An oldie, but (I hope) a goodie. I wrote this one a couple of years ago for Greenbook. It’s still very relevant to what we are trying to do at house51. So here it is again.

Recent ads in the US for Honda and Hyundai, dramatise a situation that any parent or any adult who has encountered a 4-year- old, knows all too well.


You rate yourself as a knowledgeable, well-balanced and articulate person … but your 3-foot- tall interrogator can strike at any time, humbling you with a relentless and merciless barrage of open-ended questions …

Any kid worth their salt can interrogate with a wide-eyed and ruthless curiosity that no adult can match. And it is a quality that many market researchers cherish and positively long to recapture.

Indeed at one point I worked at an agency where we built our credentials around the promise that we were “like children asking the fourth and fifth ‘why”’. We thought this was a pretty good line – we thought it captured our thirst for knowledge and our commitment to discovering the underlying truths of consumer behaviour …

To many of our clients – consumer insights, marketing and advertising professionals, struggling to make sense of an increasingly complex world – this sounded pretty good too.

But of course we, along with every other MR agency, were overlooking the needs of some vital participants in the process; those on the receiving end of our insatiable curiosity … the ordinary, unsuspecting people we choose to call ‘consumers’ and ‘respondents’.

Egocentrism and self-orientation

Inevitably, and thankfully, the kids soon grow out of the ‘questions’ phase. A rapidly developing sense of identity and their place in the world builds an understanding of cause and effect. The blunt and uncompromising ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ are soon replaced with more apposite conversation, as children learn to relate more fully to other people.

Marketing and research, on the other hand, seems to have become fixated at an early stage of development. We struggle to relate to other people. If we extend the child development analogy it’s what the developmental psychologist Piaget would have classified as egocentrism- a preoccupation with one’s own internal world. Have a look at this video- does it remind you of anyone you know?

Taking a more business-orientated view, the guys at business consultancy Trusted Advisor call this ‘self-orientation’.

This egocentrism or self-orientation is manifest in so much of the day-to-day practice of marketing and market research. In marketing, think about how resilient the myth is that people care about brands and advertising.

Despite a considerable amount of evidence to the contrary (see Paul Adams’ book ‘Grouped’ for an excellent summary of the literature on this),marketing remains stubbornly predicated on the assumption that people spend a great deal of time thinking and talking about their preferences for brands in their day-to-day lives.

Then look at the length and complexity of the average tracking or segmentation questionnaire, or the convoluted routing and prompts of many discussion guides.

Like the exasperated parent, respondents’ experiences of traditional market research are too often one of being locked into an asymmetrical relationship – badgered by an endless cycle of questions that have little relevance in the real world, outside the bubble of marketing and MR.

The ‘new mutuality’

Of course, there is a rapidly growing ‘NewMR’ movement that is committed to challenging much of this orthodoxy. (For a great summary see Ray Poynter’s #NewMR and his excellent Handbook of Online and Social Media Research).

It could be argued that this movement represents a coming of age for market research where the emergence of social media, big data and compelling new offers in the market, forces MR to finally confront the limitations of the traditional paradigms.

But this transformation is being driven by something much more fundamental than new technologies and methods. Paul Adams describes how the web and, therefore, marketing is being ‘rebuilt around people’.

There is an emphasis on a ‘new mutuality’ between businesses and their customers. See, for example, how IBM talk about the ‘era of the chief executive customer’ and the role of CMOs in giving their firms a ‘new degree of social intelligence and self-awareness’.

New and old MR needs to ‘rebuild around people’

To compete in the emerging landscape, market research needs to support these objectives too.  In his recent blog on the GreenBook site, Tony Cosentino recognises the many structural challenges that MR faces in achieving the required transformation.

But he also argues that, beyond this, there is a deeper ‘perceptual’ issue that is holding the market research industry back. For Cosentino it is simply that MR lacks the confidence to recognise and brand the relevant skills that it has for this new era.

However, to this I would add the apparently ‘hard wired’ tendency to self-orientation as a further, and perhaps even stronger, force of inertia. And it is a force that has the power to afflict NewMR just a readily as the old.

Let’s look at a couple of NewMR examples. On the surface, gamification is a well-intentioned movement to improve the research experience for respondents and, in so doing, improve the quality of insights we gain about their lives.

Have a look at this case study from Research Through Gamification. It starts from the incontestable premise that surveys are boring and should be made more interesting.


But does this do anything more than flip the asymmetrical parent /child relationship on its head? This version of NewMR simply repositions marketing and research as the parent dumbing down the questions. Hardly the grown-up and mutual relationship offered by the social media and big data players.

And how about the growing world of Market Research On-line Communities (MROCs)? The tell-tale indicator here is the name. How often is the prospect of rich, organic and mutual engagement constrained as carefully nurtured ‘communities’ become just another panel for the same self-orientated MR questions?

So is the basic practice of market research (i.e. asking questions) incompatible with this new era of mutuality? Of course the answer to this question is ‘no’. Conversation is the basic currency of mutual human interaction. There will always be a need to ask people what they think and listen to their answers. But mutuality requires different questions and a different mind-set.

The transformational idea for all forms of question-based market research is about attitude, not method. Quantitative and qualitative research will continue to have a role not by competing with other data streams, but finding ways to elevate and add value to the increasingly organic conversations that take place between people and business.

Growing pains ahead

To fulfil this role, market research needs to find the self-awareness to anticipate and exploit the gaps in the conversation and the discipline and confidence to ask only the necessary and relevant ‘grown-up’ questions.

But there are a lot of ‘growing pains’ ahead. Built on business models based on the bulk production of data and the marking up of fieldwork, for much of the MR industry asking more questions means making more money …

It’s going to take courage and creativity to break this cycle and adapt to the new era of mutuality.