A Brief History of Market Research



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By  Kuba Kierlanczyk

Market research is an essential component of any company’s marketing plan. It dictates strategy, informs resource allocation, and helps brands understand and connect with their consumers in ways that in the past would have seemed impossible. It’s astounding to think that what this critical bedrock of any sound marketing strategy didn’t even formally exist until relatively recently.

As with any discipline, understanding the origins, patterns, and natural progression of thought in market research is a fundamental requisite for understanding its current landscape.

The Internet has had the biggest impact in this era.

We may not all have the opportunity to take a class on the history of market research, but there’s certainly always time for a quick synopsis. Use this timeline of market research to understand the origins of the methodologies that we rely on today:

1900s1940s – The Quantitative Questionnaire Era

Understanding the Masses

The first true instances of market research came about in the 1920s when a man by the name of Daniel Starch developed a theory that advertising had to be seen, read, believed, remembered, and most importantly, acted upon, in order to be considered effective.

Starch and his associates would approach people on the street, asking them if they read certain publications, and if so, whether they could remember specific ads within them. They would then compare the number of people they interviewed with the circulation of the magazine to figure out how effective those ads were in reaching readers. Soon after, many other companies began offering comparable services.

A man named George Gallup, a contemporary of Starch, further developed the practice with his rival theory of aided recall, which prompted people interviewed to recall an ad seen in a publication without actually showing it to them. This system would later be adapted and used to measure the effectiveness of radio and television advertising.

1940s1960s – Qualitative Consumer Era

Understanding the Individual

Consumerism became much more prevalent in American society during the post-World War II economic boom. With this came a distinct need to better understand consumers and their choices on a deeper and more personal level.

Though quantitative surveys (particularly usage and attitude studies) remained the standard of the day, researchers started to develop new practices to go beyond the numbers. Techniques like the focus group (developed by Robert Merton and Paul Lazarsfeld at Columbia University in the late 1930s) gained more traction. However, researchers noticed that there were discrepancies between what people said they did, thought, or liked and what they actually did.

In response, Ernest Dichter pioneered a new form of consumer research in the late 1940s, called Motivational Research. Based on Freudian psychoanalytic concepts, Dichter believed that consumers held within their minds a hidden realm of desires, taboos, repressions, and secrets. He also believed that every product had an image, even a ‘soul’, and was bought not merely for the purpose it served but for the values and symbolic meanings it embodied. Dichter’s message to advertisers was: figure out the personality of a product, and you will understand how to market it.

Dichter’s practice focused largely on conducting in-depth interviews, which were essentially ethnographies that more closely resembled therapy sessions, and on observing consumers interact with products in simulated or real environments.

Yet Dichter’s insights and recommendations– such as telling Proctor and Gamble that consumers used soap to cleanse themselves of sin and other undesired character traits– became a bit too strange to be considered practical by some clients. As a result, the industry began to again favor methodologies that emphasized careful statistical procedures to produce hard data—techniques that seemed more sensible and were made even more alluring by the advent of accessible computing machines.

1960s1980s – Refining the Process

Understanding Consumer Mindsets

Quantitative methods returned to the foreground in the 1960’s, and methodologies continued to develop with the advent and assistance of new technology— particularly the computer, phone systems, and the Internet. Qualitative methods took a backseat during this time period, but continued to be refined.

Marketing academic John Howard began to incorporate perspectives from other social sciences into his research, including psychology, sociology, anthropology, semiotics, economics, and management science. His work ultimately encouraged multi-disciplinary approaches in the field. During this time period, researchers also began focusing on the experiential part of being a consumer– not just the process of buying, but the actual experience of owning and consuming a product/service. They studied the role of emotions, feelings, moods, and other affective aspects of consumption, in order to understand customers. Instilled with a newfound way of thinking about consumer behavior, marketers turned to focus groups as the preferred form of qualitative research in the 1970s.

Researchers also refined Dichter’s theory of hidden symbolism in products, applying the same theory to broader brands. This remains an idea that researchers still largely subscribe to today.

Present – The Digital Era

Understanding Context

Today, with dozens of tools and methodologies at our disposal, market research agencies pull from a large ecosystem of methodologies and tools to provide a much more comprehensive view of the consumer. Integrated qualitative and quantitative approaches enable marketers to understand consumers at both the individual and group level. We can now use semiotics, social listening, and communications to understand how consumers interact with media and brand messages.

The Internet has had the biggest impact in this era, allowing us to conduct surveys on much more massive scales; research news, communications, and culture with ease; and create hyper-segmentations on the minutest scales.

Perhaps the most important evolution in present day thought is the recognition that consumers don’t exist in a vacuum. It’s just as important to understand the context surrounding consumers as it is to study their choices and behaviors. Techniques such as Cultural Insights have emerged to assist researchers in constructing a comprehensive analysis of the ecosystem in which the consumer operates.