Market Research — What is it exactly?

First off, let’s start with some definitions.

The Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) defines marketing as: ‘The management process responsible for identifying, anticipating and satisfying customer requirements profitably.’

Actually, I prefer a much simpler definition used by a fellow marketer and former colleague, and that is simply that: ‘Marketing is all about changing or reinforcing existing behaviours’. In my book these behaviours may include:

  • Buying something new e.g. a product, service or brand
  • Buying more of something e.g. low calorie or low carb foods
  • Buying less of something e.g. leaded petrol
  • Starting to do something e.g. exercising
  • Stopping doing something e.g. smoking
  • Doing more of the same, or maintaining the status quo e.g. a healthy lifestyle

When it comes to market research there are of course numerous definitions such as: ‘the action or activity of gathering information about consumers’ needs and preferences’. But again I prefer my own definition, that being:

Any processes or systems designed to support the marketing of the business or organisation, typically involving data gathering, information collection and fact finding, usually concerning people, products, services or markets. The outputs often being referred to as the insights.’

I see market research as the umbrella term to describe all of this activity. But funnily enough, quite recently more than one person has questioned me about what market research actually entails or what it includes.

There seems to be a misconception that market research is only the data gathering, the data collection or fieldwork stage, and maybe also the number-crunching bit. The low tech bit, or the dull, stodgy bit.

The real value from market research comes of course, from the outputs. The findings, the conclusions, or what are now increasingly dubbed the insights. (Funnily enough I always used to think the debate was more one about whether it should be called market research OR marketing research, but that’s another story).

Partly, it may be that the term market research is just a bit uninspiring. It suggests more some sort of secondary or desk research into a market, such as the Oats, the Barley or the Pork belly market. You know, the sort of report that reads:

The market for Pork bellies in 2020 is $XXm, it shows annual growth of +Y% and is one of the oldest in the continental USA blah blah

Market research being seen literally as research, about a market.

So, is the problem with those two words?

  1. Market as well as suggesting agricultural goods, might also suggest those things you find in the middle of small towns on Thursdays, you know, the rows of stalls selling fruit, flowers and cheap fleeces. Or perhaps a farmers’ market on a Saturday morning, selling posher fruit, chutneys and perhaps branded leisure apparel. Nice, but not very hi tech. Of course as marketers, when we talk of markets we usually mean the people in the market not the market itself. Much of what we do is actually to understand or explain human behaviour. So, it’s all about people, rather than the market itself — those people being termed consumers, customers, users, prospects, employees or other such descriptor.
  2. Research. Then of course we have that word research. Paired with other words like financial, medical, or even political, research can sound quite good, cutting edge even sexy (no, not sexy). But paired with market it sounds just, a little dull.

Increasingly, therefore we look to more interesting terms to use, such as consumer research, or customer research, or insights to get across what we do. Why, I’ve even been playing around with what I label myself on my profile here.

Is there is also perhaps a feeling that market research has also been devalued?

More and more people are assuming either that market research data is freely available to be found on the internet (for free), or that people will provide information, feedback or their thoughts (for free). Did I mention the free word enough?

A mini-industry has grown up where people answer research questionnaires. People can make a bit of money from completing market research surveys online. Nothing wrong with that of course, and there is benefit in that. However, it means that Mr & Mrs Smith (or Jones or Brown etc) might wake up one morning and say to each other: “Hey, let’s go online and fill in some market research surveys”. They would never say “Hey, let’s design a 48-sheet poster” or “Let’s make an advert to be shown in cinemas”, nor “Let’s create a comprehensive media schedule for the roll out of a new product region by region” and nor would they say “Let’s do some keyword analysis” (that’s one for the digital folk among us).

All are marketing-oriented activities, but it’s only the market research one that they can do. (Note: Obviously they are not taking the brief, nor designing the research project plan, nor writing and coding the questionnaire, nor mapping out a discussion guide, but they are doing the fieldwork, which for many laypeople of course is the market research).

We also have the phenomenon of business people accessing some online survey software and suddenly they are market researchers. Amazing! But just because you can use online survey software it doesn’t make you a market researcher. In the same way that being able to open Word doesn’t instantly make you a best-selling author nor a Pulitzer prize winner, and using Excel won’t immediately make you a financial wizard. (Other software programs are of course available).

So, does all of this devalue what market research is and does?


Perhaps that is why some seek to reposition market research, and for many it is even looked down upon. In which case, perhaps it might have been better if it had instead been called something different such as:

  • Business Intelligence
  • Customer Insights
  • Marketing Information

It is unlikely that we will see a wholesale rebranding of market research, but perhaps if we did, people would look on it slightly differently.

Maybe there is a time to rethink market research, but for now let’s use the phase that we are all familiar with and we will try to educate all about the real value to be gained from good old market research.

At Latimer Appleby we offer market research expertise hardened in the business world.