Yes, Virginia, “marketing research” is different
With school back in session, my thoughts naturally turn to… etymology! No, not the study of bugs, the study of words and their meaning. Every so often, I find myself revisiting a question that seems to shadow those of us in the research industry: the distinction that people make (or do not make) between the words “market research” and “marketing research”. The terms are often used interchangeably and without much thought. I often see industry publications, web sites, and top tier consultancies doing this, which is disconcerting, because they mean different things.
In the most literal sense, “market research” implies research about markets — how big they are, how fast they are growing, who has more market share, and other descriptive information.

That is not to say that ‘market research’ does not deal with diagnostics, or with extremely large data sets, or with the incredible and ever-expanding set of tools available for targeting. This is especially true in the world of media measurement, sales analysis, and transaction-level analysis. These work products are largely based on passively collected or observational data; rather than attempting to understand behavior, attitudes, or drivers of brand choice through proactive investigation, we deduce with the data available.

“Marketing” research refers to the marketing process, and by definition, subsumes all market research activities. Marketing research looks forward, and asks why – why has something happened, why are markets changing, and where are consumers headed next? It is the active nature of research and its focus on the marketing process that distinguishes marketing research from virtually every other business discipline. Market research looks at the rear view mirror: at what has happened, which is presumably predictive of what will happen, because that is what happened last time. That is helpful in a general sense.

Marketing research activities are designed to answer key marketing questions so that a business decision can be made: for example, go or no go, expand or sell off, segment A or B, what message. It is also the relentless nature of this exploration that makes it so valuable to every organization. If a company does not have its eyes looking up and outward, towards the ever evolving sea of consumer change, it is destined to become a captive of its own narrow metrics, unable to look outside its own boundaries for opportunities that can breathe new life into the organization.

Innovation and marketing
Peter Drucker, esteemed management professor, said that organizations have just two functions: innovation and marketing. Marketing research is integral to both: in the identification of new business opportunities, in assessing the market, in configuring the product, and in marketing communications. ‘Market research’ measures and reports on performance but fails to address the most basic question of all, which is: why?

Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of “marketing research” is that it not only works alongside marketing at virtually every step, but in fact guides where marketing needs to go, because research is the closest to the customer and the information he or she provides. The very best organizations know this, welcoming an active, assertive marketing research function to the table as partners in brand management.

The confusion in terminology may also rest on the fact that it is difficult to explain to others what it is we actually do. I sometimes resort to telling people that I conduct customer satisfaction studies or analyze survey data, because these are a bit more tangible. But, in reality, they are simply activities and tasks. The tasks fail to convey the rich nature of uncovering consumer insights, guidance for marketing strategy, or communications refinement that marketing researchers perform. Using “insights” is equally vague, since we don’t “manage” insights, but we do use research to uncover them. So, perhaps we need a better, more descriptive term for what we do, although exactly what that is eludes me at the moment!

Manufacturer vs. supplier roles differ
Unlike consultants, corporate marketing researchers have additional burdens that external researchers do not, because they live with the brand 24/7 (not just the lifespan of an engagement or a project). They must make sure that any and all research studies are appropriate for each stage of the brand’s support plan or life cycle.

Corporate marketing researchers must also always act as the conscience of the brand, and resist persuasive yet inexperienced marketing managers who make can make reactionary decisions (OMG, our “likes” are declining!) that can significantly dilute a brand’s equity.

Every organization needs to have a strong, well-respected marketing research function (or work with thoughtful marketing research consultants) to support innovation and marketing. And, marketing researchers must have the courage of their convictions, and not be afraid to challenge old assumptions.

Check one only
So, which type of researcher are you? One who reports facts, figures, and delivers data, or one who understands brand objectives, collaboratively challenges assumptions, and designs the appropriate research to support key business decisions? If it’s the latter, I’d call you a marketing researcher.

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