The Secret Lies of Market Research

Last Updated Oct 28, 2010 5:42 PM EDT


Did you use a focus group or online survey to help tailor your latest product launch? Good luck.

You'll need it, says Philip Graves, a Cambridge, United Kingdom, marketing veteran and author of "Consumer.ology: The Market Research Myth, the Truth About Consumers and the Psychology of Shoppers" (Nicholas Brealey, 2010).

Graves says reliable consumer studies should analyze actual rather than theoretical behavior, consider factors such as a shopper's frame of mind and the environment and timeframe of a purchase decision, and preferably use covert methods to gather data. That's not how it's done today, of course, and Graves says that means modern market research rests on a foundation of myth, not science. The Debunker wanted to know more.

Q: What is the market research myth?
A: The market research myth is the idea that you can find out what people think by asking them questions; it's an idea that many business owners (especially larger ones) have immersed themselves in wholeheartedly, but science is now showing that it's a mistake. Good ideas can come from interacting with consumers; the myth is that the consensus results obtained from questions are valid.

Q. What is the truth about market research?
A: That it's a pseudo science. Much of it leans on statistics and psychology in the way that astrologers borrow from astronomy. At the heart of the matter, people's conscious thoughts are not well placed to understand their own unconscious mental processes, and it's these that drive the vast majority of consumer behavior.

Q. If research doesn't work why is so much spent on it?
A: Human beings have a long track record of putting wishful thinking first. If believing in something is comforting it normally finds a receptive audience somewhere.

Q. Have things changed since your book's publication? Any more recent examples?
A: Some older examples have found me; such as the American beer that was tested in the UK and dismissed as "weak, watery and like kissing your sister -- not a real man's beer." The owner decided to launch it anyway; you can still buy it in the UK -- it's called Budweiser!

Q. Where are we going with this? What does the future look like for market research?
A: Market research is a corporate placebo. For as long as people want to tell themselves it's good enough, they can focus on the decision-making comfort they derive from it.

Image courtesy of Flickr user mattymatt, CC2.0

  • Mark Henricks

    Mark Henricks' reporting on business and other topics has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Inc., Entrepreneur, and many other leading publications. He lives in Austin, Texas, where myth looms as large as it does anywhere.