Magazine article Marketing

Helen Edwards on Branding: Always Question the 'Facts'

Magazine article Marketing

Helen Edwards on Branding: Always Question the 'Facts'

Article excerpt

Marketers should fully engage their critical faculties and interrogate researchers more carefully.

Baroness (Shirley) Williams was unequivocal. Sitting in the Newsnight hot-seat, she explained to presenter Jeremy Paxman that a coalition government was what people had voted for. How did she know? There was no box on anyone's voting paper marked 'Coalition'.

What Williams was offering, although she didn't put it this way, was an interpretation of quantitative research data - in this case, general election votes. In her opinion, although she never used that word, the raw accumulations of 36% Conservative, 29% Labour and 23% Liberal indicated that the electorate as a whole had 'wanted' some kind of melange.

This makes as much sense as observing the crowd at a local-derby football match, noting that it divides into two halves, each as passionate as the other in its die-hard support, and drawing the conclusion that the stadium as a whole 'wants' a draw.

Williams' take on 650 local derbies is emblematic of two great sins to which researchers debriefing quantitative and qualitative market research are prey: dubious interpretation and godlike certainty of pronouncement.

Academics who specialise in consumer research have a great deal to say on these sins, usually in tones of haughty disdain for the willingness of marketers to draw too much significance from too little data. In the academic view, all interpretation is biased, no matter how impeccably neutral the researcher might seem, and it is better to acknowledge that upfront. Nor is there any such thing, they insist, as research-derived truth, so all conclusions should be framed equivocally.

In the academic world, the level of evidence required to propose even the slenderest advance in theoretical knowledge is extraordinarily high.

Well that's fine for them, you might think: they don't have real-world marketing decisions to make and a cold-hearted board to convince. In the end, though, that is all the more reason to exercise greater caution in both the commissioning and the debriefing of market research. The stakes are high. If there is one area of commercial practice in which it is worth striving to achieve the academic ideal, this is it. So what can you do to ensure that you guard against those 'Shirley Williams' sins?

First, you can interweave different methodologies to shed light on the same question, so that emerging themes can be cross-corroborated Academics call this 'triangulation'. …

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