No more ammo for 'Dilbert'

Editor's note: David Santee is president of True North Market Insights LLC, Lawrence, Kan.

Those of you who have been in marketing research for any length of time will no doubt have stories of how crystal-clear research findings were ignored. The instances are so common that even "Dilbert," that barometer of American business, has repeatedly lampooned the generally poor understanding and misuse of research by corporations. The jokes are funny because they’re true. But their mere existence should tell us something is wrong.

Although it may not always be apparent, senior executives want our information and our insights. In fact, they want us to be strategic partners. A thought-provoking study1 by the Market Research Executive Board found that 65 percent of senior leaders want market research to be a strategic partner. But here’s the kicker – only 25 percent view us that way. In other words, they want it but we are not delivering.

The success of our companies is the issue at stake (as well as our careers). Matthew S. Olson and Derek van Bever’s book Stall Points concludes that the revenues of most companies either have stalled or will stall. And the primary reason? Their strategic decisions! Not responding to a change in the market is among the most common reasons for companies to stall. But wait! That’s us! Isn’t it our job to tell our companies when the market has changed? What is our culpability in all this? Did the market research departments raise a red flag?

A full third of the firms listed on the Fortune 500 in 1970 had vanished by 1983, according to author Arie de Geus2. These are big firms. Many, if not most, had market research departments. Again, what is our culpability?

Market has changed

Market research is changing: from being tactical to becoming strategic; from delivering data to delivering solutions; from being technical to becoming consultative; from being an order-taking staff function to becoming a proactive partner. Our market has changed too. Just like those companies that vanished because they did not recognize a change in the market, we are seeing a change in our market. Will we recognize it?

Consultants are paid large sums for scanning and reporting on a company’s market position. Typically, their process is: interview those in market research, senior managers and those in the field; read customer complaints and past research results; perhaps talk to a few clients; and then give their findings. But isn’t all that really just market research? If so, why do our companies not come to us for these services? Why don’t market research firms offer these services?

Consulting firms usurp strategic elements

Interestingly, we become concerned when someone uses Survey Monkey for low-level issues but we do not even think twice about how we let consulting firms usurp very strategic elements of market research from us. Why? It comes down to how we define ourselves.

We unwittingly classify ourselves as survey and focus group experts. OK, we may buy some behavioral data from comScore or Nielsen (some of which comes from surveys) or do an ethnography study now and again, but most of the industry is set up to deliver focus group and survey results.

Most of us are not positioning ourselves as marketplace experts or strategists. We are not called upon to help define a strategy – or to be the strategic partner that senior management wants us to be. The reason we’re not considered for this role is because we’re truly not there yet. Our industry isn’t there yet. Our skill sets are not there yet.

Before we can fix the problem, we have to recognize that the problem exists. I am encouraged. I have spoken with leaders from several large insight teams and many get it. I have heard multiple insight leaders make statements like, “If they don’t take our recommendation, it’s our fault.”

At issue are not tactical everyday decisions – whether a product should be green or blue, which ad breaks through the best, which option tastes the best, or even measuring our customer satisfaction. The real issue is with the more important strategic decisions that can significantly influence a company’s success; the ones that can set the course for the next several years; those typically made by the operating committee who make the really big decisions. As stated by de Geus, “The only relevant learning in a company is the learning done by those with a power to act.”2

Those are the decisions we need to influence. Successfully doing so will result in larger budgets – not smaller ones – for market research during times of corporate stress.

Have to come from us

Solutions won’t come from others – they have to come from us. There is a saying that our influence is more than we know and as little as we will allow. We have allowed ourselves little influence. Changing our name from market research to market insights sends a nice message but where’s the beef? We have to back the name up with action.

Working harder is our first tendency. This is exactly what authors Michael Fairbanks and Stace Lindsay found when leaders of third-world countries were faced with failing programs:

“... We have found there is an overwhelming propensity for the leaders, when confronted by poor results, to do the same things again, only harder.”3

The shifting expectations of our customers suggest that we need to shift our strategies. Working harder won’t get us there. We’re already working hard.

Becoming worthy of being a strategic partner is the first step. We have to become as concerned with competitive strategy as we are with methods. We must seek out data other than our own – sales data, finance data, customer data. We must understand why past products failed or succeeded. We must understand competitor moves and listen to their analyst calls. Our information lives in the context of this other information. Good strategy makes sense of all the data – not just ours. We cannot be effective strategists with only one piece of the puzzle. It’s not all about us.

Senior leaders are people, too

Brain research now supports the belief that decisions are made emotionally and justified rationally. So what does this have to do with developing good corporate strategy? Simple – senior leaders are people too! If the research is true, then those on the top floor are also making decisions emotionally. The CEO, CFO, CMO and any other C you might have at your firm are influenced first by emotion but then justify their decisions rationally.

We have all heard the same questions when research results are different from expectations: “What was your sample size?” “Where did you do the research?” “How did you ask the question?” It’s human nature to find reasons to discount information which is inconsistent with our current beliefs.

One of my personal favorite stories to illustrate this concept comes from a CMO’s response when I presented him with information why his clients leave: “You keep giving me the same answer every time I ask. I want a different answer.”

John Maynard Keynes once said, “The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones.” A conundrum exists in market research. Results that meet expectations are believed and used. Unexpected results are many times questioned, discounted, not believed and not used. Either way, the results tend not to have a real impact on the decision.

Applied to strategy

Objects in motion want to stay in motion – and in the same direction. This law of physics can be applied to strategy as well. Companies learn what is successful and, over time, this success is inculcated into all aspects of the organization. Fairbanks and Lindsay explain it this way: “As organisms institutionalize those formulas for success, they become steering mechanisms: the laws, administrative polices, market mechanisms and informal customs intended to ensure that the formulas for success continue to be followed.”3

The greater the success, the more inculcated the paradigm. Existing paradigms work very well for firms whose path to success does not change. But that path will inevitably change. And when it does, it will be even more difficult to adjust to a new pathway for success.

Poor decisions have many more causes than those discussed here. Until we recognize that decision-making is not just a fact-based endeavor, we will not make progress in moving toward a strategic partner role. Adam Smith’s “economic man” does not exist. Acceptance of this fact is required as we try to find ways to influence our organizations.

A favorite example of a poor decision in the face of logical facts was that by a chairman of a consumer company. He killed an ad campaign because his English-teacher mother did not like the fact that it was not grammatically correct. As a researcher, what do you do with that?

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman stated that, “One of the problems with expertise is that people have it in some domains and not in others. Some experts don’t know exactly where the boundaries of their expertise are.”4 This chairman in the above anecdote was a financial expert, with no advertising experience, yet he relied on his mother’s opinion more than research results and advice from his marketing team.

No wonder our logic-filled reports and presentations don’t break through – they are based on logic when decisions are made emotionally.

Change mental models

We have to crack the code. We have to figure out how to pierce those Teflon-coated emotional barriers. We need to understand that many times we are not just presenting results but trying to change mental models.

Most conferences and articles still focus on methods and techniques – obviously those are very important. But the next whiz-bang method will not change the fact that many times our findings are ignored. Another article on NPS will not materially change the course of our companies.

The best thing we can do for our profession, for our companies and for our careers is not to create another technique but to increase our influence. The next version of discrete choice will not make us any more persuasive than the last. We need to draw on the numerous resources available that focus on skills that will enable us to take our results and create change in our organizations. We need to develop skills such as consultative selling, storytelling within reports, presenting with authority, writing clearly and persuasively and synthesizing information from multiple sources to create a more complete picture.

As stated by Stephen Few, ”As providers of quantitative business information, it is our responsibility to do more than sift through the data and pass it on. We must help our readers gain the insight contained therein. We must design the message in a way that leads readers on a journey of discovery ...”5

Simply reporting data is a disservice to our clients. No one will understand the implications of the data like we will. We have to beware of what authors Chip and Dan Heath call “the curse of knowledge.”6 This occurs when we, as experts, thoroughly understand an issue but assume too much knowledge of others when trying to communicate it. Perhaps others do not see the pattern in the data as we do. Perhaps others have not read all your past reports that provide the context for your conclusions. The result is an audience that does not understand our points – not because they aren’t capable but because we did not give them the right information to understand.

The charge

Recognition of the problem is this article’s purpose. We have to extract a study’s meaning and not just report. Then we have to communicate it in a way that gets through. As stated by Nancy Duarte, “There is a difference between being convinced with logic and believing with personal conviction.”7 We must make this distinction and move in this direction.

This is truly an enormous challenge. The ability to become the strategic partners that management wants us to be is not easy. The ability to get senior executives to see, hear and understand marketplace information, good solid analysis and thoughtful strategy in the face of emotional barriers is difficult, to say the least.

To be successful, our focus needs to change. And no one is going to do it for us. Do not expect to get invited to those strategy sessions until we first make changes ourselves. In addition to methods, we need to have a larger business perspective. We also need to become well-versed in the skills of influence and persuasion. Data does not speak for itself. We have to paint the picture and tell the story.

Fortunately, there are well-established places to start. As Leo Burnett once said, “If you reach for the stars, you might not quite get one, but you won’t end up with a handful of mud either.” If we are intentional in trying to overcome these issues, we just might get out of the mud and be perceived and valued as real strategic partners.


1 Market Research Executive Board. “Increasing the Impact of Strategic Advice.” 2008.

2 Arie de Geus. “Planning as Learning.” Harvard Business Review, March/April 1988, p. 70-74.

3 Michael Fairbanks, Stace Lindsay. Plowing the Sea. Harvard Business School Press. 2008.

4  “Strategic Decisions: When Can You Trust Your Gut?” McKinsey Quarterly. March 2010.

5 Stephen Few. Now You See It. Analytics Press, Oakland, Calif., 2009.

6 Chip Heath, Dan Heath. Made to Stick. Random House. 2008.

7 Nancy Duarte. Resonate. John Wiley & Sons. 2010, page 14.