Dan Nunan (pictured), a lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London, has been tracking the declining use of the term ‘market research’ over time, and his advice to the industry is to ditch the label completely.
Nunan told the MRS’s annual conference, Impact 2017, today that although the research industry’s future is bright, the definition of what “market research” is, and how the industry should define itself in relation to the world of big data, remains up in the air.
Increasingly, Nunan said, big research companies and associations are shunning the term. Only three in 10 research companies describe themselves using the term market research, his research revealed – and the bigger they are, the less likely they are to do so. Instead they use terms such as data science, business intelligence, insight, and various others.
The MRS itself rarely spells out what its letters stand for, and its industry report refers to “the business of evidence”, rather than mentioning market research. Similarly, Esomar and the newly formed Insight Association in the US, find ways around mentioning the term directly.
In academia, the number of papers published on market research is dwarfed by the number on data science.
These labels matter, Nunan said, because “labels determine how we perceive others and how others perceive us”. In particular, the term market research has suffered from its association with opinion polling, and its recent high-profile failures.
“I think that the term market research is in itself a bit tainted, Nunan said. “It’s a label that carries a lot of baggage.”
But the research industry still has a huge amount to offer the world of big data, Nunan said. “For all the talk about big data and data science, methods knowledge within the industry generally is really poor. I never cease to be amazed by the lack of knowledge of how to use data and how to generate insights from people who claim it’s core to their strategy. The market research industry has a huge amount to tell everyone else about how to generate value from data.”
Virginia Monk, managing director of Network Research, said that attempts to rebrand away from “market research” is sometimes superficial. “One of the things that concerns me is that there are qui te a few agencies who claim to do more and yet actually their core offering is still market research, so they use it as a marketing tactic,” she said. “I think people need to be a little bit more honest about what they do offer.”
Simon Chadwick, chair of the Insights Association, said the name of the new US industry body had “upset a lot of people” who had hoped it would explicitly mention market or survey research – like the names of its forerunners, Casro and the MRA. “There were people who felt we were walking away from our heritage, and that we should reinvigorate the word market research, and redefine the term rather than drop the term.”
Chadwick said research professionals need to “be bolder in terms of saying who we are and what we’re about. After all, the core of what we do hasn’t changed. The core is still to interrogate data to find stories to lead to better decisions.”