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Market research is a critical and almost permanent feature of any marketing program.  Structured and used correctly, the voice of the customer can help realise the potential of brands and customers.  For all its benefits, market research should be the lifeblood of an organisation, but something somewhere has gone wrong; market research has become marketing cocaine, and it’s a habit brands need to kick.

Wikipedia describes cocaine as a “stimulant that causes loss of contact with reality, an intense feeling of happiness, or agitation.   For anyone who has ever waited 8 long weeks to feel the high of “research results”, and then experienced the low from results that “don’t quite match the research”, you might identify with my analogy. 

Market research has become like cocaine simply because it isn’t the transformational insight that it’s “cracked up” to be.  Experienced marketers, high on data and low on time are easily seduced by scores of data points that are mixed, sliced and ingested as insight. 

Data is a powerful and persuasive substance that is rife throughout our organisations today.   If you need a little more convincing, try replacing the word “data” for “cocaine” and cast your mind back to stories you’ve only heard (naturally) about the drug.

  • Data is fast, easy and thrilling when it suits the situation you’re in
  • Data is addictive; once I have a bit of data, I soon want more, especially if the first round doesn’t do what you thought it might
  • Data is expensive
  • Depending on how it’s produced, the quality of data can be variable
  • Data makes people feel intelligent and important, and worth listening to
  • A lot of poor decisions are made with data
  • A lot of time is wasted on data

Cocaine (data) is everywhere and everyone has some, somewhere

As a specialist in strategy development, I am reliant on good intelligence and thanks to an almost endless supply of various research reports there’s always a lot to look at. However, insight is a lot less forthcoming and truth be told, I almost never see it.

Data does a lot of talking for 2 key reasons: Confusion of what insights are, and who is qualified to provide them.

Despite all the iceberg images that highlight a mountain of insight underneath a small mound of data on the surface, there is still an expectation that insights are easily found under the heading “INSIGHTS” in the report.  Not true.   Market Research Agencies are not in the business of insights.  Research agencies analyse and interpret data they have collected, and create a report.  To imagine that transformational insight comes from just one source or one sample set of consumers and analysed by rushed researchers doesn’t just deny the learnings from previous research, it also denies the experience and wisdom of those people who actually run the business.

Anyone for a line of insight?

So, how has this habit become so prevalent, and why is it so hard to kick?

I spoke with 4 senior (Partners and CEO) from 4 very well-known and respected market research agencies and asked them about who should and who is qualified to provide the insights.  All of them said (and believed) they (market researchers) should or do provide the insights, but were quick to qualify this with “if that’s what’s commissioned”.

I then asked 4 experienced and senior research professionals from 4 blue-chip multi-nationals the same question.  All of them said it should be ideally done by the client team “because they know the business”, but with a very strong caveat that “few of our people know how/have the skills, or have the time to do it”.

Market Research Agencies, particularly the larger global outfits are hamstrung when it comes to unlocking data because their operating model is not built for that purpose. From my recent interviews I learned that the high investment in proprietary methodologies and global infrastructure costs, as well as unrelenting pressure from clients to reduce their price, requires an exhausting pipeline of projects.  One Global planning director of one of a Tier 1 MRA told me “the case-load for agencies is so high that we need to close the engagement quickly and move on to the next job”.  He went on to add that the report is “at best conclusions but most likely hurried guesses by researchers”, people who have only scant knowledge of the business or other market intelligence.    This statement rings true when a global insight manager for a large energy company told me “Agencies talk about wanting to understand our business but when I make the introductions the first thing they do is prospect for more business, and I end up with even more ad-hoc research projects of stuff we don’t need.”

Another potential handicap for MRA’s is that staff rarely have the business experience required to be a genuine partner.  The Head of Research at a major drinks company told me “I’d be delighted if the agency partnered with me on the problem but Agencies don’t invest in the right people.” She added, “I’m continually left frustrated when you feel you invested the time to have the in-depth conversation about the context and business challenge and all I see is nodding dogs.”  “At the response to brief stage or even post report, it’s clear they didn’t comprehend anything I said.”

So if the market research experts aren’t motivated or equipped to identify insights, what is stopping clients from realising the full potential of their data?

Client side market research teams have consistently been targeted for downsizing. This is particularly true if the organisations marketing capability is still developing and therefore the demands of the client teams are potentially less sophisticated.  In challenging times, those departments furthest from revenue generation, and have not adequately demonstrated and reported their value, are obviously at risk.  After a particularly brutal re-structure, one Global Insights Manager for a large energy company told me about the increasing transactional nature of his role.  “My title is misleading – I only have time to commission research and hopefully catch and correct any glaring mistakes”

Another issue is that few mid-level marketers have the skills or confidence to use or communicate market research properly. With internal research teams stretched, the report takes an even more significant role.  However a research report, no matter how polished cannot overcome an organisations capability gaps, and is even more ill-equipped to overcome human nature.  One Insights Team Director lamented “if we give them just a report then they (client teams) are more likely to basterdise it and twist it to what they want” which is kind of worrying given the sheer number of stakeholders with different objectives, opinions, and experiences.

And so to Research Rehab…

So with so many hands tied how can we unearth those hidden gems that become the ultimate drivers of business?

1. Take a breath and stop the research habit

Before commissioning another research study, ask your research manager or someone who has been in the business 5 years.  In a large multi-national, chances are that the intelligence already exists and given that human behaviour doesn’t change overnight, that intelligence is likely still valid.

2. Help those helping you.

Communicate your understanding of the business and provide useful context by creating smart hypotheses to test.  I recently saw a brief that had been produced by 20 different people being invited to ask what they wanted to know.  It was a long and not-very-clever brief.  The agency responded with a long and very expensive answer.

3. Aggregate, distil and workshop all that you know to develop core insight platforms

Everyone can remember some data points, no-one can remember all of them.  And what’s more, different people will likely quote different and sometimes conflicting data points. To mine for the most meaningful insights pull everything together and look for recurring themes, and then ask why, and why again until the volume of “ah-ha” is ringing in your ears

4. Harness the collective genius of the organisation

People are naturally more receptive to good news and tend to shy away from negative analysis, or even discard data that is inconvenient.   To guard against convenient but misleading truths, or indeed missing the important context, it is vital you include enough people with cross-functional experience to help with the reasoning and logic.   Furthermore, an experienced and independent facilitator can help keep the team focused on the process and ensure people apply the appropriate level of rigor and impartiality to their analysis

5. Turn insight into action

Just as data without insight is useless, so too is insight without action.

The best way to turn insight into action is to phrase the insight in the first person, for example: “I find the shopping experience unpleasant and product benefits hard to understand and so I run in, grab the cheapest and run out again”.  The more insightful the current behaviour is, the more accurately the “action statement” or strategic drivers can be, and will become a useful and easy to understand lens by which all decisions can be judged.


Market research has the ability to transform brands, business, and reputations but only when insight is unlocked with context, logic and the collective wisdom of people who work in the business.  Going “cold turkey” might not be easy, but accepting that analysing data and mining for insights is two very different things, and involving cross-functional stakeholders to work together to distil, mine and agree truly insight-based strategy will help kick the research habit for good.