If Consumers Don’t Know What They Want, Is Market Research Dead?

There is no question that Steve Jobs was a visionary. He impacted the lives of many with his innovative thinking and product development. He also left me, as a marketer, reflecting on his opinion of traditional market research approaches. According to Jobs, “It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want.” Apple products avoided evaluation by the consumer prior to launch, reflecting a philosophy that innovation is only stifled by the average consumer’s critique. He was not the first great visionary to recognize this issue. Henry Ford too acknowledged the risk of listening too closely to consumers: "If I had asked my customers what they wanted…they would have said a faster horse."

Some in the pharmaceutical industry may dismiss this challenge as being relevant only in truly innovative consumer categories. I’d argue against this. As someone who has worked on many products accused of actually creating conditions, I understand that this challenge is relevant to our industry as well.

If the world were full of visionaries, we would not have an issue. However, in general, patients and physicians cannot evaluate a product or concept within the framework of a future world; they can only react within the context of today. They are unable to imagine the possibilities of construct that do not exist. If consumers don’t know what they want and cannot predict the future, why do we as marketers rely so heavily on market research to define every decision?

Market research is as much an art as it is a science. There is no defined formula for what and how to test. Smart marketers understand the potential pitfalls of relying solely on market research to make decisions. They recognize that the value of market research “lies in the interpretation of consumers’ responses far more than from the raw responses themselves” (Ron Sellers). Yes, there may be times when consumer feedback can provide important validation of a decision. However, I’d like to suggest that the optimal value of market research lies in exploring insights to inform strategic and creative development and decisions. At some point, we as marketers need to rely on our instincts for validation.

Comfort often comes from the endorsement of others, but I challenge us, as visionary marketers, to allow insights to inform and not mandate our decisions. Only with a bit of risk can one stride toward inspiring innovation.

Sources: Sellers R. What do consumers think? Don’t even bother asking. Adweek. May 3, 2010; Wheeler B. Consumers don’t know what they want. http://social.taylorstrategy.com/brianwheeler/consumers-don%E2%80%99t-know-what-they-want/. Accessed November 16, 2011; Wolf N. Positioning Detrol (creating a disease). Presented at:  Annual National Conference of the Pharmaceutical Marketing Research Group; October 2002; Harmon A. Young, assured and playing pharmacist to friends. New York Times. November 16, 2005. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/16/health/16patient.html?pagewanted=print. Accessed November 16, 2011.