Going by a few pre-election polls in 2015, it’s the BJP government that is ruling Bihar today. This is not the only time opinion polls and market research have got things completely wrong.
In fact, there are instances when marketers have got into trouble when they took market research seriously. Coca Cola lost millions when they launched New Coke in the eighties. The history of marketing and advertising is replete with such examples of research gone wrong.
There are several cases when the research was ignored and it turned out to be the right decision. If the research was given any heed, the film Star Wars (the original, not the sequels/prequels) would have never got made. Henry Ford, the pioneer in car manufacturing famously remarked, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
What could possibly go wrong with research? In science, there’s a term called ‘observer effect’ that states that the act of measuring alters the phenomenon that’s being measured. For instance, checking the pressure of an automobile tyre lets off some air, thereby changing the pressure. It’s possible that merely asking people their opinion by itself might make them change their point of view.
Perhaps we are attributing complex reasons to what is essentially human error and sloppiness. It’s likely that often the methodology followed by researchers is faulty and questionable.
Or maybe, it’s about how one reads the data and forms conclusions. Every year, immediately after the annual readership survey, the two leading newspapers in the national capital region take out advertisements, both claiming to have more readers. If one can interpret survey reports so creatively, imagine the fate of data from market research.
Today market researches use behavioral psychology, Big Data, and cutting-edge statistical tools. Instead of asking straight questions, they try to wheedle out responses through subtle tactics. (“If your neighbor drives Car X, which school do you think his child goes to?”)
However, as election poll predictions and brand launch failures have demonstrated time and again, the research results are as error-prone as ever.
So is research something your brand can do without? Well, to be fair there are cases when research can come in quite handy. The trick is to temper the findings with your own gut instinct, judgment, and experience.
The best of account planners in the industry employ research, but they do not slave to it. They observe people, study their behavior and unlock insights, and rightly ignore research if they have to.
It is worth remembering what David Ogilvy said about research, “I notice increasing reluctance on the part of marketing executives to use judgment; they are coming to rely too much on research, and they use it as a drunkard uses a lamp post – for support, rather than for illumination.”
Use market research judiciously, and know when to discount it.
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