Market Research: Theory, Practice and the Passion to Question


Alfred DuPuy - InterbrandThe following guest column is by Alfred DuPuy, Executive Director, Strategy & Analytics for Interbrand’s North American Consumer & Retail Brand Experience practice, on The Market Research Event annual conference which was held last month in Orlando, Florida.


“In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But in practice, there is.”

Most of us in the agency business believe in market research—its efficacy, its seemingly objective platform in proving (or disproving) our hypotheses as we consult with our clients, and the promise that our research partners will continue to innovate to improve our understanding of customer behavior. Perhaps it is this potential that so intrigues us; the optimistic pursuit of ever keener insight so that we understand our customers more deeply to achieve business results and growth.

Certainly, in that vein, TMRE 2017 did not disappoint. In fact, there were many times that it surprised and delighted. Having used the line “I came to find out what I don’t know” several times when others asked why I was attending, I can safely say that while I knew I didn’t know a lot, I was—more often than not—quite intrigued with some of the theses put forward by the keynote speakers as well as the breakout session leaders. Hope indeed lives eternal.

So, back to that quote. The reason I added it (note that it has been attributed to both Jan L. A. van de Snepscheut, a computer scientist, and even Yogi Berra, who really doesn’t need an introduction), is that it precisely gets at the heart of what we want market research to achieve—developing theories to explain practice, but always allowing for practice to feed back into theory.

As one of the first speakers, Dr. Charles Limb, a surgeon, neuroscientist, and musician at the University of California, San Francisco spoke about his research on the neural basis of musical creativity. Theory; practice. Arguably, his main thesis is the importance of improvisation (hence the study of music such as jazz and rap) in creativity, which is vital for all that we do. So, if that theory is not studied, how can we not explain ‘practice’? If we do not study jazz musicians or rappers, who improvise, how can we develop a theory that explains creativity and, eventually, behavior? As my mind had already been blown at this moment, this was a great start to the conference.

A completely full schedule of breakout sessions only served as a source of frustration. When you are a kid in a candy store, having to choose is simply unfair. That being said, a couple of the sessions stood out: one that presented new quantitative questions that get after the notion of implicit interactions between our decision-making selves: emotion and rationale; and, one that reemphasized a different take at focus groups—innovation panels that eschew customers in favor of industry experts, who indeed might better be able to see the forest through the trees.

Both struck me as seemingly straightforward, yet powerful ideas, backed by research, science, and success, that can have a profound impact on uncovering the kind of insights needed to either explain, or better explain, current behavior and preference, or that can lead to breakthrough ideas for products and services that we don’t even know we want or need yet. As I consider each—or even both together—I am reminded again that the ‘holy grail’ pursuit is a journey in and of itself, requiring new thinking (theory), dogged persistence (practice), and the passion to question.

And it is the passion to question that was so wonderfully explored by Malcolm Gladwell, who while he didn’t close the conference with his keynote speech, might as well have done so. The best-selling author was his usual captivating self, simply asked the question: What do you learn when you ask where numbers come from? Implicit in the point is that there is learning, regardless of the findings, because you are asking the question. It goes to the heart of the matter, ensuring that we do not slip into a type of research coma, in which we can find all our answers in research versus being truly passionate about the process—so that we can be dispassionate about the results.

Gladwell used the U.S. News & World Report law school rankings methodology to demonstrate its subjectivity. If, instead, one focuses on the objective measures only, and removes the subjective ones, a different ranking results; one where several of the top schools remain, but other, less renowned schools appear. So, because of the passion to question, we can interrogate the methodology, and thus, draw a different conclusion.

The tools that we possess as researchers have never been better. They allow us to get closer to our customers or, at a minimum, provide pathways to get closer in the future. While I have not attended previous TMRE conferences, the speakers and session leaders were certainly on top of their game. They all contribute to the pursuit of the holy grail—and simply advance our work, understanding and thinking. But I have to admit, I hope we don’t get there. The journey is far too much fun.

Click here for more on Interbrand’s Consumer & Retail Brand Experience practice and here for more Brandspeak columns.