What a great article by Daniel Nunan of Birkbeck, University of London, to open this month’s edition of the IJMR (Vol 58, Issue 4) in which he sets out “The declining use of the term market research”. His findings are fascinating:

  • Only about 50% of so-called MR companies use the term on ANY of their main website pages (i.e.  home page, “about us”, product and service pages)
  • The three largest companies do not use the term at all (2014 data)
  • When it appears, it is usually for the purposes of boosting search engine rankings or formal industry communications (i.e. smaller print about memberships, awards, job adverts etc.)
  • The search term has been parachuting down the ‘Y axis’ of Google Trends for ten years and more

Nunan offers several plausible explanations. Firstly – and simply – that it is a business term going out of fashion, primarily because of a change in focus away from the macro- of markets and towards the micro- of the consumer. Secondly, that structural changes in big companies have been away from functions and departments, and that Marketing has been a particular casualty of that.

The evidence suggests that the use of the term market research today is as a placeholder or descriptor of a certain set of skills, and it appears to be largely used within the industry.

And, finally, that over the medium to long term really big companies tend to ape and/or acquire each other, reinforcing these changes.

So, what should we write on the label that we stick over “market research”? Well, the bigger companies are describing themselves using terms like “Research, data, and insight”, “customer science”, “commercial intelligence” and “strategic insight”. I had a look at our own materials and, whilst we still use “market research” occasionally, we have – consciously or not – largely dropped the term (we now use “research” on its own a lot).

Nunan, astutely, dodges this question – and his piece is stronger for being evidence-based rather than opinion-led. However he leaves us in no doubt of his sentiments, and suggests that what we call ourselves might not matter so long as we’re still marketable!

The term market research is at the intersection of a number of declining factors, not least a perception of the decline in the value it can generate for its customers

The market research industry has “moved on” and is increasingly defining itself in other ways – and, in showing this flexibility, it helps to secure its future success

I don’t know how many readers feel the same tinge of sadness about this as I do. In career terms I grew up with “market research”. Yes, it got into fights with bigger brother “marketing research” periodically, but to me both terms still conjure up thinking and analytical skills that will always have relevance in business, no matter what the technological and cultural backdrop.

However, if Daniel Nunan’s research teaches us anything, it is that our profession does not lend itself to pithy commercial catchphrases. And I can well imagine that younger boardrooms may recognise the term as an anachronism, or not recognise it at all.
Personally, I don’t see any point in changing labels just for the sake of commercial fashion, provided things still work. However we each arrive at our findings, and however we interpret them, they will always represent research into or about a market of interest. Yes, they might yield “insight” (of the late 1990’s variety) – which is great – but in my view that is just-too-fluffy-a-badge to wear permanently.

Saying “market research” out loud probably won’t ever sound cutting-edge. So what? Perhaps we can benefit from the terms’s stolidity? Research findings should be credible, trusted, and influential – all things that tend to improve with age …