apple thus far, but will they stick with this strategy? Apple Watch, released April 24th of 2015, exploited satisfaction surveys to hone in on ease of use, application function, and styling. The question is, if traditional market research is employed, will Apple be able to sustain its innovative culture? For a cutting edge company to become over-reliant on traditional information gathering, originality may suffer to conformity, leading to inevitable failure.
A problem faced by companies, regardless of the type of research, is relevance of information. More specifically, the data collected reflects today, not tomorrow. In an article by Patrick Dixon, “Why market data fails to predict the Future – Future of Marketing,” he outlines a common mistake. Surveys, although successful in the 1990s, provide short range vision for the current millennial target. Like Apple, it is necessary to focus on how life itself will change, not just become faster, better, or larger. As time goes on, the gap between product launch and change in consumer behavior is shrinking. The answer? As defined by Patrick, a balance of management vision, peppered with market research for short term fine-tuning is needed.
The biggest takeaway should be that any business cannot follow a cookie cutter strategy. Developing trends and consumer habits will evolve, regardless of industry. The rate of change in consumer behavior is dependent on many factors, all of which should be known before a market research process is developed. Whether products should involve direct customer input, or be developed through unorthodox methods is a decision that should never be taken lightly. More often than not it will include a combination of the two.